A peek into ‘Swan Lake’s’ past
By Lisa Macuja
Ballet Manila presents Swan Lake, the second offering in its 22nd season dubbed Flights of Fantasy and one of the most enduring fare in the classical ballet repertoire. On June 30, 1994, the author wrote the following piece on the history of Swan Lake in her On Pointes column for the national broadsheet Malaya, just as she was about to dance as Odette/ Odile for Philippine Ballet Theater. This is an edited version of that column.
Ballet Manila’s latest presentation of Swan Lake goes onstage on October 7 and 14, 6 p.m., and on October 8 and 15, 3 p.m., at Aliw Theater, CCP Complex, Pasay City.
If people were all not a wee bit stubborn in nature, if we all gave up after a first failed attempt at achieving a goal, we would still be in the stone age right now.
Before you conclude that this column is getting too philosophical for your taste, you have to know that all I needed was an opening line for Swan Lake, a full-length ballet in four acts, and a ballet that is considered the most romantic, and most popular, among the classical ballets of all time.
You see, Swan Lake “bombed” when it was first presented at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow on March 4, 1877. The ballerina, Pauline Karpakova, was way past her prime. The choreographer, Julius Reisinger, was a hack ballet master who did not have the talent to work and do justice to such a major score. The composer, of course, was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose tragic personal life led him to create one of the most dramatic and soul-wrenching musical scores especially commissioned for a ballet.
No one was more disappointed than Tchaikovsky himself at the outcome of Swan Lake in its first form. The ballet survived 33 performances at the Bolshoi, only “until the scenery was worn to shreds,” and then it was thankfully taken out of the theater’s repertoire. Tchaikovsky succumbed to cholera on Nov. 6, 1893. He never saw the Lev Ivanov/ Marius Petipa version of his ballet that practically all classically based ballet companies have, in one form or another, in its active repertoire. He never saw his Odette/ Odile that has become to ballerinas today what Shakespeare is to actors – a scale to which if you succeed in the role, you can succeed in anything else.
As is the case with many a great artist, it was Tchaikovsky’s death that renewed interest in his works, even his less popular ones which included the Swan Lake score. Lev Ivanov, second ballet master at the Marinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, took advantage of an illness that sidelined Marius Petipa (who enjoyed an almost dictatorial position at the Marinsky) and choreographed the second act in a week’s time. The role of Odette, the White Swan Queen, was danced by Italian prima Pierina Legnani who incidentally was the first ballerina to ever turn 32 consecutive fouettes (whipping turns on one leg).
Needless to say, the performance was a resounding success, he decided to revive the whole ballet but put his name ahead of Ivanov’s as choreographer. Although he did not touch Acts 2 and 4 which to this day remain a testimony to the often frustrating career of Lev Ivanov, Petipa did the choreography of Acts 1 and 3.
Swan Lake premiered on Jan. 17, 1895. The occasion was also a testimonial gala for Pierina Legnani who took on the dual role of Odette/ Odile. And the classical ballet scene has never been the same since.