NINA ANANIASHVILI SAYS FAREWELL to the Role of Odette/Odile in Japan

State Ballet of Georgia’s Crystalline Version Will Tour the Country June 24 – July 21, 2012

Swan Lake is arguably the best known and most often performed ballet in the world today. Yet its first incarnation in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow was considered a flop. Lackluster choreography by Julius Wenzel Reisinger, set to Tchaikovsky’s music, thought by many at that time to be “too symphonic,” disappointed audiences and soon disappeared from the repertory.

It was not until the ballet was re-choreographed and presented in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in 1895 did it start to gain its current renown. The libretto was revised, lightening the tone of the ballet; the music was re-arranged and new steps devised by Marius Petipa, the “father of classical ballet,” and his Russian colleague, Lev Ivanov. Petipa is generally credited with the first and third acts, Ivanov with the second and fourth.

The librettists kept the basic plot line of the original story, which tells of a beautiful, noble woman (Odette) who has been put under a spell by an Evil Magician (Rothbart); by day she is trapped in the form of a swan, at night she regains her human form. Odette is the leader of a flock of similarly bewitched swan maidens. Prince Siegfried, out hunting one night, comes across the flock and on seeing Odette, falls in love with her. After learning that the enchantment can be broken if he remains faithful to Odette, he swears to rescue her from her fate.

At a ball where the Prince is urged by his Princess-Mother to choose a bride, Siegfried rejects all the candidates until Rothbart, in the guise of a nobleman, arrives with his daughter Odile, who though clad in black, looks exactly like Odette. Bewitched, Siegfried becomes betrothed to Odile, only for Rothbart to triumphantly show him a grieving Odette, now condemned to remain a swan forever. The deceived Prince begs Odette’s forgiveness, but it is too late.

The premier Bolshoi ending had the lovers being swept to their deaths in a thunderstorm conjured by Rothbart. The St. Petersburg version softened the tragedy; after Odette and Siegfried jump into the lake, they are shown united after death in the now familiar apotheosis, being flown heavenwards on swan wings. During the Soviet era, ideology dictated a happy ending, with the lovers triumphing over the evil Rothbart.

Swan Lake has evolved in other ways through the years. As the piece was passed on from one generation of dancers to the next, even in the same company, artistic directors and choreographers have sought to stamp their ideas and graft innovations to the masterwork, while still claiming pedigree from Petipa/Ivanov. Characters have been added and subtracted: Benno, Siegfried’s friend, is usually cut from current productions. The Jester, introduced at the Bolshoi in 1920, has intruded into many Russian stagings since.

Tchaikovsky’s score has been re-arranged, re-orchestrated and even chopped to suit variant corps de ballet formations and divertissements; so many of the latter have been added, subtracted and shuffled in productions worldwide that even dance historians are hard pressed to keep up.

The development of dance technique and the presence of ballerinas with special qualities and interpretive abilities have also inspired differences in emphases and tone. As well, national preferences and tradition shaped performing styles. Russian ballerinas seem to aim for a remote, even chilly interpretation of Odette; Western ballerinas are more emotive, particularly in the White Act pas de deux with Siegfried.

Nina Ananiashvili, whose international career ranged from Moscow, New York, Tokyo and other dance capitals, evolved an interpretation that honors both traditions. From the start, Nina dazzled audiences in the virtuoso passages of the Black Swan. Her bold attack, precise timing and commanding poses made her an awe-inspiring Odile. She whipped through those climactic thirty-two fouéttes with relish.

Always striving for balance and complete mastery of her roles however, she found ways to make her Odette just as compelling. Without altering any steps, she infused them with meaning through subtle nuances of timing and execution---the way her feet fluttered, her arms enfolded and her back slowly curved towards her Prince could stop the heart. And those incomparable arms, rippling like wings, made her exit in the White Act thrillingly unforgettable.

Some contemporary interpretations of Swan Lake have diverged so far from the story of the Swan Queen that they literally hang by a feather to that opus. Only Tchaikovsky’s music loosely ties them to the concept at all. Certainly Matthew Bourne’s male swans are in another orbit; and Australian Ballet’s libretto, which adds madness and suicide to its thinly veiled allusions to the royal triangle of Diana (Odette), Charles (Prince Siegfried) and Camilla (Rothbart) stretches the plot line to its limit.

It is with a feeling of relief that one welcomes the State Ballet of Georgia’s version of this perennial favorite. Staying close to the Petipa/Ivanov original, it is performed complete in two acts and four scenes. Alexei Fadeyechev, credited as choreographer-producer, has meticulously excised later additions and trimmed extraneous elements to focus on the central story. He has restored the simple and effective Ivanov choreography for Act IV, but added a poetic framework for the ballet.

ACT I, Scene 1

In a mirrored rehearsal studio, costumes are being delivered and tried on. Putting on their new clothes, soloists perform Petipa’s familiar pas de trois, followed by the courtiers in a Polonaise. The Ballet Master  (who later plays Rothbart) asks the lead male dancer to practice his solo, and leaves, still dissatisfied. The principal dancer, upset, repeats his variations, then exhausted, sits down on the studio floor and falls asleep.

ACT I, Scene 2

He dreams that he has become Prince Siegfried and finds himself on the banks of a mysterious, moonlit lake, where bewitched swan maidens rise up before him, framed by an alley of trees whose branches intertwine at the top. Shadowed by the winged Rothbart, the Prince and Odette, the Swan Queen, meet and dance the celebrated Ivanov pas de deux. The dance for the four cygnets and the three big swans are among the set pieces featured in this scene. At dawn, after Siegfried has pledged his love and sworn to be faithful to Odette, the flock of swan maidens are summoned by Rothbart and resume their swan form---the Swan Queen flailing her wings as she is compelled to exit.

ACT II, Scene 3

In the castle’s richly glowing blue and gold Gothic ballroom, the Queen Mother receives guests, including a bevy of noble maidens from foreign courts. The courtiers proudly display their national dances.  The Prince is expected to choose one princess as his bride. Each is introduced to him and he graciously dances with each in turn, but he is listless, his mind only on Odette. Suddenly, a mysterious knight (Rothbart) arrives, accompanied by a ravishingly beautiful girl. It is Odile, his daughter, who is the double of Odette except that she is dressed all in black. Siegfried is deceived into thinking she is his beloved, and he betroths himself to her. At that moment, Rothbart shows him a vision of the real Odette, weeping at his betrayal.

ACT II, Scene 4

A deep gloom envelops the banks of the lake where Odette brings the sad news of Siegfried’s broken vow. The swans dance in grievous silence, resigned to their fate. Siegfried, deeply distressed, runs in to ask forgiveness, but it is in vain. Rothbart appears to separate the lovers, and the Prince collapses after they fight…

The scene returns to the rehearsal studio, where fellow dancers enter to find the lead soloist asleep on the floor. They wake him and depart as he stumbles around the room trying to recapture his dream. Unseen by him, the image of Odette flits across the stage---the mirrors reflecting her winged transit into oblivion.

SBG’s production of Swan Lake is not the most sumptuous or elaborate on the stage today, but it is the purest. It tells the story clearly, and with its grounding in a rehearsal studio, emphasizes the essential Romantic idea of conflict between the real world and the world of the imagination.

In Nina Ananiashvili, SBG has the ideal interpreter of the role of Odette/Odile. In this unique ballerina, beauty, perfect proportions, technical prowess and expressive abilities are wedded to an intellect that has allowed the artist to deepen her interpretation of the gentle, vulnerable Odette and the fiery, subtly predatory Odile through a 30-year career.

This writer is blessed to have seen Nina delve into this role year after year in performances with American Ballet Theater in New York City, and more recently with State Ballet of Georgia. I join countless ballet lovers worldwide in the conviction that to have seen her even once in Swan Lake is to be enchanted for life. To have missed her is a tragedy.

Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga