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The Prologue

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It seems a good amount of Swan Lake productions performed nowadays include a prologue at the beginning of the ballet. "The audience is made aware that something strange is going on." "It provides background." And "To show whose story it is" are a few of the reasons I've heard/read.

Most of the prologues I've seen (ABT, POB, La Scala,) show Odette being captured and turned into a swan, while others (Staatsoper in Berlin, Royal Swedish Ballet) center on Siegfried.

Is the prologue a necessary addition to the ballet, or really desirable? Does it make the ballet better? More complicated?

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I like it - but I would rather more attention be spent on the character of "Rothbart." Explain who he is and how he comes into the picture and why he has captured Odette... But the music may not be long enough for all of this rushed explanation.

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If the production is one that retains the major mime speeches/dialogues, a prologue is unnecessary. Odette tells Siegfried what happened to her in Act II; we don't need to see it twice. Likewise, Siegfried's conversation with his mother in Act I tells us his situation. Even if the mime is removed, a principal dancer still ought to be skilled enough to convey the general idea.

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Only if the film or video credits are rolling, so they don't roll over the start of Act I.

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If the production is one that retains the major mime speeches/dialogues, a prologue is unnecessary. Odette tells Siegfried what happened to her in Act II; we don't need to see it twice. Likewise, Siegfried's conversation with his mother in Act I tells us his situation. Even if the mime is removed, a principal dancer still ought to be skilled enough to convey the general idea.

While I agree with this in principle, I think it is perhaps expecting a bit much from the general audience.

A lot of people do not find the mime very accessible. I love it (and really prefer when it is included) but to the lay modern audience I don't think it is easily understandable.

I don't think the prologue is necessary, strictly speaking, but I think it probably *does* enrich the experience for a lot of viewers, and I don't find it distracting or to diminish the strength of a production. Its short, if you don't like it you can close your eyes and listen to the music :P

Additionally, in ABTs (much criticized) production, where you have *2* versions of Von Rothbart--the swamp thing and the suave princely VR--the prologue serves to clarify that distinction/connection, eliminating possible confusion when the elegant Rothbart shows up for the ball with Odile.

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Even if the audience doesn't understand the mime, that doesn't make a prologue necessary. The dancers should be good enough actors to convey the basic idea, and the audience can read the synopsis in the program.

I've lost patience with the 'just close your eyes' reaction to bad choreography: If I wanted a concert, I'd go to the symphony.

And I would respond to ABT by telling them that if they hadn't needlessly complicated things in the first place, they wouldn't have to explain it all with a prologue. :P

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I always cynically think one reason this is done is the same reason when older Broadway musicals are revived, the overture is choreographed or staged. They feel that audiences will get bored not being immediately *thrown* into the action. I dunno, not every stage piece needs an overture but I do think that there's something to be said for listening to the overture and letting it "get you into" the piece you're about to see. For me, seeing a live theatrical show I'm always a bit distracted till the 30 minute mark or so when I fully forget about my problems in life or at home, my surroundings and (if it's good) get thoroughly "into" the piece, be it a Tchaikovsky symphony, a Pet Shop Boys concert, Sleeping Beauty ballet or A Little Night Music on Broadway. The overture helps with this.

I know in musical theare more and more "intense" pieces do without an intermission at all cuz they say it's so hard to "bring an audience back" after they've gone back out "to the real world" had drinks, chatted about the show, etc, and a short entr'acte can help. I just think that often some sort of instrumental overture gets people more into the feel of the piece than suddenly thrust into the action. Of course it seems nowadays many people spend the overture as time to talk to their friends, text people, and do other things--basically as "pre show music"...

With Swan Lake in particular I sorta feel it gives away some of the surprise by showing us the backstory--and some of the magic (I feel the same about Nutcracker using the overture to show the nutcracker being cursed or similar things--like at the Royal, but not as strongly)

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Even if the audience doesn't understand the mime, that doesn't make a prologue necessary. The dancers should be good enough actors to convey the basic idea, and the audience can read the synopsis in the program.

I agree. Plus, it seems to me a Swan Lake prologue is an attempt to explain something that can't be explained in the first place. Sorcerers don't exist and women can't be changed into swans; it's a fairy tale and there's no way to make it realistic, no matter how much 'back story' the audience is given, so why bother?

BTW, SFB's new SL (premiering next week) will have a prologue. Here's an excerpt from Swan Lake chapter of the Season Guide:

" 'Helgi said that though it's called Swan Lake, it was always Siegfried's story, because he was the character you were introduced to first,' says [designer Jonathan] Fensom. 'We wanted to make it Odette's story, and to do that we needed to introduce her then [in the prologue].' "

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Perhaps it depends on whether you want your Swan Lake to be poetry or prose.

Even if the audience doesn't understand the mime, that doesn't make a prologue necessary. The dancers should be good enough actors to convey the basic idea, and the audience can read the synopsis in the program.
In truth, great acting isn't really necessary. As Martine van Hamel demonstrated (in her final SL, partnered by Kevin McKenzie, so he saw every moment), the story is in the choreography. It's just a matter of making the movements mean something. In the Act II adagio, in arabesque facing upstage towards the lake of her mother's tears, she stretched longingly towards it, pivoted back downstage and, as she bent forward before swooning, you could sense a sigh. And so on, and so on. It almost -- almost -- made the mime unnecessary. In fact, Act II was a seamless blending of mime and dance.

That performance took place in the early 1990s, and I never saw one like it (even from van Hamel, whose performances I always tried to catch) before or since. I don't understand why van Hamel hasn't passed this eloquent interpretation along to some of ABT's current O/Os. Maybe she's tried and they either rejected it or couldn't make it happen. :dunno:

Only if the film or video credits are rolling, so they don't roll over the start of Act I.
:)

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Over with Prologues and stuffed swans...(can't stand that). That's what Google is for, if anybody wants to see what the performance will be about. The Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami started their production with a weird Prologue, showing a caravan of mourners following a coffin being carried away. Among the mourners are Siegfried and his shaky mom, so one assume that the ballet starts by telling us that this is the kid's turn to be in command from then on after his father's death. Didn't like it either. Let Mr T's beautiful music do the magic.

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Over with Prologues and stuffed swans...(can't stand that). That's what Google is for, if anybody wants to see what the performance will be about. The Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami started their production with a weird Prologue, showing a caravan of mourners following a coffin being carried away. Among the mourners are Siegfried and his shaky mom, so one assume that the ballet starts by telling us that this is the kid's turn to be in command from then on after his father's death. Didn't like it either. Let Mr T's beautiful music do the magic.

See I actually like this idea of the mourners etc. I guess it just depends on how the choreographer or person setting the ballet wants the story to be told. And to what kind of audience it is for.

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The music in the Prologue introduces Odette's theme, so it does make sense to introduce Odette herself and give her a back story. It depends on how you do it. When so much "story" is concentrated into so little time, you actually need better structure and acting than most companies are able or willing to provide.

McKenzie's version -- which I just looked at again on YouTube -- is story-telling at its most ham-fisted, relying on quick costume changes to make dramatic points (Rothbart into gentleman; Odette into Swan).

I have less confidence than Hans in the communicative power of traditional mime in the modern world. I agree with carbro that the answer probably lies in great acting, though that is a rare skill. Also, I suspect that the Swan Lake experience does not really require a literal, cover-all-bases narrative structure -- IF it is danced by principals who know how to communicate feeling.

My own preference is for the traditional theater experience of: (1) lights go down, (2) music establishes a mood(in the sense of overture), (3) curtain rises. This gives the audience a chance to settle down. It also gives time for a sense of anticipation, even suspence, before you actually SEE anything.

Modern audiences seem to respond best with lots of visual information and stimulation. Maybe it IS preferable, given current realities, just to tell some kind of story in the 3 or so minutes of the Prologue. Rather like the "dumb show" in Hamlet's version of "The Murder of Gonzago."

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Of the three major significant versions of the ballet performed in Russia today, the version performed at the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theatres has the prologue in musical form only. I'm not sure if the Bourmeister version performed at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre in Moscow has a performed prologue, though.

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Of the three major significant versions of the ballet performed in Russia today, the version performed at the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theatres has the prologue in musical form only.

Do you mean they play the written overture with the curtain (or front scrim) down?

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Do you mean they play the written overture with the curtain (or front scrim) down?

Yes. The April 2006 Mariinsky Ballet performance that is now available on DVD/Blu-ray disc has the orchestra play the entire Prologue with the big main curtain down.

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Here's an excerpt from Swan Lake chapter of the Season Guide:

" 'Helgi said that though it's called Swan Lake, it was always Siegfried's story, because he was the character you were introduced to first,' says [designer Jonathan] Fensom. 'We wanted to make it Odette's story, and to do that we needed to introduce her then [in the prologue].' "

I look forward to hearing how he does this. Until then, color me baffled. :wink:

Swan Lake is Siegfried's story and was conceived as such. That's why we are introduced to one lead at his party and the other after the wizard has cast his spell on her. Turning it into Odette's story would mean omitting the birthday party, because that has nothing to do with her.

Later on, in Act III, she is not the one with the dilemma of choosing a mate. How does a stager shift the POV to Odette (who actually only "appears" as her spirit, not her person, as it were) in the act? Are we to assume that she has magical powers?

McKenzie's staging is beginning to look maybe not so misguided.

Good luck, Bay Area balletos. :beg:

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Later on, in Act III, she [Odette] is not the one with the dilemma of choosing a mate. How does a stager shift the POV to Odette (who actually only "appears" as her spirit, not her person, as it were) in the act? Are we to assume that she has magical powers?

I had always heard the ball was held too early for Odette to assume human form at midnight. (Or is it sundown?) Therefore, the image of Odette that appears in the ballroom scene is NOT a spirit. It is the swan at the window trying to get Siegfried's attention. (Though some Odettes boo-hoo a lot too.)

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In the Dudinskaya/Sergueiev clip they introduce an animation of the swan flying and getting the attention of Siegfried. In Cuba there is no show of Odette in any form at this sequence, but it does make sense to me that she flies and shows up at the window in her swan nemesis.

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Thank you everyone for your responses! This is an interesting discussion.

Over with Prologues and stuffed swans...(can't stand that). That's what Google is for, if anybody wants to see what the performance will be about. The Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami started their production with a weird Prologue, showing a caravan of mourners following a coffin being carried away. Among the mourners are Siegfried and his shaky mom, so one assume that the ballet starts by telling us that this is the kid's turn to be in command from then on after his father's death. Didn't like it either. Let Mr T's beautiful music do the magic.

See I actually like this idea of the mourners etc. I guess it just depends on how the choreographer or person setting the ballet wants the story to be told. And to what kind of audience it is for.

The DVD of Sir Peter Wright's version for the Royal Swedish Ballet has a prologue showing the funeral procession of the king, among the mourners Siegfried, the Queen Mother, and Benno. Of all the prologues I've seen I have found this one the most effective. It sets the mood of this production and shows the prince, instead of simply displeased his carefree days are over, having to assume a lot of responsibility sooner than he expected.

Swan Lake is Siegfried's story and was conceived as such. That's why we are introduced to one lead at his party and the other after the wizard has cast his spell on her.

I agree. Sir Wright made a comment on the DVD to the effect of, "Swan Lake is Siegfried's story, but the ballerina's ballet."

Introducing Odette at the opening of the ballet takes away, at least for me, some of the magic when she makes that grand jete onto the stage, sealing her and Siegfried's fate.

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Thank you everyone for your responses! This is an interesting discussion.
Over with Prologues and stuffed swans...(can't stand that). That's what Google is for, if anybody wants to see what the performance will be about. The Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami started their production with a weird Prologue, showing a caravan of mourners following a coffin being carried away. Among the mourners are Siegfried and his shaky mom, so one assume that the ballet starts by telling us that this is the kid's turn to be in command from then on after his father's death. Didn't like it either. Let Mr T's beautiful music do the magic.

See I actually like this idea of the mourners etc. I guess it just depends on how the choreographer or person setting the ballet wants the story to be told. And to what kind of audience it is for.

The DVD of Sir Peter Wright's version for the Royal Swedish Ballet has a prologue showing the funeral procession of the king, among the mourners Siegfried, the Queen Mother, and Benno. Of all the prologues I've seen I have found this one the most effective. It sets the mood of this production and shows the prince, instead of simply displeased his carefree days are over, having to assume a lot of responsibility sooner than he expected.

Swan Lake is Siegfried's story and was conceived as such. That's why we are introduced to one lead at his party and the other after the wizard has cast his spell on her.

I agree. Sir Wright made a comment on the DVD to the effect of, "Swan Lake is Siegfried's story, but the ballerina's ballet."

Introducing Odette at the opening of the ballet takes away, at least for me, some of the magic when she makes that grand jete onto the stage, sealing her and Siegfried's fate.

True. Plus I dont' know if this is just me, but I sense that ABT's Prologue shows a different, more contemporary approach to the choreographic style and general atmosphere that that of the rest of the ballet . It feels out of place. Is McKenzie's intention to clearly show that this is him and not Petipa/Ivanov or whatever the traditional sources...?

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Do you mean they play the written overture with the curtain (or front scrim) down?

Yes. The April 2006 Mariinsky Ballet performance that is now available on DVD/Blu-ray disc has the orchestra play the entire Prologue with the big main curtain down.

Just to be clear--Swan Lake as written by Tchaikovsky does not have a prologue. The ballet starts with Act I, preceded by an overture.

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Sir Wright made a comment on the DVD to the effect of, "Swan Lake is Siegfried's story, but the ballerina's ballet."

Wonderful comment !!! :D Depends on whether you consider the "story" most significant -- or the "ballerina." Wright apparently decided to focus on Siegfried's back story. (Set to Odette's music, however. See below.)

If you focus the audience's attention on Siegfried, there's not really a need for a Prologue. The first scene in effect BECOMES the prologue to the most significant experience in his life.

Rudolph Nureyev famously complained that Siegfried has "nothing to do" in the ballet. He then set about in the 60s refocusing the audience's attention to the "Siegried story," adding solos, switching music around, etc. Later (for Paris, iin the 80's) he merged Siegfried's Tutor with Rothbart. This is interesting and enjoyable as a variant. But it's not the Swan Lake most of us want to see again and again.

I prefer to focus on Wright's claim that SL is "the ballerina's ballet." If you agree with Wright, it makes sense to use Odette's musical theme (or the suggestion of her theme) in the "Introduction" as the opportunity for showing us her back story.

So what about Act I (i)? No one on stage even knows that Odette exists. It's been suggested that having a Prologue takes away the sense of the Prince's birthday party which follows. I don't agree. No one on stage knows about Odette, but WE know. Our awareness of her imprisonment hovers over the scene and infuses our experience of it. It adds texture and emotional depth to Siegfried's discontent, which he feels but cannot understand. Later, in the lakeside scene, Siegried will learn the story from Odette herself. This is a revelation for him, but a confirmation for us.

Great drama is full of instances like this, when the audience is "in on the secret" long before the protagonist finds it out. Those of us who know the SL story by heart don't need a Prologue. We already have the information. But what about those who don't have it? Maybe they do need a little extra visual assistance.

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Do you mean they play the written overture with the curtain (or front scrim) down?

Yes. The April 2006 Mariinsky Ballet performance that is now available on DVD/Blu-ray disc has the orchestra play the entire Prologue with the big main curtain down.

Just to be clear--Swan Lake as written by Tchaikovsky does not have a prologue. The ballet starts with Act I, preceded by an overture.

I assumed Sacto was referring to the overture, which is what has been used as the Prologue music...

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In video, the Introduction is often used as a sound backdrop to the credits. (A rather different kind of "prologue," come to think of it. :D )

For those with a copy of John Roland Wiley's Tchaikovsky's Ballets: have a look at p. 65.

There you'll find:

-- the first 4 bars of the melody of the Introduction;

-- the first four bars of the "swan theme" (with its inversion of the introduction's four note scale in measure 2);

and

-- the melody that accompanies the first appearance of Odette.

Wiley writes:

The introduction of Act I promotes unity through the entire work. While nothing it contains is quoted later, the melodic affinity of its opening melody with the swan theme, and the smilarity of its powerful orchestral outburst [the Allegro ma non troppo at bar 36] to the music of the storm at the end of the ballet, make it an exordium in the best sense: not only does it introduce the work, but also announces in brief the essence of the tragedy to come.

I had to look up "exordium," which my ancient Webster's defines as "a beginning or introduction esp. to a discourse or composition."

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