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  1. Culture
  2. Theatre
26 March 2024

How Swan Lake became a cultural phenomenon

Tchaikovsky’s celebrated ballet is an aesthetic movement in the West – but in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, it has become a potent symbol of political dissent.

By Zuzanna Lachendro

When Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake debuted at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877, it was considered a failure. Almost 150 years later, it has become the ballet that epitomises ballet itself. In 2024 it continues to dominate the stage: this year alone, London will host four adaptations, beginning with the Royal Opera House’s production that premiered on 6 March. Tchaikovsky could never have imagined its popularity, nor could he have foreseen its evolution into a multifaceted cultural phenomenon – as an aesthetic movement in the West, and, in his native Russia, as a shifting political symbol that has been employed both to prevent protest and to foment it.

Though its origins are mysterious, it’s widely accepted that the ballet is based on a Russian folktale and inspired by the untimely death of the Bavarian “Swan King”, Ludwig II, who drowned himself in a lake. Tchaikovsky’s celestial score and the original choreography by Julius Wenzel Reisinger guide the audience through the story of Odette, from when she is cursed and transformed into the Swan Queen by the evil sorcerer Baron von Rothbart, to her burgeoning love story with Prince Siegfried, to her famous, tragic end.

But the 1877 reviews deemed Swan Lake forgettable: according to critics, the choreography was bad, the score too long and complicated, and the dancers found it too difficult to perform. After a few shows, the ballet was taken off the Bolshoi’s bill. In 1880, the repertoire was revised by the Belgian dancer Joseph Hansen, in what is now known as some of ballet’s most demanding choreography. The iconic “Dance of the Cygnets” requires great stamina, strength and the perfect unison of 16 pas de chats. In 1895, Pierina Legnani, often called one of the greatest ballerinas of all time, added a dizzying 32 fouettés en pointe to the repertory. The fouetté en tournant (“whipped turn”) requires impeccable control and coordination. The dancer must not wobble, fall out of position, or move off the starting spot as her leg straightens in a 90-degree turnout and whips around her own axis en pointe 32 times. The likes of Margot Fonteyn, the former prima ballerina assoluta of the Royal Ballet, and most recently Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s prima ballerina, could not complete the full 32 fouettés. Many of the greats, including Anna Pavlova, the famous Russian prima ballerina, who created the role of The Dying Swan inspired by Swan Lake, avoided them.

In 1910, Swan Lake premiered at the Hippodrome Theatre, London, raising its international profile. In the decades since, there have been many adaptations that are famous in their own right, such as the 1987 choreography by Frederick Ashton preferred by the Royal Ballet, or Matthew Bourne’s all-male 1995 take on the story. Originally the Black Swan and White Swan were performed by different dancers, but as the ballet’s technical complexity became an important part of its appeal, it was increasingly common for one ballerina to embody both parts. This demanded a greater range and characterisation of movement. The story of Swan Lake was propelled further into popular culture by Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-nominated film Black Swan (2010), which draws on the dualism of the swan roles to explore the pressures placed on ballet dancers to perform the ballet perfectly.

The popularity of Swan Lake has continued to grow, through screen adaptations, children’s entertainment and endless Halloween costumes. As a result, its technically exacting nature has become less important than the beautiful costumes and set. But with such a great demand for the repertoire, are audiences getting the same quality of performance? Having two dancers in the roles of the two swans would make the piece less technically challenging, but it would also leave less room for error. The infamous Black Swan pas de deux in Act III is so demanding that an individual dancer’s performance come Act IV may not be of the same standard as the dancing that came before it – those with a keen eye will notice missteps towards the end of the show.

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While the gauzy and fantastical elements of the story are fetishised and decontextualised in western Europe, in Russia Swan Lake has taken on a potent political significance. After the respective deaths of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, Yuri Andropov in 1984, Konstantin Chernenko in 1985 and during the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, state-controlled TV stations stopped regular programming to broadcast Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in full, honouring the Soviet leaders and blocking news coverage while the state’s leadership selected a successor.

In the 21st century, many Russians have used the ballet’s history as a coded form of protest against the country’s invasion of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s regime. They have turned Swan Lake from an instrument of the state into a tool of protest. The four ballerinas in the “Dance of the Cygnets” have begun appearing on walls across Russia as a symbol of defiance, with the first graffiti daubed on St Petersburg’s walls in 2018. When TV Rain, an independent Russian news outlet, stopped broadcasting their coverage due to the pressures placed by authorities at the start of 2022, it signed off with a clip from Swan Lake, an echo of the interrupted programming after Soviet leaders’ deaths. In November 2023, the feminist Russian collective Pussy Riot released a music video entitled “Swan Lake”, in which they refer to “Putin’s propaganda” and call for the return of “all kidnapped Ukrainian children”. The Swan Lake graffiti has been used to compare Putin’s regime to that of his Soviet predecessors, reminding Russians of the long shadow of the USSR.

Since it was first performed, Swan Lake has taken on various forms of cultural significance: it is a cautionary tale of the dangers of perfectionism; an emblem of the strength, stamina and beauty of the dance world; and now a subversive political symbol. Like all great artworks, Swan Lake’s power lies in its multiplicity of meanings, its inability to be reduced to just one message. As long as it remains a major cultural reference point across the world, the ballet will continue to find new relevance and resonances – and will continue to surprise us.

[See also: How Spotify won]

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