February 5, 2017
Balanchine’s much-stated assertion that “ballet is woman” might well be accompanied by the assertion that “ballet is Swan Lake,” at least as far as the general public are concerned. Nowadays, no self-respecting large or even medium sized company dare, financially if nothing else, have a repertoire that omits a production and most choreographers have attempted to put their stamp on it one way or another.
Although it had a quite a long run after its initial, less than well-received premiere at the Bolshoi in 1877, it is the Petipa/Ivanov revival that provides the core of the production that we would recognise today, the revised version being presented at the in 1895 Mariinsky Theatre after Tchaikovsky’s death.
Although Prague saw the non-Russian European premiere in 1907 and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes presented a two-act version in London in the same year, a complete Swan Lake was then not seen in England in until 1934, when the Vic-Wells Ballet mounted a production using records in Stepanov notation that Nikolai Sergeyev brought when he left Russia following the October Revolution. After 83 years of productions, it is impossible to conceive the classical ballet canon without Swan Lake, however dismissive some choreographers may be of it.
Tchaikovsky successfully rebuffed attempts to add music by other composers, a common occurrence at the time, but he would nevertheless not have recognised the score as we now know it. Heaven only knows what he would have made of the productions set in an asylum, without any swans at all or the Chinese circus version, although one rather suspects that he would have enjoyed Matthew Bourne’s production!
I suspect if the composer had seen the Grigorovich version screened during the choreographer’s 90th year, he would have felt that it was in safe hands and, no stranger to his own inner demons, he may well had identified with this personification of Siegfried. Originally choreographed in 1969, this production fell victim, as did so many others, to Furtseva’s censorship and had the ghastly Soviet ‘happy’ ending inserted. It was not until 2001 that Grigorovich was able to revert to his original intention. When I first saw this production on stage, it seemed that it was Hamlet with incidental swans. There is no obvious birthday party, no gift of a crossbow, just a brooding adolescent Siegfried wrestling with his inner demons, personified by the white and black swans and the Evil Genius (Rothbart).
This screening brought the white acts to more prominence with the added benefit that the audience point of view on film is able to shift to the most advantageous angle, in close up, pulled back to reveal the whole stage or see the meticulously placed corps from above. Svetlana Zakharova is an astonishing Odette/Odile. Coached by Ludmilla Semenyaka, herself no mean Odette/Odile, she is simply exquisite as Odette. The proximity of the camera lens enables every nuance to be appreciated. Zakharova’s wrists sing. Each port de bras is finished with the music seeming to drip out of the ends of her fingers as Odette whereas they snap into position as Odile. There have been more brash Odile’s but Zakharova does just enough to seal Siegfried’s fate in conjunction with Artemy Belyakov’s Evil Genius. A toweringly tall dancer, his mere physical presence is intimidating and thank goodness Grigorovich spared us the embarrassment of an owl having its wings torn off.
The concept of the production is decidedly post-Freudian. The monochrome swans represent the two sides of Siegfried’s personality, the Evil Genius, his gloomy fate. Simon Virsaladze’s palette is pale, the hopeful golds and yellows of the court dresses washed out into greys, white and black to mirror Siegfried’s depression. Grigorovich places all of the character dances en pointe, the princesses in white with the odd splash of colour but their entourages in full colour. This is a brilliant touch, the significance of which seems to be lost on many. Forced into marriage, the depressed Siegfried can only see the women as shades of grey, his choice to pick one as a loveless companion for the rest of his life. The swan emblem shield that denotes each scene change, also changing from yellow to grey to white to black seems to lock Siegfried’s depression into its genetic slot, the fate of inheritance in dynasties. In many ways, it is more of a Romantic concept than a classical one.
Denis Rodkin’s Siegfried is panther-footed and rather more hopeful than some interpretations. He seems more lost than brooding, only making himself feel alive by his mental self-harm and attraction to death. He has a soaring jump and very neat landings with controlled turns. He knocks off double tours as if they were child’s play and is a very solid partner.
The original published score included a ‘Dance of the Corps de Ballet and the Dwarves’ in Act III, although the role of the jester is usually credited to Alexander Gorsky revisions in the 1920s. It is a role that is mystifyingly rarely popular with non-Russian audiences although it is a terrific, virtuoso role in the mould of the Golden Idol in Bayadère, here danced by the somewhat camp Igor Tsvirko. In other productions, the jester is more integrated with the court and with Siegfried, but here he serves more as a historical reference and of course a fabulous opportunity for the right kind of dancer.
There is nuance also in Pavel Sorokin’s conducting, with plenty of sensitive rubato that makes the best of the dancers’ subtleties and individual needs.
Overall, a classic Swan Lake that preserves all of the genius of the Petipa/Ivanov stagings and the drama of Gorsky with a libretto for the thinking audience.
Next in this season’s screenings from the Bolshoi, the ballet takes a more modern turn. On March 19, A Contemporary Evening features The Cage by Jerome Robbins, Harald Lander’s Études and Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons. For cinemas and more details, visit www.bolshoiballetcinema.co.uk.