Steeped in history, ‘Swan Lake’ an enduring classic _lowres

Photo by Larisa Linnikova -- Aleksandr Voitin and Anna Voitina of the Russian Ballet perform a scene from 'Swan Lake.'

Like many 19th century operas, classical works and ballets that are now part of the standard repertoires of their respective genres, the debut of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s first full ballet, “Swan Lake,” was widely panned.

Critics of that opening night performance on March 4, 1877, complained that Tchaikovsky’s music was “too noisy.” Julius Reisinger’s choreography was termed “unimaginative and altogether unmemorable.” Even the composer’s brother decried of “the absence of outstanding performers (and) the ballet master’s weakness of imagination.”

Yet, somehow, “Swan Lake” managed to survive its initial bombing and became one of the best-known, most frequently staged productions in the classical ballet canon. A leading role in “Swan Lake” on a major theatrical stage is now considered a crowning achievement in a professional dancer’s career.

“Swan Lake” will be staged at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts by the St. Petersburg Russian Ballet for one performance. A world-renowned dance company that presents Russian historical classical dance, the St. Petersburg troupe chose New Orleans as one of seven American cities where it will perform “Swan Lake” on its U.S. tour.

Soloists are Anna Voitina, Alexander Voitin, Natalia Potekhina and Ivan Sitnikov. Aleksander Manoshkin is the director.

Preceding his equally famous ballet “The Nutcracker” by 16 years, Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” drew its inspiration from German and Russian folk tales about an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, who puts a curse on Princess Odette that turns her into a swan every night. Prince Siegfried, who falls in love with her when he meets her in her human form, tries in vain to break the spell. However, it is broken only when the couple intentionally drowns together in the lake where they first met.

Over the 238 years of its existence, “Swan Lake” has been performed countless times on every continent, from dance school recitals to the stages of the world’s leading dance companies. It has been good-naturedly parodied by comedians such as Fanny Brice (“Schwan Lake”) and on children’s TV programs like “The Muppet Show” (“Swine Lake” featuring guest star Rudolf Nureyev dancing with an oversized pig puppet). But, through it all, “Swan Lake” has remained, along with “Afternoon of a Faun,” “Giselle” and a handful of others, one of the standard-bearers of classical ballet.

Historians of the dance art form have largely attributed the longevity of “Swan Lake” to the strength of Tchaikovsky’s score, as well as to some of great early dancers and choreographers whose creativity fine-tuned the production over its first two decades.

St. Petersburg, Imperial Russia’s leading cultural center, was the site of the second staging of “Swan Lake,” following its debut at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. It was there, during these 1895 performances, that revisions were made to Tchaikovsky’s original score and Reisinger’s original choreography that are still key elements of contemporary “Swan Lake” productions.

Among those revisions were some of the most famous pas de deuxs (duets) and ensemble pieces in the entire ballet repertoire. They were created by renowned choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, as well by as the dancers themselves. Petipa had previously worked with Tchaikovsky on all three of his ballets and later staged critically acclaimed revivals of “Giselle.”

St. Petersburg Russian Ballet was founded in 1990 but its roots stretch back more than a century before that. The company describes its mission as “adhering to the signature aspects of Russian ballet as a whole: true expressivity, dramatic presentation and impeccable technical presentation.”

Members of the troupe are graduates of the famed Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, founded in 1738. They have toured worldwide, presenting and promoting Russian dance and culture, and they perform all three Tchaikovsky ballets, “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker,” plus others in the classical dance repertoire.