Varna International Ballet takes Swan Lake back to its roots

The Varna International Ballet has recently begun a second tour in the UK after its successful debut season in 2023. David Mead recently caught up with artistic director Daniela Dimova to talk about their Swan Lake, which restores the score and dramaturgy to Tchaikovsky’s original.

Even among non-balletgoers, Swan Lake brings forth a very clear picture. It’s music and imagery, especially its mass of swans in white tutus, is iconic. And yet, of all the classic ballets, it has been tweaked and tinkered with more than any other, companies and choreographers adding, deleting and reworking at will.

Most of what know today has its roots not in composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographer Julius Reisinger’s 1877 original, but in Marius Petipa and Riccardo Drigo’s 1895 version that included significant musical and choreographic changes, presented at the Mariinsky Theatre two years after Tchaikovsky’s death.

But even by then, it had changed a lot. Tchaikovsky himself quickly added two supplementary numbers, one described on the manuscript as “Russian Dance for the third act of Lake of the Swans (for Madame Karpakova)” [Lake of the Swans was the ballet’s original title] and a pas de deux written for ballerina, Anna Sobeshchanskaya. More significant liberties were taken with the score in a production by Joseph Peter Hansen in 1880, including cutting several pieces of music (two years later, he added in new music by Cesare Pugni), while changes to who danced to what music and the number of performers in some dances appear to have been frequent.

Varna International Ballet’s Swan Lake
Photo Varna International Ballet

Taking up the modern-day interest in attempting to reconstruct original versions of the classics, Varna International Ballet have wound the clock back, as far as possible recreating Tchaikovsky’s premiere. “Of course, any reconstruction is complex. It has taken many years of work by former Bolshoi Theatre soloist Sergei Bobrov,” says Dimova.

Going back into the archives, Bobrov was able to return to the original score, orchestration and libretto, and to the original meanings that were at the heart of the ballet’s musical dramaturgy.

Although the origins of the story are unclear and there is no certainty about the librettist, it’s believed that Tchaikovsky’s main sources were German author Johann Karl August Musaus’ story, The Stolen Veil, with the Black Swan, false bride idea coming from a Russian fairy tale, The White Duck. Dimova concurs, saying that, “The original production was inspired by legends from Germanic folklore about knights, which Tchaikovsky was fascinated with, and became the basis for the composer reflections on the unattainability of the ideal, temptations and sublime love.”

It was very much a ballet with both feet seemingly firmly in Romanticism. As Dimova notes, the swan girls, Odette included, were not captured humans under a wicked spell but bewitched supernatural creatures; fairies, by birth.

Varna International Ballet’s Swan Lake
Photo Varna International Ballet

It was for Petipa and Drigo’s 1895 reworking that Modest Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyich’s brother, turned Odette into a princess abducted by an evil creature and transformed into a swan, dropping all her backstory as he did so. He gave Siegfried a makeover too, taking him from arrogant, macho individual to rather more heroic, sympathetic prince. In the original, Siegfried effectively murders Odette by throwing her crown, the one thing that protects her, into the lake, an act that kills her.

Fortunately, Tchaikovsky’s 1877 score is well documented. “It exists in its entirety and contains many notes; notes from Peter Tchaikovsky himself,” Dimova says.

But it does sound different in places to what we are generally used to today. “In Petipa and Drigo’s version, the adagio for Odette and Siegfried concludes with soft melodic music but in the original 1877 production, it ends with a fast gallop, when the fairy Odette flies away from Prince. We also fully restored the Tchaikovsky’s original ‘Waltz of the Swans’ with its variations.”

It may be confusing to the modern ear but, elsewhere, several items have been restored to their original Act I home, most famously what is generally heard as the coda from the ‘Black Swan pas de deux.’ The pas de deux itself also uses different music, first put back by choreographer Vladimir Burmeister in his 1953 production, later seen at the Paris Opera Ballet, Dimova says.

“Petipa edited the ‘Brides’ Waltz’ in Act III, which we have fully restored to the original. The famous Russian Dance is performed by Black Swan, not by Russian Bride, and, in the same act, the mise-en-scène has been restored, which was not used at all in the 1895 version.”

The differences just keep coming. “As I noted, all swan girls are fairies by birth. So, every white picture was painted by Tchaikovsky in a major key. But in the 1895 version, the girls are enchanted into swans. They have the feelings of girls, not fairies. They want to become girls. So, Drigo has their music in a soft minor key, which sounds very different.”

Varna International Ballet’s Swan Lake
Photo Varna International Ballet

Reflecting on Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Dimova notes that Tchaikovsky composed Swan Lake during the one of the most memorable periods of his life. His belief in romantic ideals, hopes for his own happiness and artistic intuition, led him to the ideal swan kingdom, a place of sublime moods and love, she believes. “But this romantic, peaceful world always had the makings of a catastrophe. The love of the Prince and Odette reveals an important romantic contradiction. A fairy, like any spiritual being, can make a choice once. Having fallen in love and agreed to earthly life, she remains faithful to her choice to the end. She can neither remain among people nor return to her spiritual world if the earthly one betrays her. She will dissolve in the spiritual world that created her. Earthly man cannot live with one choice. Temptation always haunts him. But he can sin and repent.”

While Tchaikovsky’s original score is available, Reisenger’s choreography was not notated and is long been lost. The only solution was to create anew but based on the original score, its ordering and dramaturgy.

Dimova explains, “In Act I, Tchaikovsky conceived the dances of the village women with the Prince. These were choreographed anew based on the composer’s work as was the dance for the Prince’s mother, the village polonaise and coda. Since the swans’ dances are now in a major key, they too have been rechoreographed, as has the gallop that is the finale of Odette’s adagio with the Prince, which is not in the 1895 version. In Act III, the dances of the Polish, Italian, Spanish and Hungarian brides have been remade since their waltz has been restored to its full version. And in the last act, the dances of the black swans have also been choreographed anew from Tchaikovsky’s score.”

Alongside Swan Lake, Varna International Ballet are performing The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. It’s a long tour. Twenty-one venues across England in nine weeks. But one that that takes ballet to towns on cities that see it all too rarely, and with a live orchestra. “Yes, it is difficult,” admits Dimova. “But we love Britain very much and it is very important to us that local audiences experience an authentic production of Swan Lake. The artists like new venues and new audiences. It’s always fascinating to receive their appreciation. If they are happy, we will be happy!”

For a full list of Varna International Ballet dates and venues, and ticket booking links visit