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Swan Lake has a great history, dating back to 1875, where it was initially a failure, but flourished into one of the most popular of all ballets. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed Swan Lake but it is said that a man named Vladimir Begichev, the director of the Imperial Theatres of Moscow deserves credit for its initial stages, persuading Tchaikovsky to join the project and inviting him to set the theme. It is believed that from this moment, Swan Lake was first born. The first performance at Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow was apparently filled with problems, as Tchaikovsky's score was considered too difficult, forcing several alterations to be made. After a seven-year stint, 33 performances, and three versions of Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky was invited to revive the performance with Petipa and the director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky. Sadly, Tchaikovsky died just before the plans came to fruition.
Music director Riccardo Drigo revised the classic score to suit new choreography, which is predominantly used in most versions of Swan Lake today. Many may also recognise the reference of Swan Lake in the contemporary story of The Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky in 2010, starring Natalie Portman. Swan Lake has been reinvented in a myriad of ways over the years, but it is St Petersburg Ballet Theatre that manages to capture the pure beauty and sincerity of the tale in their awe-inspiring adaptation that took place at Her Majesty's Theatre over the weekend.
Swan Lake is definitely a romantic story of love, as young prince Seigfried tries to save his one true love, princess Odette, who has fallen victim to sorcerer Rothbart's wicked spell, turning her and the other maidens into swans by day and back to human form at night. The only way to break the spell is if Seigfried swears to love the Swan Queen forever and never to love another. As the story evolves, Sigfried is deceived by Rothbart, but finally manages to prove his true and everlasting love for Odette, defeating the evil sorcerer in the final act.
Irina Kolesnikova as Odette embraces every moment of her time on stage, impressing the crowd from the get-go with her striking and majestic display as the Swan Queen. She possesses a soft and delicate beauty as she glides so heavenly before us, managing to take aback the audience with her riveting performance that cannot be faulted. A dynamic energy boasts from every gestural yet orchestrated movement Kolesnikova makes, owning the stage from the very beginning. Likewise, Odile played by Anna Samostrelova delivers the intensity that encompasses her role as the deceptive daughter of sorcerer Rothbart. In act 3, when Seigfried mistakes Odile for Odette, we see Samostrelova really shine, as Seigfried and Odile dance a pas de deux. It is a beautiful and riveting sight, as the black swan delicately takes heed, impersonating Odette's mannerisms, with a more bolder and vigorous quality.
Prince Seigfried played by Dmitry Akulnin coincides with Kolesnikova's dynamic stage presence, as the two protagonists work in harmony with one another both technically and aesthetically. Akulnin reminds us that ballet is more than what we see, it's the hours of hard work that exist behind the final production, as he forcefully pushes himself to the limit, moving the audience in his awe-inspiring performance. Likewise, Yurii Mirov as Rothbart brings a hearty quality as he represents the darker character that contrasts from the gracefulness of Seigfried and Kolesnikova. His ferocity on stage is heightened by his ability to portray the sorcerer through heightened facial and bodily movement, along with accompanying make-up and costume to set the scene.
The set design by Simon Pastukh takes us to a magical place that feels so distant from our own reality. From the first opening act on a late autumn afternoon, golden and auburn colours and features embellish the stage, moving into a mysterious and ethereal lakeside set where the swans glide softly before us in the following act. This contrast from light to dark also emphasises this transition that Odette goes through, as she transforms from swan by day to human by night. The darker set is adorned with tree branches and minimal props or features to allow Odette's glistening costume to shine, along with the other swans that stand out in their white celestial tutus. Costume designer Galina Solovieva manages to successfully achieve this balance of colour and contrast between the set and costumes, ensuring they capture the audience's attention and help to tell the story of Swan Lake. Rothbart's costume is quite possibly one of the most striking pieces, as it differs so much from the other dancers who predominately wear lighter colours. Like a swan, Rothbart wears a bodysuit embellished with wings, feathers, and a head piece, all in black, with his face painted hauntingly in a light silver to create a haunting effect. The lighting undoubtedly heightens each intense movement made, as it changes with the music, particularly in the closing scenes when Rothbart is defeated. Flashes of coloured lights illuminate the stage with every strike that Seigfried makes toward Rothbart, until he crashes to the ground.
As the ballet closes in on its 140th anniversary, we are reminded of the timelessness that exists behind the much-loved story of Swan Lake. It is a fairy tale of course, but it also embodies complex undertones that may not be immediately obvious to the viewer initially, giving Swan Lake an unrivalled edge and special quality that can be interpreted so uniquely by different people. Notions of light vs. darkness, our own personal battles, and the psychological war many deal with on a daily basis, are all possible paradigms explored in Swan Lake and most evidently in Aronosky's contemporary interpretation. Until we learn to accept and love ourselves until the end of time, this personal tug of war may continuously reside within us. Swan Lake, after so many years, manages to pull at the heart strings, and get us thinking about these unconventional ideologies that will always remain relevant throughout time.
St Petersburg Ballet Theatre was founded in 1994 by Konstantin Tachkin who has continued to direct the company over its 21-year history. The company has a repertoire that includes a number of masterpieces of classical ballet including, Giselle, Don Quixote, La Bayadere, Les Sylphides, Paquita, Nutcracker, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty.