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Show Guide for Swan Lake

Show Guide for Swan Lake

Did you know ballet began in Italy? Learn how Moscow soon became a thriving center for ballet and peruse a guide to Swan Lake.


Ballet – A Brief History

Ballet began in the 14th-century Italian Renaissance. Court pageantry of the time was at its most extravagant during aristocratic weddings, where dances were staged for the nuptial celebrations. At the time, the steps were traditional court dances. Performers wore fashions of time, which for ladies meant long, heavy skirts that covered their feet.

Louis XIV ruled France from 1638 until 1715. During his reign, he hosted magnificent balls where special dances called ballets were performed for him. The dances chronicled Greek myths and Roman history. Occasionally, the king himself joined in the dancing. As the ballets grew more complicated and more difficult to perform, Louis moved them from the ballrooms into the theaters; he enjoyed the dances so much that he wanted everyone to have a better view. The king founded Académie Royale de la Danse, the first school to train professional ballet dancers. Because France formalized ballet, all the steps were given French names.

In the 18th century, Catherine the Great of Russia invited French ballet dancers to her country. Ballet flourished during this period of Russian Enlightenment, and by 1850 Russia had overtaken Paris as the center of ballet. Russian ballet greatly influenced ballet clothing. It was their admiration of dancers’ technical feats that discarded the bell-shaped, calf-length Romantic dress in favor of the shorter, knee-length tutus that better displayed fancy footwork.

Ballet in Russia thrived at the end of the 19th-century, and the era saw the creation of some of the most enduring ballets; Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird were all composed and performed for the first time. The Soviet Revolution reduced the number of ballerinas and choreographers in the country until the 1930s. But post-World War II, Russian ballet companies toured the world, helping revitalize ballet’s popularity as a public entertainment.

George Balanchine popularized ballet in the United States in the 20th century. Balanchine was a Russian dancer and choreographer who immigrated to the U.S. in 1933. He founded the American Ballet in 1946. Today, many of Balanchine’s works are still performed as a regular part of the New York City Ballet’s repertoire.

Swan Lake - The Story

  • Act I: At Prince Siegfried’s 21st birthday celebration, his mother reminds him that he must pick a bride at the upcoming ball. Upset that he cannot marry for love, Siegfried sees a flock of swans fly by and he decides to leave the party and hunt them. 
  • Act II: The prince aims his bow at the flock, but night falls and the swans turn into maidens. The Swan Queen tells Siegfried that she is the Princess Odette. Like her companions, she was changed into a swan by the sorcerer Rothbart and can only take human form at night; a man’s oath of eternal love is all that can break Odette’s curse. Siegfried invites Odette to the ball and he is about to profess his love when Rothbart interrupts. Dawn breaks and the swan-maidens are turned back into birds.
  • Act III: At the ball, Baron Rothbart arrives with his daughter Odile, the evil double of Odette. Siegfried is deceived into believing that Odile is his beloved Odette. He dances with the evil Odile and publicly declares her as his chosen bride. Then the prince sees the spirit of Odette and realizes his mistake. Rothbart and his daughter leave in triumph and Siegfried rushes to the lake to find his beloved.
  • Act IV: Siegfried has pledged his heart to another but finds Odette at the lake, and the strength of their love breaks the spell, Rothbart’s evil deed dashed on the rock of true love.

The Composer

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born May 7, 1840, in a village 600 miles outside of Moscow, Russia. Tchaikovsky grew up with music: his mother sang folk songs and the family owned a mechanical organ, a self-playing instrument like the player-piano. Tchaikovsky started piano lessons at age 4, and in three years he could read music as well as his teacher.

When Tchaikovsky was 10 years old, his parents sent him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence to train as a lawyer. Music was not a high priority at the boarding school, but Tchaikovsky attended the opera and theater with other students as well as assisted the school’s choir director, studied harmony and continued piano lessons. In 1854, Tchaikovsky’s mother died from cholera, and within a month of her death the 14-year-old composed a waltz in her memory, his first serious attempt at composition.

Tchaikovsky graduated from the School of Jurisprudence at age 19 and went to work in the Ministry of Justice. Tchaikovsky felt that he was not a good civil servant but was reluctant to change careers. “Father insists that it is still not too late for me to take [music] up professionally,” he wrote to his sister in 1862. “I would like to think that he is right but the trouble is that if I have any ability, it’s quite impossible to make anything of it now. They’ve made a civil servant out of me – and a bad one at that.” Despite his initial hesitation, the next year Tchaikovsky quit his job and entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.

Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky’s first composition for ballet. Vladimir Begichev commissioned the score from Tchaikovsky in 1875; Begichev and Vasiliy Geltser adapted the story about a girl turned into a swan by evil sorcerer from Russian folk tales and ancient German legends. The ballet premiered in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow under the title The Lake of the Swans.

This first production was critically panned; even Tchaikovsky’s score was called “too noisy, too 'Wagnerian' and too symphonic.” Swan Lake was the first ballet set to a score by a symphonic composer, which made it unusual in an era when the norm was hiring so-called “specialist” composers to score simplistic music for the ballet. Even critics who recognized the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s score deemed it too complex for ballet.

Despite these reviewer responses, the ballet ran for 6 years and Tchaikovsky went on to compose two more ballets: The Sleeping Beauty in 1889 and holiday favorite The Nutcracker in 1892. Tchaikovsky’s ballet compositions are now beloved fixtures of classical ballet. Other Tchaikovsky compositions have been adapted for the ballet; George Balanchine set several New York City Ballet pieces to Tchaikovsky pieces and choreographed American Ballet’s Mozartiana from Tchaikovsky’s ode to Mozart. Tchaikovsky also composed four concertos, 10 operas, over 100 piano works, and six symphonies, including The 1812 Overture.

The Company

Moscow Festival Ballet was founded in 1989 by two Russian artists –Maris Liepa and Sergei Radchenko, both veterans of the Bolshoi Ballet.

As the company's artistic director, Radchenko sought to realize his vision of a company that brought together the highest classical elements of the great Bolshoi and Kirov Ballet companies in a new independent troupe. Under Radchenko’s direction, leading dancers from across Russia have staged new productions of timeless classics such as Carmen and Swan Lake.

The Moscow Festival Ballet continues to expand its repertoire; in addition to commissioning new works from Russia and abroad, the company specializes in 20th-century full-length ballets like Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, Legend of Love, Stone Flower and The Golden Age. Radchenko has researched the original choreography of several Marius Petipa classic ballets, and the company has staged Petipa’s Don Quixote and Paquita, as well as a recreation of Giselle with the original choreography of Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli.

Since its inception, the Moscow Festival Ballet has completed two tours of Europe, with extraordinary receptions in Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.
The company’s United Kingdom tour drew capacity audiences in London's famed Coliseum and resulted in re-engagements during the 1995-96, 1996-97, 1997-98, 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons. Moscow Festival Ballet has also performed in Leningrad, Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, and South Africa. The company performed in Turkey at the Istanbul Festival and in Greece at the Athens Festival and on a two-month tour of Japan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The Moscow Festival Ballet has toured extensively throughout the United States, beginning with a coast-to-coast tour in the spring of 1997 and return shows in 2001, 2004 and 2007.  The company returns to America in 2010 for a 17-week U.S. tour.

Sergei Radchenko, Artistic Director

Born in 1944, Sergei Radchenko graduated from the Moscow School of Dance in 1964 and then joined the Bolshoi Ballet, where he worked for 25 years. He danced the entire repertoire at the Bolshoi, but enjoyed a special reputation for Spanish dance, particularly the role of the bullfighter in the Bizet-Shchedrin Carmen suite. For his work in ballet, he was awarded the title of Honorary Artist of the Soviet Union in 1976. He is the founder and artistic director of the Moscow Festival Ballet and has achieved a remarkable feat in the establishment and development of this young-but-great Russian ballet company. Radchenko presents a large number of master-classes, inviting leading teachers from the Bolshoi and Maryinsky theatres to ensure the continuation of the rich traditions of the Russian classical school.

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