History of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

The History of Tchaikovsky's Great Ballet

Performances of Tchaikovsky's ballet, Swan Lake, are likely to be based on the revived and revised version by famed choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.
Performances of Tchaikovsky's ballet, Swan Lake, are likely to be based on the revived and revised version by famed choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Ken Scicluna / Getty Images

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake was composed in 1875 after he received a commission by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the intendant of Moscow's Russian Imperial Theatres. The ballet's content is based on a Russian folktale, and over the course of two acts, tells the story of a princess turned into a swan. (Read the synopsis of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.) On March 4, 1877, Swan Lake premiered at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre.

The Original Production of Swan Lake

Much is unknown about the original production of Swan Lake – no notes, techniques, or instructions concerning the ballet were written down. What little information that could be found exists in a handful of letters and memos. Like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake was unsuccessful after its first year of performance. Conductors, dancers, and audiences alike thought Tchaikovsky's music was far too complicated and the ballet dancers in particular had difficulty dancing to the music. The production’s original choreography by German ballet master, Julius Reisinger, was criticized harshly as uninspiring and unoriginal. It wasn’t until after Tchaikovsky’s death that Swan Lake was revived.

From 1871 to 1903, ballet's most influential dancer, choreographer, and teacher, Marius Petipa held the position of Premier maître de ballet at the Russian Imperial Theatre. Thanks to his extensive research and reconstruction efforts, Petipa along with Lev Ivanov revived and revised Swan Lake in 1895.

Performances of Swan Lake today, are likely to feature Petipa's and Ivanov's choreography.

The Meaning of the Swan

We do know that Tchaikovsky was granted a great deal of control over the story's content. He and his colleagues both agreed that the swan represented womanhood in its purest form. The stories and legends of swan-maidens date as far back as ancient Greece; when the Greek god Apollos was born, flying swans circled above their heads.

Legends of swan maidens can also be found in The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, Sweet Mikhail Ivanovich the Rover and The Legend of the Children of Lir.

Pierina Legnani and Swan Lake

Swan Lake is known for its demanding technical skills all because of one extremely gifted ballerina, Pierina Legnani. She performed with such grace and discipline, the bar was quickly set in the minds of all who saw her. It's no surprise that every ballerina to dance the part of Odette/Odile after Legnani was judged against her performance. Legnani performed 32 fouettes (a fast whipping turn on one foot) in a row – a move many ballerinas loath because of its extreme difficulty. However, the magnitude of skill required to dance the part of OdetteSwan Lake is why the ballet remains a favorite for many girls; its a goal, an aspiration to take center stage. The prestige that comes with performing Swan Lake flawlessly is invaluable, and can turn ballerinas into stars overnight.