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Dance in America: ''Swan Lake'' with American Ballet Theatre banner
Angel Corella as Prince Siegfried and Gillian Murphy as Princess Odile (photo by Marty Sohl -- Thirteen/WNET)
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American Ballet Theatre
Angel Corella (in Spanish)
American Ballet Theatre: Dancers: Principals: Angel Corella
American Ballet Theatre: Education: Georgina Parkinson
American Ballet Theatre: Education: Frederic Franklin
American Ballet Theatre: Dancers: Principals: Herman Cornejo
American Ballet Theatre: Dancers: Principals: Marcelo Gomes
American Ballet Theatre: Dancers: Corps de Ballet: Isaac Stappas
Classical Music Archives: Tchaikovsky Performing Arts: Marius Petipa


By Elizabeth Kendall

The concept of "Swan Lake" was born in Moscow, in the spring of 1875, when the Bolshoi Theater commissioned the ballet from the 35-year-old composer Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky, then living in the city. Tchaikovsky worked fast on his first ballet. He wrote two acts in August 1875; he returned to the piece and wrote the last two acts in January 1876. In March of that year, "Swan Lake"'s first choreographer, Julius Reisinger, began to compose the ballet and in February 1877, it premiered.

About the staging of that first "Swan Lake" we know almost nothing. About the story we know a little. "Swan Lake"'s familiar characters -- Prince Siegfried; the Swan Queen Odette; the evil magician von Rothbart, who keeps Odette under a spell; his phantom daughter Odile (danced by the same ballerina who plays Odette), who persuades Siegfried to renounce his vow to Odette -- were invented for the ballet. They're not some archetypal folk characters who were hanging around. But who invented them?

The names on the libretto are Vladimir Begichev (then director of the Bolshoi) and Vasily Geltzer (a Bolshoi dancer and rehearsal master). But history says that a small group of people wrote the story, friends who met regularly at Begachev's house, a Moscow salon. Some were St. Petersburgers in exile, including Tchaikovsky, who was among the regulars.

In fact, some historians believe Tchaikovsky was the main "Swan Lake" librettist. First of all, it's a little like "Giselle," which was Tchaikovsky's favorite ballet. Like "Giselle," it's set in medieval Germany with a prince who betrays a girl. Moreover, the characters' names are not Russian but German, in fact, Wagnerian (Siegfried, von Rothbart). Wagner at that time was in the middle of writing the "Ring Cycle," and Tchaikovsky, while not really a Wagner fan, was paying attention from afar.

But besides all that, there's the way "Swan Lake" looks at marriage. Connecting Tchaikovsky's personal life with his influence on the "Swan Lake" libretto is venturing into speculative territory. Still, the parallels stand out. Tchaikovsky, when he fell in love, fell in love with men. But in the mid-1870s, about the time he was writing "Swan Lake," he decided he should marry. In 1877, several months after the ballet's premiere, he did marry, a young music student, Antonina Miliukova; it was a disaster. The two lived together for a month, then Tchaikovsky had a nervous breakdown (living with someone else had affected his work). They separated forever, though never divorced.

Top banner photos: Ballerina Gillian Murphy as Princess Odette, and with co-star Angel Corella as Prince Siegfried (all photos by Marty Sohl -- Thirteen/WNET).

Gillian Murphy as the duplicitous Odile

Gillian Murphy dances the dual role of Odette and Odile in "Swan Lake" (photo by Marty Sohl -- Thirteen/WNET).

Gillian Murphy as Princess Odette

Gillian Murphy has been a dancer with ABT for nearly 10 years (photo by Marty Sohl -- Thirteen/WNET).

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