Tonight through Sunday, the world renowned Bolshoi Ballet will be in the midst of touring their landmark production of “Swan Lake.” The company will only be performing in eight cities nationwide, including Detroit, Tempe Ariz., Seattle, Berkeley, Calif., Chicago, Costa Mesa, Minneapolis and Washington.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of UMS
The lost art of ballet.

It is quite possible that “Swan Lake” is one of the most revered classical ballets of all time. Composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, it had its first production in Moscow in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre.

The exact origins of the story are uncertain. This uncertainty is only accentuated by the many revisions the ballet has undergone since it’s first performance over 125 years ago. It is believed that the story of “Swan Lake” is based off of a French version of a German fairy tale. Yet, the legend of the Swan Maiden goes back for centuries, and women who turn into birds or vice versa were popular themes in both eastern and western literature. Swans were particularly favored due to their grace when swimming in the water. The complete scenario of “Swan Lake” is not to be found in any legend, although parallels do exist. The story is about a Princess, Odette, who is turned into a swan by an evil magician, Rothbart. Every midnight, she becomes human for only a few hours, and one night, while in her human form, she is discovered by the Prince Siegfried, who falls madly in love with her. Siegfried promises Odette that he will remain faithful to her, the only condition needed to break Rothbart’s curse. There is a ball at the castle, at which Siegfried will choose his bride. Rothbart sends his daughter, Odile, to the ball, dressed as a black swan. Odile looks just like Odette, and Siegfried declares his undying love for her, realizing too late that he has proclaimed love to a false princess, and has betrayed the woman he truly loves. When Odette appears, she realizes what has happened, and rushes off to the lake. Siegfried rushes after to her, begging forgiveness. She grants it, but Rothbart creates a storm in which both Siegfried and Odette are drowned.

Tchaikovsky, born in 1840, was the second eldest of six children. Early in his life, his father convinced him to attend the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, becoming a clerk in the Ministry of Justice in 1859. However, Tchaikovsky left his job in 1863 in order to study full time at the new St. Petersburg Conservatory. At the conservatory, Tchaikovsky was encouraged by his teacher Anton Rubenstein to study everything, even conducting, although he was always petrified to face an orchestra as the conductor. It is said that Tchaikovsky would conduct with his right hand while holding his chin in his left hand, because he believed that his head would go flying off his shoulders while in the process of conducting. Tchaikovsky taught for twelve years at the Moscow Conservatory, but later in his life, Tchaikovsky came under the patronage of Madame Nedezhda von Meck. So impressed with his work, Meck granted him a yearly allowance permitting him to give up his teaching job at the conservatory to devote his time to his composing. They never met each other in person, but instead had an extensive and frank correspondence. In 1893, Tchaikovsky died of the Cholera, which was probably the result of drinking unboiled water. During his lifetime, he composed countless works in all forms, including ballets, operas, choral and orchestral works, just to name a few. “Swan Lake” was the first piece in the ballet form he ever composed. In his lifetime, Tchaikovsky’s ballet music was considered too symphonic, while today’s critics claim that his symphonies are too balletic. Obviously, he’ll never please everyone.

The Bolshoi Ballet is only one section of the larger Bolshoi Theatre, which also consists of an opera company and an orchestra. The ballet portion was created in 1776. The company has withstood unimaginable odds, from world wars to devastating fires that have burnt their theatre to the ground on more than once occasion. They have survived to become one of the oldest and most prestigious ballet companies of all time. The touring company consists of more than 100 dancers, and the legend of the Bolshoi promises that this performance will be a program of ultimate perfection and grandiose bravura, which is only characteristic of their reputation.

Boris Akimov, the artistic director of the Bolshoi ballet, has chosen Yuri Grigorovich’s interpretation of “Swan Lake” for this tour. Grigorovich is considered to be one of the greatest living choreographers in the world of ballet today. He is known for breaking with tradition, although he himself is firmly rooted in the traditions of classical ballet, both by birth and by upbringing. He was the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet from 1964 until 1994, and he saw the company through one of the greatest periods of artistic achievement. Grigorovich’s interpretation of “Swan Lake” reflects both the exceptional Bolshoi style, as well as his own perspective on the political climate of Russia under Communist rule. It was first staged in 1969, but the production was shut down after it’s dress rehearsal and a new, less tragic ending was ordered to replace the controversial one. The original ending was banned for several years, but has been restored for this tour.

The Bolshoi Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake” is heavy with the tradition it carries, not just for the actual ballet, but the entire company itself. Yet, this tradition does not keep the production from speaking to contemporary audiences. This is one of the ultimate stories of tragic, tangled love and unwitting betrayal, presented in one of the most beautiful of performance art forms and performed by one of the most prestigious companies of all time. These facts alone speak of nothing but greatness.

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