George Balanchine often joked, “One should call every ballet Swan Lake because then people would come.” Ironically, however, the first performance of Swan Lake in Moscow in 1877 was a total failure, and it wasn’t until Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov completely re-thought and re-choreographed the ballet in 1895 that it became the success on which all other productions internationally have been based ever since.
I personally had never wanted to choreograph Swan Lake because I truly believe that those versions that stray too far from the Petipa / Ivanov creation, which I consider to be a real masterpiece, don’t have the same impact of the original version.
A traditional Swan Lake requires a company of at least 75 dancers with an incredible corps de ballet of at least 24 swans (32 would be preferable) and lavish sets and costumes that would make the production costs be a minimum of $1million. It was quite by fortuitous happenstance that I came upon a children’s book (at Quail Ridge Bookstore) by the well known Viennese author and illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger which retold Swan Lake as an intimate fairy tale and I realized that a small ballet company with finite resources could have a very different but equally valid Swan Lake of its own. Ms. Zwerger graciously agreed to let me base my production on her book.
Ms. Zwerger makes it very clear that the girls (the princess and her six friends) who are changed into swans really are girls except for that moment of transformation. All of a sudden, I began to imagine Swan Lake in a more subtle context and not a major spectacle. Tchaikovsky’s music tells the story so well that it was terribly exciting to choreograph to it.
I used different music for the love pas de deux in Act II and for the seduction pas in Act III which I believe are among the best creations choreographically of Petipa and Ivanov. The music is so much identified with their choreography that I couldn’t imagine seeing any other version to that music. The pas de trois has been changed to a pas de deux to represent the simple true love of the commoners (in contrast to the prince). I conceived the part of the prince’s mother as a younger woman who loves her son perhaps too much, and is just as enamored of the sorcerer as the prince is of the swan princess. I have shortened the ballet by 45 minutes, partially because I don’t have the forces to do the large divertissement. I treated the chamber dances as social dances by the guests at the ball, thus putting them in a different context and doing away with the others entirely.
In addition, I decided to give the evil sorcerer a more major role danced by a principal dancer rather than by an older dancer ready for retirement. Lastly, there have been many versions of the ending, some tragic and some happy. Ms. Zwerger says in her book that she was relieved to learn that in the original ballet of 1877 Tchaikovsky had let love conquer evil. The prince and the princess, drowning in the deluge, are saved in the end by the power of their love. —Robert Weiss