Alexei Ratmansky's reconstruction of Marius Petipa's Swan Lake was rapturously received by almost all the critics when it premiered in Zurich in February. Alastair Macaulay in The New York Times said, “This Swan Lake has become the one by which we should judge all others.”
This touchstone production, then, is about to open in Milan, though a little different to the one in Zurich. Ratmansky says,
The stage in Zurich is quite small, but now, here at La Scala, we can present the original number of dancers, especially for the Act I Polonaise and for the corps de ballet of swans.
La Scala have managed to get Russian conductor Michail Jurowski to lead the orchestra. He isn't a ‘ballet conductor' as such, but has a special love of Tchaikovsky, and so this will be the fifth Swan Lake he has conducted during his long career; the first was the Burmeister's version at the Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow, 40 years ago. The two Russians have found a great deal of common ground as both want to see the music played as Tchaikovsky intended, so there will be faster tempos than we are used to, cuts will be omitted,
And the ballet will finish ‘piano' not ‘forte',
As in Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty, the cou-de-pied will be lower, chaînés on half-pointe and other modifications of modern practice which allow for more rapid steps which, of course, enables dancers to keep up with the orchestra. I can hear now audience members complaining during the interval about the lack of expansive lines but wow, what dramatic excitement that speed provides. The brilliance of the steps is closer to the British versions than those of other, even the Russian, companies, as Sergeyev – clutching his priceless collection of documents containing Vladimir Stepanov's notation of the Petipa ballets – established this style at the request of Ninette de Valois in England between the wars.
There is no dancing Rothbart, no jester (he was a later addition in some versions) but the Prince's friend Benno is onstage here and both he and Siegfried are given a variation by Ratmansky that they didn't have in Petipa and Ivanov's original 1895 production.
I felt it unfair to the dancers and the audience not to let them dance.
In the original production, Benno didn't dance in the pas de trois, but a nameless cavalier. Likewise, the original Prince didn't dance the solo in the pas de deux at the ball; it was danced by Gorsky who was not representing a named character. So the nameless characters are gone from our production and the solos have been given to the Prince and Benno.
Ratmansky lists some of the differences between this version and some of the ones we are used to.
We have hunters in the first white act with the Prince and his friends. The scene becomes very crowded! I find this quite important dramatically because it makes the moment when he breaks his vow of love with Odette during the ball scene all the more powerful.
There are no swan arms, as introduced by Vaganova and others.
They are women not swans. Of course, the hunters point their crossbows at them as though they are still swans, but sometimes in a romantic ballet we shouldn't ask too many questions,
he says with a wry smile.
There are eight baby swans played by young students from the excellent Ballet School, here at La Scala. We also have a small group of ‘black' swans in the last act, as in the Mariinsky version, which makes dramatic sense as they symbolise Odette's tragic fate.
However, he is proudest of restoring Petipa's choreography for the waltz… a waltz of giant proportions.
There are twenty couples: sixteen from the corps and four soloist couples. It has been like restoring a lost jewel.
Although there are some changes in technique which, judging by The Sleeping Beauty, most of the company were able to handle fairly easily, there is one aspect that Ratmansky is not fully satisfied with; not at La Scala nor at ABT nor in other choreographies with other companies: character dancing.
This is a disappearing art as modern choreographers don't use these styles in their works. The character dancing – Spanish, Neapolitan, etc – is still a work in progress, though even the Russian companies are losing this tradition… but we're trying hard!
His other concern is audience's expectations. Everyone is accustomed to over-the-head lifts, splits and a generally flashy and acrobatic technique. Little of that here.
It is a detailed dialogue between the Prince and Odette… more small-scale but more theatrical.
Ratmansky has collaborated again with Jerome Kaplan on sets and costumes. The design choices are curious. While certain costumes, the swan tutus, for example, are copied from the 1895 production, reaching down to the knee others, like that of Odile, are invented. Similarly, with the sets. Ratmansky explains,
Kaplan's designs don't reproduce the originals, but respect them. The shape of the 1895 tutus are copied exactly, they are very feminine, with little feather caps set on looser hair with mini pony-tails. It makes them women, not swans, and you won't see this in any other productions of Swan Lake.
Odile doesn't have a black tutu, she's a real person. Kaplan was inspired by Pre-Raphaelite styles. Her costume is dark, but not black, and with no feathers whatsoever.
So why, one thinks, if it is a recreation, ignore certain things and take notice of others? Copy some costumes but not all? Recreate the waltz and then introduce new solos for Siegfried and Benno?
This is complex… As a choreographer, I can say that I would hate for my own ballets to be changed. We respect Fokine's choreography yet he was just a generation later, starting work when Petipa was still creating his last ballets. To change Balanchine would be a crime. But not with Petipa. With Petipa we can do whatever we want to make it ‘better'. I suppose I'm trying to bring it back.
I'm certainly not saying that we should only perform reconstructions and the work I have done is obviously subjective. All I can say is that I study all the documentation as much as I can and try to get under Petipa's skin. As a choreographer myself I say, would he approve?
He is a period choreographer, like Bournonville, and he should be respected as such.
Marius Petipa was born on 11 March 1818, so in two years' time there will be cause for celebration. And Ratmansky?
I will be reconstructing another Petipa ballet in New York.
Right now, it's a secret!
Swan Lake runs from 30 June to 15 July at Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Details and booking information on La Scala's website.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.