By Montague Gammon III
The magic of true love conquers all the vicious and deceptive spells that a malicious sorcerer can conjure up when the balletic and spectacular enchantments of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Swan Lake officially open the 2017 Virginia Arts Festival.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s tale of boy meets girl, hunter meets bird and prince meets princess arguably partners the same composer’s Nutcracker to make up the most popular pair of classical ballets. It’s been seen with a variety of endings, and heard with two slightly different scores, since its premiere exactly 140 years ago this March.
“It’s ultimately a simple story: love conquers evil…you don’t need to understand ballet to appreciate Swan Lake,” said RWB’s Executive Artistic Director, André Lewis.
Naive Prince Siegfried, just turned 21, goes hunting as an escape from impending royal duties and the unwelcome prospect of an arranged marriage. He encounters a crown-wearing swan, whom turns into a beautiful princess before Siegfried can lose a crossbow bolt.
He’s immediately in love, and his ardour is requited by the transiently human Princess Odette. Cursed by the monstrous and inhuman evil magician Von Rothbart to be a swan in the daytime but a human only at night, she can regain permanent human form again if and only if someone who has never before been in love, loves her with unswerving fidelity.
Appropriate promises are made, but at a royal ball for potential brides, Rothbart’s witchy daughter, the Black Swan Odile, arrives magically disguised as Odette. Of course Siegfried promises his love to this false Odette, and thus is (technically) unfaithful to his true love.
Tragic or semi-tragic versions of the story have the pair dying for love and ascending to heaven together or both turning into swans (which really do mate for life), or being separated as Odette becomes a swan permanently and the Prince remains human.
The original score, which accounts suggest was the best (perhaps the only good) part of the work’s 1877 premiere, was reworked in 1895 by composer and conductor Riccardo Drigo, with the approval of the recently deceased composer’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky. That is the version that most companies, including RWB use.
The Winnipeg staging, as brought to the company by choreographer and teacher Galina Yordanova from her native Russia by way of her training and work at the Bolshoi Ballet, provides the young lovers with a happy ever after resolution. (Lewis points out that the Kirov also did a happy ending version. Since Swan Lake is a Russian ballet, and since those two premiere Russian companies chose that ending, and since Yordanova is the direct heir to the original stagings, it’s more than legit.)
Of course there are a myriad of literary and psychological themes about superficiality, fidelity, romantic and predator/prey relationships and the like that can be extracted from the story, but to paraphrase James Branch Cabell, if the viewers do not meddle with the metaphors, the metaphors will not meddle with them.
As Lewis points out, the factors that have enthralled ballet audiences for ages are “the combination of the physical with the music.”
Taken together the dance and “the unity of the corps – 16 girls doing the same [movements] together” plus the music – “an incredibly beautiful score” – as well as “the costumes and the lights” make a classical ballet such as Swan Lake “a pageant with an artistic underpinning.”
(RWB’s website promises “visually magnificent sets evoking a Renaissance court [and] the fabled lake of the swans [rising] into view.” Published reviews of the production suggest that the costuming is extraordinary.)
Lewis says that “Every successive generation of dancers tries to better what was done before;
they improve the quality of the technique” continually as they “look to the future through the prisms of the past.”
Having spent more than four decades with Winnipeg Ballet, Lewis is an ardent advocate of the company and of its art form.
“You’re in for a great treat,” he says to potential audiences who have seen classical ballet before and who have not. Professional reviewers and casual commentators on Swan Lake have praised RWB dancers’ artistry, technique and ability to win over the interest of folks to whom classical ballet is new.
“The first step of the dance,” Lewis says, “is when you walk into the theatre.”
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, revised by Riccardo Drigo
Virginia Arts Festival
March 31-April 2
Chrysler Hall, Norfolk