A Rare Bird: After 120 Years, Audiences Still Flock To 'Swan Lake'

Jan 19, 2015
Originally published on January 20, 2015 7:39 am

The version of Swan Lake most often performed today premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, 120 years ago this month. The ballet had been staged before, but it wasn't a hit until choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov revised it.

Still, for many people today, Swan Lake feels old and traditional. The mythical story is convoluted and hard to follow, yet it's a must-see for ballet enthusiasts. They marvel at its lyricism, the precision of the corps de ballet, the 32 swans moving in unison and the elegant costumes — all set to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's sweeping, romantic score. The legendary Mariinsky Ballet is currently performing Swan Lake at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, and, despite the expensive ticket prices, the company's one-week run is nearly sold-out.

Not For Ballet Newbies

It's been said that dancing the lead in Swan Lake is like climbing Mount Everest or playing Hamlet. The principal dances two roles — the black swan and the white swan — and both birds go through a lot: changing from swan to human, falling in love and getting tricked and jilted, not to mention the duets and solos. At one point, the Swan Queen performs 32 fouettes, or whip-fast turns.

For Barnard College dance scholar Lynn Garafola, it's simple: Swan Lake has endured because, when well-executed, it's a gorgeous, dramatic story. She says it's "something that begins at the beginning and ends at the end, and goes through so many different states of mind and emotional moments that at the end, I really feel I've had an experience."

But many never make it to the end. Either they leave at one of the two intermissions or they nap during the roughly three-hour performance. Melody Datz Hansen, a dance critic in Seattle, has seen it many times. "Everybody that I took to Swan Lake who was not a die-hard ballet fan already was just bored to tears," she says. She wrote about those particular experiences for the Seattle weekly The Stranger.

Datz Hansen is passionate about all kinds of dance, and she appreciates Swan Lake both as a ballet and as a much-needed moneymaker for companies. But she says the story — about a royal prince deciding which girl/swan he loves — is sexist and outdated.

"For many people, ballet and dance performance starts and stops with those traditional performances," she says. And that's a problem, because Swan Lake hardly represents all of the exciting things happening in the dance world.

The last time Pacific Northwest Ballet did Swan Lake, Datz Hansen says, even the dancers look bored. "There was no spark, and it was just very, very drab."

But give the same dancers a fresh, contemporary piece — like Justin Peck's Debonair — and Hansen says it's just the opposite. "Their faces are more expressive and their bodies are just shooting energy out of their fingertips. It's amazing."

Of course, there are contemporary interpretations of Swan Lake. There's Matthew Bourne's Tony Award-winning, almost all-male version; and Dada Masilo's take, also gender-bending, is infused with influences from her native South Africa.

A Breakthrough

These interpretations are, however, the exceptions. Most productions of Swan Lake stick to the rules. Star American Ballet Theatre dancer Misty Copeland says the company performs Swan Lake so often, "it's like riding a bike." In fact, her very first performance with ABT was in the corps de ballet of Swan Lake in 2001. Now she's a soloist with the company and dancing the lead.

Copeland is African-American, and this spring she'll do something that's rare in the mostly white world of professional ballet: She and another African-American dancer, Brooklyn Mack, will play the leads in Swan Lake for two performances with the Washington Ballet. Copeland says it's a "pretty monumental" event. Even though they'll perform the classic, relatively unchanged, 19th-century Swan Lake choreography, this production feels like a breakthrough.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It is a convoluted story, but it's a must-see for ballet lovers - "Swan Lake." One-hundred-twenty years ago this month, the version most often performed today premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia. NPR's Elizabeth Blair wondered why audiences still flock to it.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Yes, there's the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLET, "SWAN LAKE")

BLAIR: Thirty-two ballerinas moving lyrically in unison can be a marvel to watch. And for Vielda Milano and her seven-year-old daughter, Abigail, from New Jersey, the costumes are to die for.

VIELDA MILANO: They looked absolutely stunning.

ABIGAIL: Glittery and pink and silver.

BLAIR: They went to see the legendary Mariinksy ballet perform Swan Lake at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Tickets are expensive - up to $175 a pop. But the one-week run is nearly sold out.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLET, "SWAN LAKE")

BLAIR: It's been said that dancing the lead in "Swan Lake" is like climbing Everest or playing Hamlet. The principal dances two roles, the black and the white swan. And both birds go through a lot, changing from swan to human, falling in love, getting tricked and jilted, duets, solos and at one point dancing the 32 fouettes, which is literally 32 whip-fast turns.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLET, "SWAN LAKE")

BLAIR: For dance scholar Lynn Garafola, it's simple. "Swan Lake" has endured because when well executed, it's a gorgeous, dramatic story.

LYNN GARAFOLA: Something that begins at the beginning and ends at the end and goes through so many different states of mind and emotional moments that at the end, I really feel I've had an experience.

BLAIR: That's assuming you've made it to the end of the roughly three-hour performance and not fallen asleep.

MELODY DATZ HANSEN: Everybody that I took to "Swan Lake" who was not a diehard ballet fan already was just bored to tears.

BLAIR: Melody Datz Hansen is a dance critic in Seattle. She is passionate about all kinds of dance. She appreciates "Swan Lake" both as a ballet and a moneymaker for companies, but she says the story about a royal prince deciding which girl swan he loves is outdated and sexist, and that can be a turnoff.

DATZ HANSEN: For many people, ballet and dance performance starts and stops with those traditional performances.

BLAIR: But "Swan Lake" hardly represents all of the exciting things happening in dance, says Datz Hansen. The last time Pacific Northwest Ballet did "Swan Lake," she says even the dancers looked bored.

DATZ HANSEN: There was no spark, and it was just very, very drab.

BLAIR: But it can be just the opposite, she says, when the same dancers do a contemporary piece, like choreographer Justin Peck's "Debonair."

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLET, "DEBONAIR")

DATZ HANSEN: Their faces are more expressive, and their bodies are just shooting energy out of their fingertips. It's amazing.

BLAIR: Now, there are fresh interpretations of "Swan Lake." There's Matthew Bourne's Tony Award-winning almost all-male version...

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLET, "SWAN LAKE")

BLAIR: ...And another gender bending "Swan Lake" with an African twist by Dada Masilo.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLET, "SWAN LAKE")

BLAIR: But these are the exceptions. Most productions of "Swan Lake" stick to the rules.

MISTY COPELAND: Every spring season we do it, and it's like riding a bike.

BLAIR: Star dancer Misty Copeland's first performance with American Ballet Theatre was "Swan Lake" in the corps de ballet in 2001. Now she's a soloist with the company, dancing the lead.

COPELAND: It's huge.

BLAIR: Copeland is African-American. This spring she will do something that is rare in the mostly white world of professional ballet. She and another African-American, Brooklyn Mack, will dance the leads together for two performances with the Washington Ballet at the Kennedy Center.

COPELAND: To see two black leads is just not something that you see, so it's a big deal I think for the ballet world, and especially for minorities within the ballet world as well.

BLAIR: They'll perform the classic, the pure, the relatively unchanged late 19th century "Swan Lake" choreography. And yet, it feels like a breakthrough. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.