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Beryl Grey on the differences between the Bolshoi and Covent Garden "Swan Lake" productions

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This was posted on a Facebook page - the text is a quote from Grey's 1958 memoir "Red Curtain Up".  

Lots of points of interest here.  The Royal Ballet "Swan Lake" in the fifties was done by Nicholas Grigorievich Sergeyev after the original 1895 Gorsky/Petipa.

Things had changed a lot in Moscow by the fifties.

In her 1958 book Beryl Grey describes a difference between The Swan Lake she danced in London and Alexander Gorsky's version appended by Asaf Messerer on stage in Moscow during her famous (or infamous, depending on your political views) tour to the USSR in 1957-58. Note usage of term "Black Swan pas de deux" that did not exist in Russia at the time.

"For me the main differences between the Bolshoi and Covent Garden versions lay in the mime scenes. These were almost entirely eliminated in Moscow and dancing substituted, which often contained elegant arabesques and simple poetic arrangements, all expressing the music and helping the story.

Act II having been re-staged, all the groupings and patterns of the swans were different, even including their first entrance, which in this version came before the Swan Queen’s. Even the pas de deux in Act II between Odette and Siegfried had in some parts a different pattern and direction.

In Moscow, Von Rothbart played a more significant part, and the audience was made fully aware of his power over Odette and Odile. There were no huntsmen accompanying the prince, so the moment when the swans assemble in fear of being shot did not come. They were in a different place on the stage, and the Swan Queen did not appear for their protection, but to look for the prince.

I thought the absence of Benno, the prince’s friend, was a great improvement. In the West he plays an important part in the famous pas de deux , but I have always thought this somewhat distracting, for it is surely more convincing as an expression of love when danced by only two people. I was told that Benno’s part was only put in because the original Siegfried was a man of fifty [Pavel Gerdt, ed.] who needed some relief from the strain imposed by the long, exacting pas de deux! In Act I instead of Benno the Bolshoi version had a court jester who also appears in Act III. Particularly impressive was the long, slow lift of the ballerina by the prince in Act II, shortly before she is drawn away by Von Rothbart.

In Act III the dramatic impact of Odile was intensified by the way in which the divertissements are arranged to lead up to her first appearance. After that first entrance she has only to wait for one more divertissement — the Spanish Dance, which is the most brilliant and exciting of all the numbers. This makes a perfect lead into the famous Black Swan pas de deux , which is always eagerly anticipated by the public.

The Russian arrangement of this pas de deux is almost entirely different from ours. Though I learned it fully later, Semeyonova was insistent that for our performances Yuri [Kondratov] and I should follow as nearly as possible my Western version. She suggested several alterations to the Act II pas de deux , however, adding little touches which she thought would enhance my interpretation, and which I could absorb thoroughly in the short time available before the opening. My solos, of course, were not altered in any way, apart from some help given in their execution.

Act IV I had to re-learn entirely. It had completely different choreography, including a spectacular pas de deux for Odette with the magician, and some beautiful supported work with the prince. The groupings of the corps de ballet and their numerous exits and entrances towards the latter part of this act heightened the drama effectively. Much use was made of the swan-like movements here. The choreography had been done skilfully by Messerer, so that it did not seem out of harmony in any way with the choreography of Gorski but rather appeared a natural extension of his work in Act II. The ending of the last act was quite different from any I had seen. The prince fought the magician and broke off one of his wings. With his power lost, the magician died and the spell was broken. The swan-maidens were released and regained their human forms. Odette and the prince were united.

I found almost all the mime had been eliminated in this act. So, with the added music and dancing, the Moscow version of Swan Lake became an even greater feat of endurance than that familiar to ballerinas in the West."


History of "Swan Lake" productions at Royal Ballet:




Edited by FauxPas
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Youtube clips of the performances in question:

1950's Bolshoi "Swan Lake" as danced by Maya Plisetskaya and Nikolay Fadeyechev (abridged Soviet propaganda film):

Beryl Grey in Moscow:

Royal Ballet version with Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes and Benno.


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