by Leigh Witchell

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Swan Lake presented by Ballett Zürich in February was how few surprises there were in it.

The ballet has a convoluted history. It was first done in 1877 in Moscow and completely redone in 1895 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Ratmansky’s version is based on Nicholas Sergeyev’s notes and records detailing the second production by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, which has formed the basis of most every traditional version in the West.

Even with so many radical remakes of the bird, if Ratmansky’s reconstruction is correct, most portions seem to have survived: just not in the same production. The massive editing and orchestration of the original Tchaikovsky score for that production by Riccardo Drigo is also still used as-is in some productions. So, much of it looked familiar, and almost all of it sounded familiar, even at brisk tempos that recalled Balanchine’s stagings. It felt less like an excavation and more like a compilation.

The differences Ratmansky focused on were stylistic. Like a restorer removing varnish, he peeled back many of the additions and embellishments accreted over time. Partnered pirouettes stopped at doubles. Men’s cabrioles reverted to simpler, unbeaten tours jetés. Women’s extensions didn’t skyrocket past the ear; they didn’t go past the shoulder.

You could see the biggest differences in the larger dances. The dance of the four little swans in Act 2 looked like the same beloved clockwork it still is today. The Act 1 waltz involved footstools, as it still does at the Royal Ballet. But in Petipa’s version the majority of the corps provided a moving framework for a smaller group or the soloists, and their steps were simple. Get on a stool. Get off a stool. Arms high. Arms low. A smaller group did more complicated enchaînements. And then the pièce de resistance: scores of dancers arrayed in a wide pyramid posing as if for a wedding photo. That is what has changed most over time: Petipa and Ivanov were as often traffic cops and landscape architects as choreographers.

The most noticeable changes for the leads included Siegfried’s entirely different variation in the Act 3 pas de deux. Instead of the familiar, shorter jumping variation, it was to a longer waltz and laden with beats. And Benno was back in the Act 2 adagio. Undercutting the conventional wisdom about the original Siegfried, Pavel Gerdt, being old and needing someone else to do the hard bits, Benno did no heavy lifting here. Mostly he caught Odette when she swooned away from Siegfried. He appeared to be there instead for decorum and design. Benno seemed to display Odette and showed her off for Siegfried so he could get some distance from her to get a better look: ballet’s ultimate wingman. The pas de deux à trois was much more formal than the intimate duet it has been distilled into, and the 
choreographic and emotional changes went hand in hand.

There were other changes of character over the years. Siegfried wasn’t melancholy and there was barely any emotional foreshadowing, even when the music ached into Odette’s theme at the close of Act 1. He simply decided he’d rather hunt than rest. Odette didn’t do bird arms; her port de bras were largely classical.

With elegant lines and long, arched feet, Ballett Zürich’s Viktorina Kapitonova looked as if she’d be at home in any version of the ballet. Her prince, Alexander Jones, was big, sturdy, a good dancer and an exceptional partner. They had great chemistry together; Kapitonova was a passionate actress, Jones a very clear mime. By the final act, with Kapitonova literally collapsing in despair in Jones’ arms when finishing pirouettes, they made you feel the story.

The sets and costumes by Jérôme Kaplan were based on historical photos. The swan corps all wore white skullcaps. Odette’s tutu was fuller and longer than is common now. She wore a small crown and all the swans had a single sausage curl at the back rather than their hair secured up. It’s easy to see why that was changed; it was awkward during pirouettes.

It was often clear why steps had also been changed over time. Originally, the final pose of the Act 3 pas de deux had Odile in arabesque with her hands on Siegfried’s thigh as he knelt. It forced Kapitonova to drop her arms to reach Jones’ thigh; she nearly lost her balance and wound up clutching his leg to steady 

Zurich’s ballet company mirrored Zurich itself and looked prosperous, its dancing well-engineered. But what Ratmansky was asking for isn’t how dancers are now trained, and at times they looked sideswiped by having to recalibrate. The women’s legs often had a thick, blocky look in extensions from the extra resistance they added to stop their legs from going too high.

Ballets are like the drift of continents; they change slowly and imperceptibly — and that change is not always deterioration. Yet without efforts like Ratmansky’s, we’d have no idea where we started. That knowledge is illuminating and in itself beautiful. Maybe you can’t go home again. But at least you should visit.


Alexander Jones and Viktorina Kapitonova of Ballett Zürich in Alexei Ratmansky's Swan Lake | Photo: Carlos Quezada
Alexander Jones and Viktorina Kapitonova of Ballett Zürich in Alexei Ratmansky’s Swan Lake | Photo: Carlos Quezada