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The History of Swan Lake

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

Legend has it that In 1875, Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was invited by his friend Vladimir Begichev, of the Moscow Imperial Theatre, to compose a new ballet, Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky happily accepted the commission, “partly because I need the money, and partly because I have long cherished the desire to try my hand at this kind of music,” he wrote to Russian composer Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov in September 1875. In 1871, Tchaikovsky composed a children’s ballet, The Lake of the Swan, for his young nephews and nieces. Some say it is based on the German fairytale “The Stolen Veil” while others argue that it is derived from the Russian folktale “The White Duck”. The ballet score was essentially completed in 1876, though Tchaikovsky was to add to it later.

Swan Lake was first performed on March 4, 1877, in Moscow, choreography by Julius Wenzel Reinsinger, a German who was ballet master. It was regarded as a failure. Critics claimed the music was too noisy and dancers disliked the fast-paced score. The ballet was revised by Belgian choreographer Joseph Hansen in 1880 and remained in the repertoire of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet until 1883. All of the 33 performances of the ballet between 1877 and 1883 were sold out, attesting to the work’s popularity.

Eleven years passed before the ballet was again performed re-choreographed by French choreographer, Marius Petipa. Tchaikovsky died in 1893, not living to see the success of his ballet.

The Maryinsky Ballet’s new version of Swan Lake (the one typically performed today) was first performed on January 15, 1895, at the Maryinsky Theatre with the Italian Pierina Legnani scoring a great success as Odette/Odile. She was acclaimed for her technique in performing Odile’s 32 fouettes (turns in which the ballerina balances on pointe with one foot while the other leg whips semi-circles in the air) which no Russian dancer could execute at the time. Since then, the dual role of Odette/ Odile has become a touchstone for greatness for every classical ballerina.


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