The Secret of Swan Lake’s Magic
The premiere of Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake took place on January 15, 1895 on the stage of the Maryinsky (Mariinsky) Theatre in St. Petersburg. This event, a benefit for the ballerina Pierina Legnani, is considered a historical date in ballet. Never before had Russian ballet presented so clearly and definitely the shift between different cultural eras and artistic styles. In fact, before that moment ballet had rarely embodied the artistic thinking of the times, fusing tradition and innovation in its efforts. On that historic evening, this new development was expressed through the work of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Their choreography combined clear ballet’ romanticism and the emerging influence of symbolism, the French literary-artistic trend which gave Russia an unprecedented cultural impulse at the end of the 19th century.
This production of Swan Lake on January 15, 1895 (the ones of the 1870’s and 1880’s at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow were unsuccessful) presented a singular model for the development of ballet, followed for years to come. The path for the structure of symphonic dance, the idea for the directorial work in a theatrical production, the dramatic forms of the score for a ballet – all of these were thought out and brought forward on that day by the French Petipa and the Russian Ivanov, the two great architects of Russian ballet.
The historical importance of the ST. Petersburg premiere is to profound that all of Russian ballet until then can be considered preparation for the Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky, Petipa, Ivanov. What precedes it can be taken as an evolution of themes, images and ideas that lead towards the birth of this ballet. In fact, this work became one of the seminal influence in the entire development of ballet as an art form.
Swan Lake is a starting point, from which the art of that era received new impetus. Because the ballet echoes the art of its time, it found its place as one of man’s greatest artistic creations.
The subject of the German tale, which had been given full play in the earlier Bolshoi version, was simplified by Petipa for the 1895 version. Tchaikovsky’s music was shortened by one-third. (Riccardo Drigo, the well-known ballet composer, was engaged to re-assemble and orchestrate the score). In fact, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov created a new ballet, with Petipa as choreographer-regisseur and Ivanov as the choreographer of the of the Second Act «Swan» scenes. Their choreographic ideas expressed drama as a theatrical art, and action as a part of dance. Petipa and Ivanov turned ballet into theatre, dance into action, and choreography into drama.
The symphonic principles of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music were a great revelation to the ballet of the 19th century. (It must be remembered that the St. Petersburg premiere of Swan Lake, though it had been Tchaikovsky’s first ballet composition, was presented after the successful productions of the Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.) These symphonic principles helped to shape a new landscape and structure for the choreographic work.
In the choreography of the First and Third Acts, Petipa did not overstep the limits of the traditional «ballet-romantic» style. However, through his style of directing the whole work, he challenged his own classical understanding of ballet. Extraordinary for that time, Petipa achieved a fusion of precise dramatic action, logic of libretto, and dancing-acting.
Ivanov, who was entrusted with only the «White Act» (Act II), turned the «Swan Suite» into a symphony for the human spirit, revealing the inner world of the heroine. He endowed the traditional corps de ballet with the ideas of the musical-symphonic development, and personified the motifs of Odette’s inner world in the swans.
Ivanov created the «space of the soul» on the shores of the dark bewitched waters. Petipa created a space for true cosmic subjects, where the boundaries are life and death, good and evil, love and faithlessness, faith and doubt, fate and destiny. Constructing a traditional romantic mythology within the framework of ballet production, Petipa and Ivanov gave it unheard-of scope in a universal philosophical parable. The importance of the simple fairy-tale story was elevated to the eternal land of myths.
Swan Lake, presented on January 15, 1895, was the «starry hour» of Russian ballet and represents its classical triumph. It became the model for the «black and white» contrasts, which each era re-works on its own terms. This classical motif has remained unchanged; the Petipa-Ivanov symphony of black and white’ opposites relegated equal importance to the outside world and to the internal world of man. Because of this, the date of Swan lake’s St. Petersburg premiere is immortalized in history.
By Sergei Korobkov, Ph