Bringing Fairy Tale to Ballet: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky started incorporating fairy tales and fairy land in some of his earliest musical works. Two early operas, Undina and Vakula the Smith, were directly based on the popular literary fairy tales Undine, by Frederick de la Motte Fouqué, and “Christmas Eve,” by Nikolai Gogol, and Tchaikovsky referenced other fairy tales and magical motifs in the rest of his work.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that when he finally turned to writing a ballet, he chose one with a fairy tale theme.

It is perhaps surprising, given that ballet’s later near central place in ballet repertoire, that initially that ballet was a complete failure.

The ballet in question is, of course, Swan Lake, composed in 1875-1876 and first performed in 1877, arguably the first or second most famous ballet in the world, depending upon your feelings about Tchaikovsky’s other famous ballet, the 1892 The Nutcracker.

Full disclosure before we continue: I am not precisely the best person to be discussing ballet in general and Swan Lake in particular, given that my own personal experience with ballet back in elementary school could hardly be called a success. (Every graceful, lovely ballerina you’ve ever seen? Imagine the exact opposite of that, and then add crashing into things and falling down a lot, and you pretty much have me as a little ballerina).

And given that the version I’ve most recently seen is Matthew Bourne’s take on the piece, which…. It still has a prince. It still has swans. People still dance. The music is more or less the same. (Bourne somewhat reworked the score, moving some segments around and elimination others, though the best known pieces remain intact.). Otherwise it is kinda nothing at all like the original Swan Lake. Then again, few performances today are all that much like the original Swan Lake. I did mention that it was a failure?

That may be partly thanks to, well, the unoriginality of that original libretto and storyline—surprisingly unoriginal, indeed. It begins with Prince Siegfried celebrating his birthday in a forest with friends. His mother wants him to get married soon, and announces that she’s arranging a ball where he can meet some princesses and choose one. Bored with this idea, the prince and his friend decide to hunt some swans. They follow the swans to a lake, where they meet Odette, daughter of a fairy, stepdaughter of a witch, and swan maiden capable of shifting from human to swan. She warns them that she is terrified of her stepmother, and that the only things that can protect her are her magical crown and true love.

Odette falls in love immediately, of course—it’s not that long of a ballet and plenty of time was already wasted on the birthday celebration—but is not convinced that she and Siegfried will have a happy ending.

Smart of her. In the very next act, Siegfried, attending his mother’s ball, meets the lovely Odile, daughter of Baron Rothbart, and falls in love with her. This goes poorly for just about everyone: Rothbart turns into a demon, a swan shows up at the window, and Siegfried dances off, deserting his second woman in less than a half hour, and while I know we’re not exactly supposed to be cheering Odile on here, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for her, in this and in subsequent versions. In any case, Siegfried dances to her, apologizes profusely, and, when she is like, yeah, no, snatches the protective crown from her head and they both drown in the lake.

So, Siegfried, KINDA A JERK HERE, to put it mildly, and also, one downer of an ending there.

This may have been somewhat new for a ballet. But although an exact literary source has never been identified, in terms of a storyline, nothing here was at all new—not the idea of enchanted swan maidens, or evil stepmothers, or false brides, or even annoying princes that don’t get that if a fairy princess tells you to GO AWAY, that means GO AWAY, not SNATCH OFF THE MAGICAL CROWN KEEPING HER ALIVE, WHAT SORT OF FAIRY TALE PRINCE ARE YOU, ANYWAY? I DON’T CARE IF YOU CAN DANCE. That lack of originality may have contributed to the initial failure of the ballet—though to be fair, Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, however, blamed the ballet’s failure not so much on the ending, or the storyline, but rather on the choreography, the orchestra, the staging—that is, pretty much everything except the music.

Modest later helped produce a new version of Swan Lake, which debuted in 1895, four years after Tchaikovsky’s death. In this version, Odette was no longer a fairy, but a mortal woman, enchanted by the sorcerer Rothbart to live as a swan by day and a human at night—if, that is, she and the other women enchanted with her remain by the lake. The evil stepmother vanished completely, leaving the ballet with just one main villain, and Siegfried, rather than falling in love with someone else pretty much immediately, falls in love with Odile only because he believes—thanks to Rothbart—that Odile is Odette. And the story turned Odette from accidental murder victim to purposeful suicide victim—freeing the rest of the swan maidens with her death.

This left intact the rather uneventful opening act and the overall tragic story, but streamlined the overall story and, more importantly, made main characters Siegfried and Odette far more sympathetic—Odette, as a trapped human instead of a trapped fairy, willing to sacrifice herself for her friends, and Siegfried, as a deceived victim and slightly less of a jerk. Just slightly.

If you’ve seen a traditional production of Swan Lake, this is probably the one you’ve seen. Probably, because later stage productions have not been able to resist tweaking or outright changing the ballet, doing everything from adding clowns and jugglers to the rather slow, uneventful first act to outright changing the ending. Sometimes Siegfried kills Rothbart; sometimes Siegfried kills Odette; sometimes everyone drowns; and sometimes, the producers remember that HEY, THIS IS A FAIRY TALE AND KIDS MIGHT BE IN THE AUDIENCE and mercifully allow everyone, including Rothbart, to live happily ever after.

Presumably while dancing.

My own hands down favorite is Matthew Bourne’s extremely gay if not exactly cheerful version. That ballet radically reinterprets the first act, starting it off with a nightmare before moving into a montage of Royal Training and Stepping On the Backs of Royal Servants, Royal Alcoholism, and Royal Making a Nuisance in Public Places, coupled with a bit that makes fun of previous productions of Swan Lake, making the entire first act actually—can I say it—interesting! (Pay attention, traditionalists!) The later three acts cast men instead of women as the swans, presumably not just because this occasionally fills the stage with bare-chested men, and explore the prince’s newfound love for a swan and his slow disintegration into insanity, creating vibrant characters along the way.

Look: I’m not going to sugarcoat it: watching Swan Lake can be one of the dullest experiences of your life. But with the right choreography and the right dancers—basically, the right production—it can be mesmerizing, and even occasionally hilarious. Well, in the first act, at least, where several productions add clowns, and the updated Matthew Bourne version adds a cellphone, giving the audience a chance to crack up before people start getting enchanted by evil sorcerers with owl fixations, descending into alcoholism, or dying, all things best proceeded, I think, with at least a touch of levity. The latter acts rarely include as many jokes even when (if) the clowns reappear. Plus the inherent flexibility of the music of Swan Lake means that you might not know what to expect—even as you find yourself thinking, wait, isn’t this bit from that one movie?

(The answer to the last bit, probably. Partly because the music is so flexible and dramatic, and mostly because Tchaikovsky doesn’t need to be paid royalties, portions of the score frequently pop up in Hollywood productions.)

Perhaps because of that initial failure of Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky avoided composing any other ballets for years. But the form clearly still teased at him, leading to the 1889 Sleeping Beauty, and three years later, the 1892 Christmas staple The Nutcracker, heading your way (if it hasn’t already arrived) in just a few weeks on film, stage and canned music in your local retailer. He died a few months after the premiere of The Nutcracker, either from cholera or (if you prefer the more exciting if completely unproven version) poisoning. I like to think that when he died, his thoughts were filled, not with dancing mice, but flying swans.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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