February 20: Swan Lake

TchaikovskiIt was on this day in 1877 that the Bolshoi Ballet staged the first production of the ballet Swan Lake featuring a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreography by Julius Reisinger, the Bolshoi’s director.

The ballet, inspired by Russian and German folktales, tells the story of a princess named Odette who is transformed into a swan by a wicked sorcerer. Now, over the last few months of this blog, it’s become a recurring theme that many now classic works of theater and film were not appreciated in their time. Well, Swan Lake adds a little wrinkle to this motif. The original production of Swan Lake was savaged by theater critics of the day. There were a couple reasons for this. For one thing, the role of Odette was recast at the last minute, so an understudy was brought in to dance the part intended for a prima ballerina. Additionally, the Bolshoi was forced to stage the show on the cheap, so the critics had harsh words for the unintentionally minimalist production.

However, most of the criticism for Swan Lake came about because the critics were, how can I put this gently, stupid ill prepared for the task of reviewing ballet. You see, most of the critics who reviewed Swan Lake were not familiar with ballet, instead their prior theatrical focus was on melodramas. This led to some rather, interesting criticisms. Some critics found the score to be “too noisy, too ‘Wagnerian’ and too symphonic”. Some critics even dubbed the plot itself to be dumb and said the character names were unpronounceable. Surprisingly, Tchaikovsky was unperturbed by these reviews and didn’t pay it no mind. According to his brother Modest:

“The poverty of the production, meaning the décor and costumes, the absence of outstanding performers, the Balletmaster’s weakness of imagination, and, finally, the orchestra…all of this together permitted [Tchaikovsky] with good reason to cast the blame for the failure on others.”

So, what is the wrinkle to the “art not appreciated in its time” motif? Well, despite the critical lambasting, the public adored Swan Lake. The Bolshoi staged 41 performances of the ballet over the following six years, only retiring the production because the sets and costumes were starting to look tattered.

Over the years, Swan Lake has inspired countless other works, the most recent work of note being the 2011 film Black Swan. The Dobel Tequila company was in turn inspired by Black Swan to create a cocktail called Twisted Swan. It’s a sweet after-dinner cocktail that when properly built creates a colorful balance of light and dark.

Twisted Swan

  • 1 ounce Silver Tequila
  • 1/2 ounce Amaretto
  • 1 1/2 ounces Chambord

Shake the tequila and Amaretto with ice and strain into a chocolate rimmed cocktail glass. Then carefully layer the Chambord on top of the drink by pouring it over the edge of a bar spoon.

Tomorrow: The beginning (and end) of a Russian dynasty.

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