Talking to Milwaukee Ballet’s artistic director Michael Pink about any ballet offers an insider’s insight into the art form.
But when it comes to Swan Lake — Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece and arguably the world’s most famous ballet after The Nutcracker — he fairly sparkles with enthusiasm.
“It’s a ballet that, like The Nutcracker, has ticked all the boxes,” Pink says. “You just have to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Tchaikovsky, for creating all those commercial tunes that have long been associated with ballet.’”
Milwaukee Ballet will present Swan Lake May 31–June 3 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. The production will be much the same as it was when the company last presented it in 2013, Pink says.
Milwaukee Ballet’s version includes some significant editing to bring the ballet down from four acts to two, clocking in at a little over two hours. Pink’s rationale is to keep the production at a comfortable length for the audience while emphasizing the strengths of the narrative.
“It’s fair to say that I started editing Swan Lake when I was still working with ballet companies in England and wanted a more manageable production,” Pink explains. “The court scene at the prince’s birthday party, for example, has quite a lot of character dances that I chose to eliminate.
“We made the changes to work better within our resources,” he adds.
Sorcery and tragedy
In Pink’s version, as in the original, Swan Lake concerns the enchanted Odette (Luz San Miguel during evening performances, Nicole Teague during matinees), who has been transformed through evil sorcery into one of a flock of white swans by day who become women again at night. Prince Siegfried (Davit Hovhannisyan and Randy Crespo) — who had set out with friends to hunt the enchanted flock of swans — falls in love with Odette and wants her for his wife.
Enter Baron von Rothbart (Timothy O’Donnell and Ransom Wilkes-Davis), an evil sorcerer who has designs on Siegfried’s throne. Rothbart brings his daughter Odile (Marize Fumero and Annia Hidalgo) — known as the black swan and strongly resembling Odette — to the prince’s birthday party. While they dance, Siegfried becomes enamored of Odile, an adoration witnessed by Odette in swan form.
When Odette leaves in tears, Rothbart transforms into the demon he is, Odile laughs and Siegfried, realizing the sorcerer’s deceit, leaves in pursuit of Odette.
In ballet, as in opera, no good can come from breaking an innocent’s heart, and all perish in the waves of the lake.
In many productions, the same ballerina plays Odette and Odile, presumably to highlight the duplicity of human nature. Pink has chosen to employ different dancers in the roles so the characters may confront each other before the ballet’s watery climax.
He also has recreated the ballet’s backstory during the opening waltz, showing Rothbart enchanting Odette as a means to stage his attempted seizing of Siegfried’s throne. It’s Pink’s way to strengthen the dramatic narrative from the ballet’s beginning.
Tchaikovsky’s ‘incredible music’
The artistic director has eschewed the recent trend of changing the conclusion into a happily-ever-after ending.
“Why do that?” he exclaims. “Given the incredible music that Tchaikovsky wrote, you simply have to end up having everyone sucked into the lake.”
The composer’s now familiar score is one of the highlights of any production. However, when the ballet premiered in 1877, audiences and critics struggled with a composition far more complex than the otherwise light and fluffy ballet scores of the day.
“Much of Tchaikovsky’s music is deceptively tricky rhythmically,” Pink says. “A lot of people found his style of orchestration to be like that of a huge brass band, with too much crashing about.
“But he also seemed to write endless tunes with a distinct style and, even today, we hear people coming out of the auditoriums after the show humming the main motifs,” he adds.
Tchaikovsky’s ability to work in multiple musical genres, including symphonies and operas, gave him significant compositional chops to create memorable melodies. Add to that the narrative’s classical good-versus-evil storyline, and you have a ballet that almost transcends its own art form, Pink explains.
“Tchaikovsky was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day, able to create music that people wanted to hear again and again,” Pink says.
That contributes greatly to the lasting appeal of Swan Lake, he adds.
Milwaukee Ballet’s production of Swan Lake runs May 31–June 3 in Uihlein Hall at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. Tickets are $40 to $115 and available by calling 414-902-2103 or by visiting milwaukeeballet.org.