A ‘Swan Lake’ for our dystopian times

The classic ballet is recast in ecological terms for Detroit Opera House presentation

Feb 9, 2023 at 8:00 am
click to enlarge Ballet Preljocaj performs Swan Lake. - JC Carbonne
JC Carbonne
Ballet Preljocaj performs Swan Lake.

Swan Lake is more than just Black Swan — it’s one of the most legendary productions of all time. First staged in 1895 with music by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, this libretto-turned-ballet was initially considered a failure but has gone on to become one of the most beloved productions in the world. And now, this ballet that has stood the test of time is coming to Detroit, reinterpreted as a modern-day dystopian nightmare.

Ballet has a long history of commissioning productions based on fairy tales and folk stories; the original Swan Lake was inspired by Russian and German tales and tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by a sorcerer. However, this version of Swan Lake is firmly rooted in the present, using a polluted, industrial playground as the backdrop to a story of eco-consciousness and villainous businessmen whose actions threaten the safety of wildlife.

The production is the work of French contemporary choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, who will bring his version of Swan Lake to the Detroit Opera House in February through a partnership with Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society. Preljocaj has brought four previous shows to Ann Arbor, including a production of Snow White.

“I always have three words each time I start a new creation,” Preljocaj tells Metro Times. “These three words are ‘text,’ ‘context,’ and ‘pretext.’” He says his idea was to take the words “swan” and “lake” and, through word association, draw meaning and symbols from the words to create a new narrative.

“When I started to work on Swan Lake finally, the first thing I did was to read the title,” he says. “What is a swan? Swan, in our context, is an animal, and because of climate change, maybe this animal will disappear from the Earth. And a lake is a huge water reserve, and with climate change [raising] the heat of the planet now there are a lot of lakes that have started to disappear, and also there is a lot of pollution with industry.”

For the music, Preljocaj felt the score had to both reflect tradition as well as embrace the present, and while the original Tchaikovsky score is used in most of the production, Preljocaj added new additions using electronic music by 79D to heighten the mood and introduce an aspect of futurism in the production. “I wanted to connect my story to the industrial world,” he says.

Swan Lake is the crown jewel of many companies, being one of the most technically demanding ballets produced. Preljocaj’s vision takes from the original creation, with lines and formations inspired by Marius Petipa’s original staging. Though the famous 32-fouetté turn sequence is missing, Preljocaj describes this production as a conversation between him and Petipa.

“I think choreographers can discuss beyond the time, and it’s very nice for me to have a kind of discussion with my use, an imaginary discussion with Marius Petipa, through the choreographic steps, through the choreographic lines, through the choreographic movement,” he says.

Preljocaj asks the audience to see Swan Lake beyond the tale of Odette and Odile, and to examine how the way we live affects the lives of the precious creatures around us, and the responsibility we have to protect the Earth.

And though ballet has had a reputation as an art form enjoyed only by the wealthy and labeled as “old-fashioned” and complicated, Preljocaj says he aims for accessibility with this production, and encourages audiences who might not be familiar with ballet to watch it as if it’s a film.

“Sit in the seat and look at this ballet, like a movie, in a certain way,” he says. “It’s because the story is still obviously very mysterious, but also very connected to our world. And it’s kind of a thriller in the subject. I think all the different elements are very dynamic, and the story keeps going.”

Coming soon: Metro Times Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting Detroit stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.

Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter