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The History of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

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:circa 1950: Four cygnets dancing in a production of Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London.
Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was composed in 1875 as a commission by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the intendant of the Russian Imperial Theatres in Moscow. Like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake was unsuccessful after its first year of performance. Conductors, dancers and audiences alike thought Tchaikovsky's music was too complicated and hard to dance to. The production’s original choreography by German ballet master, Julius Reisinger, was uninspiring and unoriginal. Much is unknown about the original production of Swan Lake – no notes, techniques or instruction concerning the ballet was written down. Only little can be found in letters and memos. It wasn’t until after Tchaikovsky’s death that Swan Lake was revived. Much of the Swan Lake we know of today was a revision by the famous choreographers Petipa and Ivanov.

Creating the Story of Swan Lake
We do know that Tchaikovsky had much control over the stories 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.

The Choreography of 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 audience and everyone else who saw her claimed she set the bar. Every girl to dance the part of Odette/Odile after her was compared to Legnani's performance. Legnani performed 32 fouettes (a fast whipping turn on one foot) in a row – a move many ballerinas resent because of its extreme difficulty. However, Swan Lake remains a favorite for many girls because of it’s extreme difficulty; technically and emotionally. The prestige that comes with performing Swan Lake flawlessly is invaluable.

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