1984 – Swan Lake

Piotr Ilytch Tchaïkovski – Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov

Swan Lake seen by Rudolf Nureyev

“To me, Swan Lake is one long daydream of prince Siegfried. Reared on romantic reading, his desire for infinity has been fired and he refuses the reality of the power and the marriage forced on him by his tutor and his mother.

To escape from the dreary destiny that is being prepared for him, he brings the vision of the lake, this “elsewhere” for which he yearns, into his life. An idealized love is born in his mind, along with the prohibition that it represents. (The white swan is the untouchable woman, the black swan the reverse mirror image, just as the evil Rothbart is a corrupt substitute for Wolfgang, the tutor).

And so when the dream fades away, the sanity of the prince does not know how to survive.”


Already omnipresent in the world of ballet as an element for transformation, for purification and for regeneration, the theme of water could but attract Nureyev, the choreographer, whose heroes and heroines try to get away from their situation, their entourage, their closed and stifling worlds, and escape to the often imaginary “elsewhere”.

Swan Lake, based on an imaginary theme with this love of the prince for a young girl/bird who is a poetic and unreal creature, is servant to numerous symbolic and psychological interpretations.

In the Petipa/Ivanov version handed down by Russian tradition, the choreographic and dramatic interest is centred on the ballerina who plays and dances a dual role; Odette, white swan-lyrical showcase, and Odile, black swan-dangerous seductress, the prince being reduced to become the instrument of fate. Nureyev completely reversed the situation.

Nureyev was invited during his first season at the London Royal Ballet to dance the role of Siegfried in the June 1962 production rearranged by Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton. Here it was that, at the end of Act I, he took the liberty of introducing a new variation, choreographed around the andante sostenuto which precedes the pas de trois in the score and which used to be habitually cut. This melancholic, dreamy solo expressing Siegfried’s yearning for an ideal world was considered so good that the Royal Ballet has kept it in the various versions of Swan Lake which have since followed.

In October 1964, when Nureyev undertook his own version of the complete work at the Vienna Opera House, he choreographically fleshed out the role of the Prince, and above all, developed his psychology, using fantasies which lead him to ruin as he runs frantically after the illusion of a woman/swan.

“The charismatic dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, created a Swan Lake, insofar as choreography, which, contrary to previous productions, made the Prince the principal character in the dramatic action: first of all sad, prey to “melancholy”, then in love, finally deceived and ending up destroyed. In fact, the outcome could only be tragic with Rothbart setting a dreadful storm in motion which swallowed Siegfried up in the waves.

In the performance of his Swan Lake at the Paris Opera in December 1984, Rudolf Nureyev went even further…


Twenty years later, its creation was deepened and radicalized: the woman/swan suddenly appeared in a dream. Everything took place in Siegfried’s head. In comparison with his version from Vienna, Nureyev reintroduced a prologue in which we can see the prince sleeping in an armchair, and being disturbed by a nightmare: a bird of prey captures a young girl who transforms into a swan which he carries away into the sky. This vision forecasts the end of the ballet, and can be interpreted in light of a Freudian analysis:

“In a section of his scientific documents dealing with the flight of the vulture, Leonardo da Vinci suddenly breaks off, following a memory which crept up on him suddenly from the depths of his earliest childhood. “It would appear that I was destined to take so complete an interest in the vulture as I recall to mind one of my earliest memories from when I was still in the cradle: a vulture coming right down to me…”

Leonardo reveals in an obscure but clear way, by linking his train of investigation to the “fantasy” of the vulture, and emphasizing the flight of birds as being a problem on which, by some strange quirk of destiny, he would have been forced to work. Written in a prophetic style, a really obscure passage in his notes dealing with bird flight best shows the great emotional interest which bound him to the desire to be able to imitate the art of flight himself:
“This big bird will take his first flight from the back of his great swan…”

Why do so many men dream of being able to fly? The psychoanalysis provides the answer here: because to fly or to be a bird is only an obscure form of another desire. (…) the desire to be able to fly, as a dream, means nothing other than the intense desire to be capable of sexual activities.” Sigmund Feud (extract from the 1943 “Leonardo da Vinci and a childhood memory”).

Then Odette, the white swan, and her opposite, Odile, the black swan, are mental projections of Siegfried’s desire.
Rothbart, the bird of prey, becomes the evil double of the tutor, Wolfgang, who exercises a genuine hold over the prince’s mind as the director of his conscience.

Siegfried experiences an obsessive feeling of guilt as he is refusing what his mother is lovingly offering him: the power (having come of age, he is going to reign) and the freedom to choose himself a fiancée (as he is of an age to get married).
Not wanting neither one nor the other as both scare him, deep down he does not want to grow up or become part of the adult world, he takes refuge in his dreams: we could believe Siegfried to be an autistic teenager.

In addition, Rudolf asked the set designer Ezio Frigerio to build a prison area, a sort of sanctuary, a stage design for “imprisonment” (from these high, white “gothic” walls, sometimes allowing a glimpse of some of Claude Monet’s white water lilies: the lake of a better hereafter).
The costumes of Franca Squarciapino with their muted, faded colours, as if seen through a hazy filter also participated in this dreamlike effect.

Reading on a second level, it could be said that Siegfried preferred to focus his affection on a sublime but inaccessible creature, no doubt to repress his latent homosexuality (he lives in his palace, surrounded by young men: as revealed by the Polonaise in the first act, instead of the “dance of the cups” which is usually performed by couples).

Finally, it is possible to find several autobiographical echoes in this Swan Lake: in the authority of a feared father against which he had to struggle (the combat of Siegfried and Rothbart in the fourth act: it is difficult to “kill” the father!), in this enthusiasm, this devotion for a woman-icon that he admires and respects (Dame Margot? or is it a question of a transformation of the Ballet itself which his father had forbidden him from continuing?).

In all events, the final 1984 version of Swan Lake by Rudolf Nureyev is a long way from the insipidness generated by simplistic performances, and with its psychoanalytical extensions follows in line with the trend going from John Cranko (1963) to John Neumeier (who, in 1976, turned his prince into King Louis II of Bavaria haunted by his delusions) breathing into classical ballet a theatrical logic and audacity that the contemporary choreographers (from Mats Ek to Matthew Bourne) had no hesitation in injecting into the old myths.


Learn more Swan Lake is the first of the ballet music commissioned from Tchaikovsky. It was performed for the first time in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on the 4th March 1877 (20th February, according to the old Russian calendar) with choreography from Julius Wenzel Reisinger. Sadly, the production was judged mediocre which meant the ballet quickly disappeared from the stage. Ten or so years later, the dazzling successes, in Saint Petersburg, of Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892), originating from the collaboration of Tchaikovsky with the talented Marius Petipa, guaranteed the composer’s “revenge”. And it was after Tchaikovsky’s sudden death, due officially to cholera but perhaps a question of suicide, on the 6th November 1893 that the French choreographer thought about exhuming the score for Swan Lake.

The actual creation of Swan Lake with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov which became the reference version took place on 27th January (15 January according to the old Russian calendar) in 1895, two years after the disappearance of the composer. Swan Lake remained unknown for quite a long time in the west. It was Diaghilev’s “Russian Ballets” as for Sleeping Beauty, who performed the Petipa-Ivanov version, rearranged by Fokine, for the first time in London in 1911 with Mathilda Kschessinksa and Vaslav Nijinski.

In 1936, Serge Lifar staged several excerpts from Swan Lake at the Paris Opera in France, and then in 1946, Victor Gsvosky restaged the whole of the second act with Yvette Chauviré and Serge Peretti at the Palais Garnier. But it was not until 1954, when the London Sadler’s Wells Ballet were invited to the Palais Garnier, and 1956, when the Nemirovitch-Dantchenko company from the Stanislavski Theatre in Moscow performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet, that the Parisians discovered the complete version of Swan Lake. The complete version of Swan Lake was not, however, included in the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet until 1960, in the form of Vladimir Burmeister’s version. Thereafter, it was this version which was performed from the Palais Garnier to the Cour Carrée in the Louvre (1974 and 1976) and the Palais des Sports, until Rudolf Nureyev’s new production in 1984.

René Sirvin – Ballet critic for Le Figaro :

“Looking from a choreographical view point, a number of details make this last version of Swan Lake by Rudolf Nureyev stand out from the other choreographers:

in Act I the choreographer transforms the “Pas d’action” into a brilliant variation for Siegfried and the “Dance of the cups” into a masterly Polonaise, solely for the male dancers (sixteen male dancers divided into four groups”.

in Act II which keeps Ivanov’s choreography, Nureyev restores the prince’s variation which used to be habitually cut after the dance of the big swans.

in Act III the famous pas-de-deux by the “black swan” becomes a pas-de-trois with the casting of a brilliant variation to Rothbart, who also participates in the initial adage of the piece.

in the final act just like Vladimir Burmeister, and using the same music: excerpt from a pas-de-six which was written for Act III and which used to be habitually cut, the choreographer puts a grand adage for the last meeting of the despairing lovers before the final ending.

And, in the finale whilst, in the version performed in Vienna, Siegfried drowns in the lake, the waters of which the wicked Rothbart had caused to overflow; here, in the Paris Opera version, Rothbart rises up into the sky, a bird of prey holding the princess Odette, forever transformed into a swan, triumphantly in his claws while Siegfried, recognizing the image from his premonitory dream, looks on with a wild staring look in his eyes.


The different versions of “Swan Lake”


Vienna Staatsoper Ballet
First night was the 15th October 1977 at the Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna State Opera House.
Scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev as guest artists.
(Rudolf Nureyev danced in 51 of the 126 performances of this production given by the Vienna Opera Ballet between 1964 and 1988)
There were 89 curtain calls for the “first night” in Vienna! This event is in the “Guinness Book of Records”.


Paris Opera Ballet
First night was the 20th December 1984 at the Palais Garnier
new version
Scenery by Ezio Frigerio – Costumes by Franca Squarciapino with Elisabeth Platel and Charles Jude, as well as Patrice Bart (Rothbart / Wolfgang, the tutor)** and Karin Averty, Yannick Stephant, and Eric Vu-An in the “pas de trois” in Act I.
Karin Averty and Stéphane Prince danced the Czardas in Act III; Sylvie Clavier, Marie-Claude Pietragalla, Wilfried Romoli, and Eric Cu-An, the Spanish dance; and Yannick Stephant and Jacques Namont, the Neapolitan dance.
This production was performed again at the Palais Garnier in 1985; in Créteil, Washington, and New York in 1986; in Copenhagen in 1987, at the Palais Garnier, in New York and Washington in 1988; at the Grand Palais for “La Danse en Révolution”, and at the Athens Festival in 1989; at the Palais Garnier in 1990; in Brussels in 1991; in the Bastille Opera House in 1994; in Ferrare, and Nice in 1995; at the Palais Garnier in 1997; and in the Bastille Opera House in 1999 and 2002.

1990 – “Il Lago dei cigni”

Scala Opera Ballet in Milan
First night was the 7th July 1990
same production as that at the Paris Opera
with Isabel Seabra and Charles Jude (guest artist), as well as Rudolf Nureyev (playing Rothbart).

** Rudolf Nureyev also performed the dual role of Rothbart and Wolfgang, the tutor, at the Palais Garnier in 1985; in Washington and New York in 1986; in Copenhagen in 1987; again at the Palais Garnier, in New York and Washington in 1988; at the Grand Palais in Paris and at the Athens Festival in 1989; and at the Scala Opera House in Milan in 1990.