Musings on Swan Lake
by Carol Shults
I’m so glad you have asked me to write about Swan Lake for your blog. Swan Lake is the first ballet I ever saw – as an eight year old in Dallas, my mom took me to see England’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet, then on their second tour of the United States. So, I started with the best – Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes were the stars and they were dazzling. I saw her several more times through the years – after Sadler’s Wells morphed into England’s Royal Ballet – and memorably in the early 60’s, after Fonteyn’s career was rejuvenated by her partnership with the charismatic Russian defector, Rudolph Nureyev. They really were something to see! Even in her 40’s she made an impression on me that remains unique – the purity of her lines, her rigorously classic style that combined with her dark-eyed beauty to make a mesmerizing stage picture.
That was the great English company on tour and its production of the full-length Swan Lake was, for most Americans like me, the first and only production of the complete ballet on view here. What we did have, though, were several company’s stagings of Act II, and, presented separately, the Black Swan Pas de Deux from Act III. These were Ballet Theatre (later American Ballet Theatre) and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s and early 60’s. It was because of their touring across the States that I got to see Maria Tallchief and Alicia Alonso as Odette, and Alonso with her fabulous partner, Igor Youskevitch, in a dynamite Black Swan. (Interestingly, I danced in a second act Swan Lake in the late 50’s in the round! It was staged very ingeniously for Fort Worth’s Casa Manana Theater by my teacher, the Ballet Russe ballerina, Mia Slavenska, who also danced Odette.
The 1970’s – The Golden Age
When ABT produced its first full-length Swan Lake in the late 60’s, ballet in America was entering its golden age and much excitement accompanied this production in New York and on tour. Lupe Serrano and Royes Fernandez as the leads became legendary and Met audiences went crazy for Bruce Marks and the young and prodigiously talented Cynthia Gregory. Later, in the mid 70’s the Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova made a tremendous impression – her exquisite lyricism in Acts II and IV contrasted with her glitter as the seductress, Odile in Act III to produce an indelible Swan Queen – I was so emotionally moved by the tragedy, as if seeing it for the first time!
In the 1980’s, as touring became more expensive for the international companies, and local companies became increasingly important to the cultural lives of their big western cities, productions of the full-length Swan Lake began to pop up. I lived in Portland from the early 70’s, which turned out to be a good perch from which to observe this fascinating development.
The first locally produced full-length Swan Lake I saw was Ballet West’s in 1982. Ballet West had a well-developed relationship with Portland due to its many years of bringing The Nutcracker here for a week’s run at Thanksgiving. So it was with great anticipation that we awaited their Swan Lake. Bruce Marks was Artistic Director and had entrusted the staging to his ballet masters from South Africa, Louis Godfrey and Denise Schultz. It was this production that brought home to me the importance of total commitment on the part of every member of the company. Their pride in the new Swan Lake was evident from the back of the house! (I had, as chance would have it, just seen the ballet in Los Angeles danced by a famous international company and it looked as if the Swans would rather have been sun-bathing by the pool!) Ballet West’s Swans had their hearts in it, and, led by the delicately beautiful Lee Provancha Day, all transcended themselves, creating a wonderfully moving experience for the audience.
The Swan Lake I Didn’t See (and wish I had!)
Ballet West, of course, has a fascinating heritage; the well-known legacy of the Christensen brothers marks most ballet companies in the western U.S. Willam Christensen, who founded Ballet West in 1963 (with Glenn Walker Wallace) has a positively protean life story. His career began with his brothers Harold and Lew in vaudeville in the 1920’s, proceeded to teaching and founding a ballet company in Portland during the Depression, then, amazingly, culminated in the first full-length production of Swan Lake in America for San Francisco Ballet in 1940 on the eve of World War II.
Mr. C to his students, Bill to friends, Christensen was by all accounts a veritable whirlwind of creative energy. Having brought a group of trained dancers from Portland, in three years time he succeeded in making an independent performing entity out of the SF Opera Ballet. He was ready for the enormous challenge of creating a ballet he had never seen.
The Russian émigré community in San Francisco was large and hungry for “their” beloved ballet. He read everything he could about the ballet, studied the score, quizzed the St. Petersburg balletomanes and, with his brother Lew as the Prince, helping out with the choreography of Act II as he knew it from working with Balanchine in New York, produced a Swan Lake that was a tremendous hit. Two ballerinas from Portland shared the role of the Swan Queen: Jacqueline Martin did the “white” acts, II and IV; and Janet Reed danced in Act III.
It’s interesting to think about how this casting, (which was frequently done in Russia early in the century) affected the story – especially the aspect of the Swan’s betrayal by the Prince. If there is no “trick”, i.e. the evil girl looking identical to the woman he has pledged to love, his betrayal is more egregious! Jacqueline Martin Schumacher, who says the “White Russians” sent her a single red rose before every performance, was reviewed by Novaya Zarya, the daily Russian language paper: “There was a perfect union between the soul of Tschaikovsky, with his musical and choreographic conception of the ballet, and the soul of this young girl with her remarkably lyric interpretation.” Today, at almost 90 years of age, Mrs. Schumacher remembers dancing Swan Lake with the great Lew Christensen as the highlight of her performing career.
Mark, I hope your upcoming Swan Lake is a huge success for absolutely everyone. And I know there will be kids in the audience seeing it for the first time (like me in Dallas 60 years ago!), and experiencing the incomparable thrill of live performance of one of ballet’s greatest masterpieces. With all good wishes. Carol
If you enjoyed ‘Musings on Swan Lake’ by Carol Shults, scroll back in this blog for her article on Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.