The challenge of staging the world's most iconic ballet: Swan Lake

March 10th, 2015

While Nutcracker may be his most popular ballet, Swan Lake was Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s first and is considered by many to be one of the greatest classical ballets of all time. Swan Lake continues to inspire and challenge dancers as well as transfix audiences, more than 100 years after it made its debut. First performed in 1877, Swan Lake is a four-act ballet that’s an emotional and technical tour de force. Ballet Memphis will perform Swan Lake with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra at The Orpheum Theatre from April 17-19. It’s the first time in 15 years that Memphis audiences will be able to experience Swan Lake in its entirety. Based loosely on a Russian folk tale, Swan Lake tells the story of the beautiful princess Odette and her companions, cursed by the evil magician Von Rothbart to live their days as swans and their nights as maidens. Prince Siegfried, hunting alone one night,falls in love with the human Odette when he sees her near the lake. Odette knows that the spell can only be broken if a prince pledges his eternal love to her. But Prince Siegfried is tricked into believing that Von Rothbart’s evil daughter Odile is Odette, and it is to her he pledges his love. Feeling hopeless and betrayed, Odette, although she forgives Siegfried, tells him that the spell cannot be broken. Siegfried challenges Von Rothbart to a duel, breaking the spell.Odette and Siegfried collapse into each other’s arms as the curtain falls.“The original choreography was reworked in1895 by Marius Petipa with Lev Ivanov,” said Tamara Hoffmann, senior ballet mistress.

“Although there have been many, many different stagings since this time, it’s this version on which most of them are based.” Tamara, along with Ballet Memphis instructor and former professional dancer Karen Brown,will be restaging Swan Lake. Tamara herself performed various roles in the ballet many times during her career with Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Restaging a ballet involves reworking choreography to suit the company performing and the capabilities of the theatre. But in an iconic classic such as Swan Lake, there are certain elements “that you just don’t touch,” according to Tamara.

“The Odette and Odile solos will remain the same, as well as the famous ‘Cygnets’ pas de quatre,” she continued. “We’re doing one dancer for Odette/Odile, so it’s very challenging but very rewarding for the woman who dances it. You’re able to show a complete range of emotions…from gentle, giving and soft as the ‘White Swan,’ to evil and aggressive as the‘Black Swan.’” Ballet Memphis will have two dancers performing this ‘dream’ role: Virginia Pilgrim Ramey and Crystal Brothers.“I first saw Swan Lake when I was a young ballet student at a summer intensive at the School of American Ballet,” Crystal recalled. “It was the Royal Ballet, and it was amazing. When I first danced Odette/Odile for Ballet Memphis in 2000, it was my debut as a lead.“I’m excited to bring a little more maturity to the  role. I know a few things I want to change both intechnique and in presentation,” Crystal continued.“I’m more comfortable in my own skin as a humanbeing. I’ve been in love with my husband for 18 years, and my own love story brings something to the role. “It’s really a dream role. The musical score is amazing and emotional. It ismoving in every way. And then there’sthe duality of the role–part girl, part swan. Odette is full of sadness and longing but meets this really great guy and hopes it will workout. It’s a challenge in the best ways possible.”