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Reinvigorating a Classic – Marty Hughley

Throughout its long history, the story of Swan Lake has been, if you’ll pardon the expression, fluid. Tchaikovsky’s stirring and memorable score was commissioned for an 1877 Bolshoi Theatre production. Yet the libretto—“complicated, dark, violent and tragic,” according to ballet historian Jennifer Homans—was revised significantly 18 years later, when Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov created new choreography for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg and established Swan Lake as a touchstone of ballet repertoire. Change was now part of the Swan’s DNA. Writes Robert Greskovic in his book Ballet 101:  “Almost no staging of Swan Lake today, even those where great pains have been taken to honor the 1895 version, fails to rework the libretto in some way to suit the production’s own purposes.”

And yet, to Oregon Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Kevin Irving, hewing too closely to the 1895 template has been the problem with most classical ballet productions of the work. He calls Tchaikovsky’s score “some of the finest music ever written, not just for the ballet but ever” and points to the centerpieces of the Petipa/Ivanov choreography as crown jewels of the art form. The music and dancing, he contends, just need a dramatic setting that helps them shine anew for today’s audiences.

“Our core mission at Oregon Ballet Theatre is to re-invigorate traditions and give them a way to make sense in the 21st century,” Irving says. “We’re not doing a contemporary, roll-on-the-floor version; this is a classical ballet.”

True to that mission, his moving new adaptation of Swan Lake reworks the traditional story of doomed love between an enchanted swan princess and an impetuous prince, manipulated by an evil sorcerer. In its place he has crafted a cohesive and compelling tale centered on young Prince Siegfried more than the swan/woman Odette. Once again there is magic afoot, but here it is a well-meaning web of illusion pulling him toward adulthood.

“I had some very fundamental problems with the traditional narrative that I felt were important to resolve,” he says. 

Irving points to a number of issues, starting with the conventional ending in which Odette and Siegfried both commit suicide, finding redemption only in an afterlife. “It’s not a satisfying way to end three hours in the theater….I wanted to find a way to end the story on a more hopeful note.”

More pervasive is the lack of true dramatic arcs for the main characters. Typically, Odette has been cursed by the evil Baron von Rothbart to be swan by day, woman by night, but that takes place (and usually for no specified reason) before the ballet begins. “She’s locked in and she has no agency,” Irving notes. Similarly, Siegfried doesn’t really develop when he’s presented from the outset as royal alpha male and then merely as a victim of von Rothbart’s mischief.

Irving also finds that those dramatic deficiencies can blunt the power of a magnificent score. “I find that the traditional version of Swan Lake—on the surface—is extremely sentimental, cloying almost, but without having the depth that I hear in the music,” he says.

“I realized that I needed to create an arc for Siegfried. And it struck me that his story, if it became the central story of the ballet, gave me an opportunity to address all the other issues I was seeing.”

Irving found the satisfying arc he sought in a classic template: the coming-of-age tale as hero’s journey, familiar, in its general direction, from Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, among other models. Siegfried starts the ballet as a charistmatic but neglected prince, notable mostly for his immaturity. There’s no malevolent von Rothbart here; instead the magic is the work of Siegfried’s father, infirm following a stroke and anxious about the royal succession after Siegfried’s older brothers have died suddenly. Odette and her deceptive doppelganger Odile, the Black Swan, are illusions created by the king to teach Siegfried the value of love and the importance of discernment. After all, in the conventional story, when Siegfried pledges love to Odile impersonating Odette, it’s not really the test of faithfulness he fails; it’s the test of credulity. And, as Irving points out, “credulity and discernment are important characteristics of a ruler—or just of an adult. At the end of the ballet he finally is that Prince that most versions start with, able to accept the cloak of responsibility, the weight of the crown on his head.” 

Irving’s realignment of the narrative means more dancing throughout for Siegfried, adding to an already challenging part. Thankfully, he has the incredible Principal Dancers Peter Franc and Brian Simcoe alternating in the role. Swan Lake traditionally has been a star vehicle for whoever’s in the dual role of Odette/Odile—in this case, Principal Dancers Xuan Cheng and Jacqueline Straughan—and on that point Irving sees no difference. “Despite the fact that the protagonist of this version of Swan Lake is Prince Siegfried, her role is, I think, enhanced. Rather than being diminished, it becomes more poignant and compelling.”

A variety of influences fed into Irving’s approach, including Sir Matthew Bourne’s radical, Siegfried-centered Swan Lake remake, with male dancers as the swans, first staged in 1995, and August Bournonville’s Napoli, the third act of which OBT performed in 2015. “The way the dance and characterizations are intertwined in the Bournonville tradition has a sweetness and a lack of pretension that I really respond to,” Irving says. “Although stylistically the worlds are very far apart between Swan Lake and Bournonville, I thought that real-world resonance could present a model that would be inspirational.”

At the heart of this emotionally unified take on Swan Lake is the desire to tell a good story.

“I’m looking to make a fairy tale,” Irving says. “A fairy tale that holds together, where the pieces fit and lead us to an experience we feel we’ve participated in. 

“I want to create a Swan Lake that has some attributes of Cinderella and some of Romeo and Juliet—and not because those happened to be our last two full story-ballet productions. All through Cinderella you never lose sight for a moment of what’s at stake for her, even though there are bits of incredible comedy. And in almost any production of Romeo and Juliet, the way the pomp and the weight of the formal opposition of the two houses is evoked is the framework you need for the story to touch your heart—like walls coming in that the lovers have to push against. Along the way are all these opportunities for characters to push the protagonists forward or to impede their progress. 

If you look back at our Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet, the dancing was spectacular, but that’s not the sole purpose of what we’re doing. They were successful because they had really clear characters and stories that drew us into their world.”