From the History of the Ballet

The Bolshoi Theatre has a very special relationship with Swan Lake and it is not fortuitous that it is this work that often starts off the Ballet Company’s foreign tours. For Swan Lake was born within the walls of the Theatre; it was here on February 20, 1877 that its first performance took place. It has to be admitted that the production (the choreographer was Vatslav Reisinger) was not a great success, though it was to remain in the Theater’s repertory for about six years. And there was no way it could have been a success: for this was the first time ever that music of such symphonic scale, psychological and emotional depth, had been written for ballet. The great Tchaikovsky was ahead of his times.

Success came to the ballet later on – with the 1895 Petersburg production by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. It is this version, with its poetic Swan scene and brilliant pas de deux of Odile and the Prince, that is acknowledged to be a masterpiece of classical ballet. But even here the choreography failed to give full expression to the composer’s conception, the depth of his music. And for this reason the world’s most popular ballet has, paradoxically, undergone an infinite number of reproductions, versions, rearrangements. The development of ballet dictated the development of Swan Lake.

Swan Lake was virtually a permanent fixture in the Bolshoi Theatre repertory, yet it underwent more editing than any other ballet. Alexander Gorsky alone mounted several productions of the work. And, for a later revival, the famous dancer and teacher, Asaf Messerer, did a new act four. But for all that Swan Lake refused to reveal its secrets.

And then, in 1969, a production appeared which remains to this day the closest to Tchaikovsky’s conception. It was by Yuri Grigorovich, with sets by designer Simon Virsaladze. In the hands of this talented master, the naive plot was reworked into the confession of a young man who is seeking his ideal and tormented by a troubled inner life. Rothbart too was made more important: in Grigorovich’s libretto he is called an Evil Genius. From a secondary character he is transformed into a metaphorically symbolic personage representing malicious fate, perhaps, or the dark side of the Prince’s soul, or some mystical phantom. Grigorovich also returned to the ballet Tchaikovsky’s tragic ending. As a result, The Ministry of Culture, Ekaterina Furtseva, put a ban on the production. The choreographer was forced to do a second version leaving out several of his innovations. Yet, even so, Grigorovich managed to retain the oveall spirit of his conception. The role of Odette-Odile was created by the unique Natalia Bessmertnova.

The years passed and, in the new millennium, ‘the hour of triumph’, as they used to say in times gone by, struck: the premiere of a new version of the ballet by Grigorovich was held at the Bolshoi Theatre, combining both the discoveries of this outstanding choreographer’s previous versions and his new innovations. In the Swan Lake of the third millenium, Yuri Grigorovich’s fantasy and fragments of original choreography by Ivanov, Petipa and Gorsky, which have been carefully preserved by him, are harmonically interwoven.