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Distilling the classic story ballet Swan Lake into a drama-packed one-act work, Balanchine expertly depicts the rapture, heartache, and woe of two doomed lovers and the evil that thwarts their romance.
George Balanchine preferred The Sleeping Beauty to Swan Lake, the first of Tschaikovsky’s three full-length ballets, so when asked by Morton Baum of the City Center of Music and Drama, both Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein hesitated at staging Swan Lake for New York City Ballet, and finally did so only as insurance that they would be allowed to mount a more daring piece in the future. Balanchine’s one-act version, which premiered at City Center in 1951 with Maria Tallchief and André Eglevsky in the leading roles, is based on Lev Ivanov’s choreography for Act II, and uses music from both Acts II and IV, the lakeside acts. Balanchine often praised the almost-forgotten genius of Ivanov, whose musicality served as an inspiration for the young choreographer.
NYCB’s first production of Swan Lake was designed by Cecil Beaton, who created calligraphic scenery and costumes, white ink on black grounds, following pen and ink drawings by 16th century German painters. In 1964, with NYCB’s move to Lincoln Center, Rouben Ter-Arutunian created a new set for the larger stage, which replaced Beaton’s designs with a painted landscape. In 1986 the production was redesigned once more by Alain Vaes who created an icy landscape instead of the traditional Gothic lakeside, and dressed the corps of swans in black, which Balanchine may have been planning in 1981 when he mysteriously ordered 400 yards of black tarlatan. When asked to justify this odd request, Balanchine merely said, “There are black swans as well.”
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