On November 14 and 15, the St. Petersburg Festival Ballet teamed up with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra to stage a spectacular performance of ‘Swan Lake’. Filled with exciting sets and costumes, beautiful ballerinas and danseurs, and fantastic music, it was really a treat to be able to see right here in Reykjavík.
‘Swan Lake’, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, is one of the most universally beloved classical ballets. The story begins when Prince Siegfried’s mother tells him he must choose a bride. He goes out hunting and meets Odette, a beautiful maiden, by the lake. She and her companions are under a curse by the wizard Von Rothbart that transforms them into swans during the day, and will only be broken once someone swears to love Odette forever. The next night, Von Rothbart arrives at the ball with his daughter Odile, who conveniently looks identical to Odette. Siegfried and Odile dance and he declares his intent to marry her. Only then does he see Odette at the window frantically trying to stop him. He runs back to the lake to apologise to Odette, but it is too late. With the knowledge that the curse can now never be broken she resigns herself to death, thus freeing the rest of the swans from the curse.
Why we go to the ballet
In addition to the heart-wrenching story, the ballet is also famous for Tchaikovsky’s powerful score, elaborate sets and costumes, a huge synchronised cast, and Odile’s astonishing 32 fouettes turns. Concerning the music, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra was flawless as always. Hidden in a makeshift orchestra pit, they filled Harpa’s main theatre Eldborg with a brilliant performance that could have easily stood on its own.
Any expectations for sets and costumes were surpassed. Eldborg was transformed into a grand proscenium theatre with changeable backdrops and wings for lively entrances and exits. The costumes included brightly coloured gowns and suits, as well as nineteen white pancake tutus for the swans. This was not a black-box showing of a new contemporary piece, but rather an elegant affair that SHOWED why people still go to the ballet.
The St. Petersburg Festival Ballet’s performance was—well—fine. The level of technique between the corps and the soloists was surprisingly varied. At times the sound of pointe shoes knocking against the stage resonated over the orchestra, which would be an understandable problem for a student, but feels more like laziness from a professional. Also, the corp’s timing was often a little off. Normally, this would not be very noticeable, but the nature of Swan Lake’s choreography, with dozens of dancers in geometric formations, makes it abundantly clear if just one dancer is out of sync.
However, Margarita Zhuchina’s performance as Odette/Odile made up for what the corps lacked. She was exquisite. She executed each individual step so perfectly that her partner often looked more like he was in her way than actually assisting. That is until the famous fouettes. Like Russell Crowe yelling “Are you not entertained?!” at the crowded Colosseum, Odile’s 32 fouettes in the third act are the most memorable part of ‘Swan Lake’. Ms. Zhuchina did 28. Each turn was technically perfect, but like most of the company, her timing was off so she simply had not finished the step before the music ran out.
And while we’re at it, I don’t think Bambi’s mother should die either…
Even people who know nothing about ‘Swan Lake’ know that that Odette dies in the end. However, the St. Petersburg Festival Ballet’s rendition has a Disney-esque twist at the end where Siegfried defeats the evil Von Rothbart and he and Odette live happily ever after. Sounds nice, right?
NO! What may seem like a small, crowd-pleasing change at the very end has two major problems for the performance:
First, this means that when Odette caught Siegfried publicly confessing his undying love for another woman he said, “Well golly Odette, she looked just like you and I couldn’t tell the difference”, and she responded with “Aw shucks Siegfried, that’s OK. I’m sure it won’t happen again.”
Second, it drastically changed the beautiful and tragic ending of a classic story. Imagine Juliet awaking to find Romeo lying motionless next to her, but before she could kill herself, he jumps up yelling, “Just kidding!” and they lived happily ever after.
Different companies have their own variations. Sometimes the story begins with Odette being captured, or different characters make appearances at the ball. Changing the ending, however, is a step too far. It contorts an essential part of the story and denies Odette her beautiful swan song. A few technical mistakes only noticeable by someone with a ballet background can be overlooked, but cheapening the ending in that way tainted the whole performance.