How the ballet grew
Swan Lake was the ballet chosen by Dame Peggy van Praagh to launch The Australian Ballet’s first season in 1962.
The ballet has been produced in many different versions. The original production was staged at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1877 with choreography by Julius Reisinger. At that time, ballet music was considered an inferior genre and Tchaikovsky worried that taking the commission would damage his reputation. Fortunately, he saw its possibilities, and went on to compose two further ballets, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, both collaborations with the ballet-master of the Imperial Theatres, Marius Petipa.
Tchaikovsky died in 1893, and in honour of his contribution to Russian culture, a memorial concert was planned in St. Petersburg. For this occasion the wistful, elegiac music of Swan Lake Act II best expressed the public mood. This act was chosen to be performed with new choreography by Lev Ivanov, second ballet master of the Imperial Theatres.
The success of Ivanov’s lakeside act led to the revival of the complete ballet under the artistic direction of Marius Petipa, who provided the first and third acts, while Ivanov added the fourth act (also set by the lake). Unlike the Moscow opening, eighteen years before, the St. Petersburg premiere was a huge success. The occasion was also a testimonial gala for the Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani, who danced the leading role and once again stunned balletomanes by adding her famous 32 fouettés (which she had first performed in Cinderella) into the coda of the Act III pas de deux.
This 1895 staging was the production destined to become Swan Lake as we know it today, an internationally recognised and acclaimed centrepiece of the art form, with the greatest of ballerinas building their reputations on the challenges of the dual role of Odette/Odile.
Swan Lake in Australia
The first time Australia saw Swan Lake was in 1934, when the Dandre-Levitoff Russian Ballet presented its second act at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Brisbane. The Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtzeva, partnered by Anatole Vilzak, created a sensation, and from that moment, the second act has always been a great favourite with the Australian public.
The 1936 production, by Colonel de Basil’s Monte Carlo Russian Ballet, featured Valentina Blinova, Helene Kirsova and Nina Youshkevitch as Odette. The role of Siegfried was danced by Valentin Froman and Igor Youskevitch. Two years later, de Basil’s Covent Garden Russian Ballet brought to Australia Irina Baronova as Odette, partnered alternately by Anton Dolin and Paul Petroff. The third de Basil company, the Original Ballet Russe, which toured Australia in 1939-40, had Tamara Toumanova and Vera Nemtchinova as Odette and Serge Lifar, Paul Petroff and Michel Panieff as Siegfried.
The first production of the second act by a professional Australia company was given by the Kirsova Ballet in Sydney. The leading roles at its first performance in 1943 were danced by Peggy Sager and Paul Hammond.
In 1944 the Borovansky Ballet staged Act II with Edna Busse as Odette and Serge Bousloff as the Prince. During the lifetime of the Borovansky Company Laurel Martyn, Peggy Sager, Helene Ffrance, Kathleen Gorham, Jocelyn Volmar, Iovanka Beigovic and Marilyn Jones appeared as Odette. The role of Siegfried was danced by Charles Boyd, Miro Zloch, Vassilie Trunoff, Royes Fernandez, Frank Bourman and Garth Welch. It is also worthy of note that Dame Margot Fonteyn, partnered by Michael Somes, made her Australian début as Odette with the Borovansky Ballet in 1957.
On the 15 February 1951 the National Theatre Ballet presented the Australian premiere of the full-length Swan Lake at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne. Produced by Joyce Graeme and designed by the late Ann Church, it featured Lynne Golding in the dual role of Odette/Odile, Henry Danton as the Prince, Joyce Graeme as the Queen Mother, and a cast that included Leon Kellaway, Rex Reid, Mary Duchesne and Marilyn Burr.
In the 1957 – 58 season the Borovansky Ballet staged its full-length version with Kathleen Gorham, Peggy Sager, Elaine Fifield, Mary Gelder, Vassilie Trunoff, Robert Pomie, Kenneth Melville and Garth Welch in the leading roles.
Swan Lake was the ballet chosen for the inaugural performance of The Australian Ballet on 2 November 1962 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney; on this occasion, the leading roles were danced by guest artists Sonia Arova and Erik Bruhn. Other famous dancers to appear in the leading roles with The Australian Ballet were Kathleen Gorham and Garth Welch, Marilyn Jones and Caj Selling and Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, who were guest stars of the 1964 season.