Orchestral Music Review



Russian National Ballet's Swan Lake - Iconic Pointing

February 25, 2006 - Asheville, NC:


To come upon artistic gems in the dead of winter is what keeps our lives fresh. We're all ready for a change of climate any time now, and a visit to Swan Lake at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium fit the bill, even if temporarily. Asheville Bravo Concerts, formally the Asheville Community Concert Association, has presented top-rank productions since the 1932 season. On February 25, they continued that legacy while paying tribute to an enduring patron. The evening was dedicated to the memory of Olive Lewis, a tireless and enthusiastic supporter/promoter of the arts in Asheville and at ABC until her recent death. The program contained her photo and remembrances. She passed a few days short of 99 years. Whew! Way to go, Olive!

Now, if you intend to see an archaic art form on purpose then it's always advisable to find the best source, at least, with the longest history. In the case of ballet that would be the Russians, with extra points because they also have pretty good music. The Russian National Ballet was founded in 1989 by Bolshoi dancer Sergei Radchenko to "...bring together the highest classical elements of the great Bolshoi and Kirov Ballet companies in an independent new company within the framework of Russian classic ballet." Lofty competition in which to launch a new company, wouldn't you say? Within ten years the troupe was enjoying annual tours of Europe and coast-to-coast romps across the USA with success.

The iconic ballet Swan Lake has an interesting history, and we need not delve too far into that, but a few points deserve mention. First, the thing we see today is nothing at all like what choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov created at first. In 1875, composer Tchaikovsky was commissioned by the Russian Imperial Theatres in Moscow to write the score. The version we consider the "standard" today did not even exist during Tchaikovsky's lifetime. It is said the first published libretto of Swan Lake did not correspond at all to the musical order and was likely recorded by staffers simply observing rehearsals – which for the first performance in Moscow began in March 1876, before Tchaikovsky had even finished the score, and went on for eleven months! So..., there is plenty of room for error or invention. Many of the signature elements (like the White Swan pas de deux) were revisions, made later. It wasn't until 1895, two years after other significant revisions, that the world saw the version we know today.

Second, Swan Lake has been one of the major artistic export products for Russia. A two-act version was toured in 1908. In the period 1909 to 1911, a three-act version was seen in Europe, London, and New York. The ballet was reconceived in 1945, restoring the abridged Petipa/Ivanov plot. Vladimir Burmeister used this as the starting point for his 1956 production, later staged for the Paris Opera in 1960. The first full-length American production was for the San Francisco Ballet in September 1940. In October that year Catherine Littlefield produced a Swan Lake on ice for It Happens on Ice in New York. The same year George Balanchine choreographed a version for the Twentieth Century-Fox film I Was an Adventuress (and was himself in the film). In 1951, Balanchine choreographed a thirty-five minute Swan Lake as the first traditional ballet of the New York City Ballet. There were also productions for the Municipal Theatre in Atlanta in 1965 and in Chicago in 1967. So you can see, even briefly, it has been an enduring staple of the ballet repertoire.

Which brings us to the actual story, which is: boy becomes man, triumphs over evil, and gets the girl. Sorry, but there is little point in dragging it out. Yet one little kinky detail deserves mention. In the latter half of the 19th century, legends of swans were presumably familiar, even to Tchaikovsky, and supernatural female creatures such as sylphs, shades, water nymphs, and swans were popular if for no other reason than as the basis for great fantasies. Legends involving the swan/maiden are old, appearing in various forms in both eastern and western literature. Consider The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, the story of Hassan of Bassorah, Sweet Mikhail Ivanovich the Rover, and, from Celtic folklore, The Legend of the Children of Lir. The list is significant enough to border on fixation. Women becoming birds and vice versa were popular themes, and the swan was particularly favored due to its grace when swimming in the water. The ancient Greeks considered the swan to be the bird closest to the Muses, and thereafter it's hard to miss the enticing musical opportunity. While all this appealed to the contemporary taste for idealized womanhood, it also seeded the opportunity for abstract choreography. But in the world of ballet, even today, the sole requisite for success is that everything should center on one principal character. That would be the prima ballerina – everything else is secondary.

So, here we are in 2006 in the mountains of western North Carolina, and not much has changed in that respect. Lo, they did dance! Four acts, one scenery panel that never moved (the lake), 54 dancers including corps de ballet and rotating solo roles, and a legacy that trails back through Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov! Traditional ballet is intent on telling only the basis of a story, really, because it's all with a wink and a nod that we're getting dressed up to have a dance occasion and show off. At first glance, the production can be reduced to colorful costumes, running, jumping, turning, gliding, pointing, and incessant gesturing.

Concerning the latter, you should know I was unimpressively attempting the same while gliding to the parking lot afterward. The scoring panel – my wife Madelaine – gave low marks. I intend to appeal the scores.

While the Jester flew around impressively in early scenes, it was not until the prima ballerina panned across the stage, arms outstretched in swan mode, that we began to observe the true gravity of this historic art form. Now hear this: you/we can't do this. It takes a particular kind of body, with very specific characteristics, to even qualify for this work. Then you need to train in very exotic places for a very long time, working on cold stages under people with lots of consonants in their names to even get an audition. Thereafter you will come to understand commitment, yet you may be excused without cause or outright fail thanks to your roommate's better body or an existing "prima" who is never sick. This is a very tough job market.

This troupe stayed in character all night, was fit and expertly trained, and rarely missed even through the corps seemed to be a second tier group. The production seemed to loose some energy toward the end, but that's probably more due to long bus rides and too many cities. The Asheville audience broke into applause often, led by a large number of students. Thanks to generous assistance from the Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation, the Janirve Foundation, and local Target stores, more than 350 tickets were made available for students across the community. Earning special attention and cheers were the famous thirty-two fouettés during the Black Swan pas de deux. The girl nearly bored a hole through the stage!

Additional points for having Ann Dunn with dancers Sarah McGinnis and Lyle Laney give a pre-concert lecture. Negative points to RNB for failure to identify the orchestra and conductor of the recorded music in the program notes. Sneer!

Asheville Bravo Concerts announced the line-up for their 75th anniversary season during 06/07. It includes the Cleveland Orchestra. We'll list the full schedule in CVNC in due course.