By Steve Sucato
Former American Ballet Theatre (ABT) star Susan Jaffe has danced more than her fair share of Swan Lake productions in her career. Her first in the lead role of Odette-Odile came at ABT when she was just nineteen in what The New York Times called, “a beautiful triumph.” She then danced it again every year of her 22-year career, including productions in England, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark.
For her first crack at staging her own version of the iconic ballet with choreography after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 production, Jaffe had a lot to draw on from in her career. From those many productions she danced, she culled the best bits to add to hers. And while Jaffe has made some alterations to Petipa and Ivanov’s storyline, at its core, her Swan Lake remains very traditional and will be familiar to hardcore balletomanes and casual ballet audiences alike. That includes the use of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s beloved original score for the ballet played live by the PBT Orchestra under the baton of Charles Barker.
One of “the big five” classical story ballets, Swan Lake is a mix of romance and tragedy in four acts that tells the story of Princess Odette, cursed by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart to live as a swan by day and only able to assume her human form at night. When the young Prince Siegfried stumbles upon her transformation from a swan into a beautiful maiden, he discovers that the spell cast on her can only be broken if her true love swears his love and faithfulness to her. The ballet then follows Odette and Siegfried as they fall in love and seek to break Von Rothbart’s curse while Von Rothbart and his daughter Odile endeavor to thwart those efforts.
So, what makes Jaffe’s new production different?
Beyond bringing a wealth of knowledge on Swan Lake and how to dance it to PBT’s performers, especially its four casts of Swan Queens, Jaffe’s biggest changes come in making this supernatural fairy-tale, oddly enough, more believable.
In doing so, the ballet’s first act has Siegfried celebrating with aristocrats and not the usual peasants since Jaffe feels aristocrats would be more likely to be the Prince’s friends. Jaffe also characterizes Siegfried as being distraught over his impending forced marriage which prompts his running into the forest to escape that situation and to find his own path in life. Jaffe has also enhanced the role of Benno, Siegfried’s close friend, and she has created new character dance choreography as well as all of act four’s choreography.
Another change toward believability involves Odile being seen as more of a siren rather than in some portrayals her being cruel to Siegfried. The thinking is it’s more likely Siegfried could be seduced into thinking Odile was Odette and not so gullible as to think Odette suddenly developed an abusive personality.
The most noticeable of Jaffe’s changes that will be obvious to anyone familiar with Swan Lake is the ballet’s ending.
“To me, the swans are Odette’s court,” says Jaffe. So, when Rothbart’s spell was put on her, it was also put on the court maidens in her kingdom. The only way to break the spell and free those women is for Odette to sacrifice herself.”
Jaffe sees Odette’s sacrifice as also being a lesson in leadership for the privileged Siegfried who is willing to throw away his former life and responsibilities as Prince to run off and be with her. For that lesson to be learned, Jaffe, instead of having the two lovers leap off a cliff to be with one another eternally, has Siegfried live and aid in the demise of Rothbart.
The ballet then ends with a scene Jaffe borrowed from a production she danced in Europe. In it, the swans are transformed back into maidens of the court through some stage trickery.
“I thought that ending was so smart,” says Jaffe. “I always thought it was odd that [in many productions] even when Rothbart’s spell is broken, the swans are still flying. I wanted us to see that the spell had actually been broken.”
The production also marks another end, that of beloved 16-year company member, Principal dancer Alexandra Kochis who will retire from PBT after Swan Lake. The Massachusetts-native, formerly of Boston Ballet will perform the Swan Queen roles of Odette/Odile on Saturday, May 7 at 2 p.m., with her swan song performance being Saturday, May 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Of Kochis’s retirement, Jaffe says, “She is a complete professional and knows what she is doing. She has been a role model for the younger dancers in the company as to how to behave and present themselves. It has been really great to have her here.”
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performs Susan Jaffe’s Swan Lake, May 6-15 at the Benedum Center, Pittsburgh, PA. Tickets are $29-$114. For more information, showtimes, and tickets, visit pbt.org.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.