Evil spirit exorcised from `Swan Lake'

The Bolshoi's new ballet is causing controversy, writes Helen Womack in Moscow
A new production of Swan Lake has opened at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, where the stagnant repertoire is at last being refreshed after the departure of the so-called "dictator of ballet", the former artistic director Yuri Grigorovich.

But his replacement, Vladimir Vasilyev, has yet to win the hearts of Muscovites with his new version of the popular classic, in which he has taken the controversial decision to drop the evil black swan.

Vasilyev, who promised to bring a belated dose of perestroika to the Bolshoi after he ended Grigorovich's 30-year grip on the ballet in 1995, knows that he may disappoint those in the audience who love to hate the baddy. But he justifies dropping the black swan on the grounds that she was not originally envisaged by Tchaikovsky.

The composer's first ballet, dating back to 1877, was not much of a success when it was initially staged, and Tchaikovsky was so disappointed that he waited 14 years before venturing to write another. He died never knowing that Swan Lake would come to be appreciated.

The St Petersburg choreographer Marius Petipa brought in the black swan when he revived the ballet one year after Tchaikovsky's death. The story is that Prince Siegfried falls in love with a maiden turned into a white swan by a magician. But by mistake, he swears eternal love to an evil black look-alike.

Grigorovich, who first staged his version of the ballet in 1969, wanted the romantic prince to die tragically as a result of his failure to reconcile the pure ideals of the white swan and the dark fantasies of his subconscious, represented by the black swan. But he was working in the darkest days of the Brezhnev era. Soviet cultural watchdogs insisted on a happy ending and, rather than ruin his career, Grigorovich bowed to pressure.

Dancers who went on strike in support of Grigorovich before he was forced to retire said he was a victim of his time and no more of a dictator than any other ballet master. Vasilyev is more co-operative with the media than his predecessor. And he keeps his dancers on their toes by insisting that they have renewable contracts, a shocking change for artists brought up in the Soviet jobs-for-life system. His artistic achievements have yet to be judged, however.

Many Russians are cynical about Swan Lake, since the Communist hardliners who tried to oust Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 kept repeating the ballet on television in the hope of distracting popular attention from the coup.

Nevertheless, tickets were sold out for the first night, coinciding with Western Christmas, which some New Russians think it chic to celebrate before the traditional New Year holiday and the Russian Orthodox Church Christmas in January.

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