I’ve been waiting to watch a live performance of Russian Romantic era composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet Swan Lake ever since I was first exposed to it as a 6-year-old student of Western classical piano.
The opportunity finally presented itself on the eve of 22 September, when the Delhi-based cultural association, Navrasa Duende, brought the Ukraine-based Royal Russian Ballet company’s production of Swan Lake to New Delhi.
A Tale as Old as Time
But my path was fraught with adversity, much like the ballet’s protagonists — Prince Siegfried, and his love interest, Princess Odette, who had been transformed into a swan by evil sorcerer Von Rothbart.
The weather played spoilsport and I had to splash through what was a little short of the Biblical Flood (by Delhi standards!), before I finally made my way into Siri Fort auditorium on Friday evening.
As I awkwardly stumbled into the auditorium complex in my wet shoes, I was greeted by the strains of Swan Lake’s most famous theme or motif, easily recognisable, even by the uninitiated. When the curtains were raised at 7 pm, what met my eyes was nothing short of a spectacle.
Act 1 of the ballet directed by Anatoliy Kazatskiy, presented the ballroom scene in which Prince Siegfried, played by male principal dancer Jan Váňa, had to choose his bride. Kazatskiy tells The Quint:
Swan Lake is the ballet where the prime mover is music, and it has tremendous repeat value. It may be an old ballet, but its key message – love conquers all – is as true today as it was 122 years ago, when it premiered for the first time.
Indeed, the willowy ballerinas were able to move even the first-timers, with their careful use of body movement and expression.
For Kazatskiy, Swan Lake is a “fairy tale based on real emotions,” and is known for its “demanding technical skills”, making it the most difficult, yet an all-time classic ballet ever.
No wonder, over a hundred years hence, the ballet continues to have universal appeal.
Swans Dancing Amid Impressionist Paintings
In the first act, which was quite lively, pirouetting on the stage against a backdrop that could have very well been the work of an Impressionist, were ballerinas as elegant as real-life swans.
As the dancers segue into the second act, the mood becomes romantic yet tense as Prince Siegfried, who finds himself in the woods behind his castle, chances upon Odette, the princess-turned-swan, whom he instantly falls in love with. Dressed in sparkly white, Odette is as swanlike as ever, with her nimble-footwork and slender arms gracefully stretching towards the prince.
The lighting is perfect — the various shades of blue, from azure to turquoise, that light up this moment, sits well with the ominous undertone, a hint of ill fortune to befall the prince.
Talking about the main challenge of such a large-scale production, the director says:
As a director, I have a responsibility to deliver a better ballet performance every time we run the show. I need to keep in mind that I can modify the script and production, but without losing out the essence of Tchaikovsky’s original piece.
The Quint spoke to some members of the audience during the intervals. This is what a Kolkata-based writer had to say:
I’ve had visions of this particular ballet since childhood... The performance was a dream, given that the bar had been set so high by my childhood expectations. The swans were ethereal, bathed in blue as I always imagined Swan Lake to be.Ramona Sen, Author, Crème Brûlée
Sen, who had travelled to Delhi just to watch the show, also said “Odette was captivating and Odile was spectacular.” But it was the court jester who “had her heart”.
The Audience’s Take
As one member of the audience said, many who grew up in the early 2000s were first introduced to the timeless ballet through the 2003 animated film Barbie of Swan Lake on Cartoon Network.
My first exposure to Swan Lake was through a Barbie film. Although the tickets were a bit expensive, the show was beautiful and worth the money. The main dancers were excellent, but I thought Rothbart’s (the antagonist) character could have been portrayed better. He looked a bit like an angry chicken!Maniza Khalid, English Literature Student, Delhi University to The Quint
Watching Swan Lake was an exercise in marvelling at the dedication to an art form and the beauty and grace of human expression at its finest. Classics are classics for a reason, I suppose!Priyanka Mookerjee, Author, Hedon
For me, two of the most powerful performances were delivered by the court jester, played by senior dancer Gavryshkiv Andrii and Odile (the ‘Black Swan’) played by prima ballerina Matsak Natalia, who has done over 2,000 shows of Swan Lake around the world.
Humour is perhaps even more difficult to portray, that too on stage, than tragedy. And the court jester totally did justice to his role, doing awe-inspiring leaps and swirls, all the while with a grin on his face. What also struck me was that while two contrasting characters — Odette and Odile – danced with equal grace, they were able to amply convey what they represented — good and evil, through their facial expressions and movement.
Tchaikovsky's Put a Spell on You
A Russian ballet dancer Lada, who was in the audience, told The Quint that while she loved the production, an obvious drawback was the size of the stage.
The stage for such a grand production is usually three times as large, so I can’t begin to imagine how the dancers performed some of the more difficult moves. Also, such a production is usually accompanied by a live orchestra.Lada, Ballet Dancer, Moscow, Russia
What stood out for me above everything else was the neat choreography — it was not in the least bit cluttered, and the ballerinas moved with ease, seamlessly transitioning into each sequence.
As the curtain fell, I was left reeling under the spell of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic composition, which was brought to life by 55 swanlike dancers. Indeed, 140 years after it was first performed by the world famous Russian Bolshoi Ballet Company, Swan Lake still casts a spell on you.
Video Producer: Indira Basu
Video Editor: Mohd Ibrahim