The Rich History of Swan Lake

Swan Lake dates back to 1877, when Julius Reisinger choreographed the ballet for the Bolshoi Theatre. The ballet was set to a score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who had never composed for ballet before. While the ballet did not initially have much success, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov produced a new production twenty years later, that was met with critical acclaim. The first full-length production of Swan Lake in the United States was premiered by SF Ballet at the centennial celebration of Tchaikovsky’s birth on September 27, 1940. All three Christensen brothers were involved: it featured Willam’s choreography and both Lew and Harold dancing in the production.

Today, only one ballerina portrays the dual roles of Odette and Odile, but for Willam’s production, he chose to divide the role between two dancers. Janet Reed, known then as the Company’s then-prima ballerina, was cast as Odile, and Jacqueline Martin performed the role of the white swan, Odette. Lew danced the lead role of Prince Sigfried while Harold appeared alongside him in the role of Benno, Prince Sigfried’s friend.

Author Debra Hickenlooper Sowell noted in her book The Christensen Brothers: An American Dance Epic, “Willam’s version of Swan Lake stressed the tragic side of the tale. In the final struggle between good and evil, represented by Siegfried’s love for Odette versus the evil influence of Rothbart, evil triumphed… As always, Willam encouraged his dancers to accentuate the dramatic aspects of the plot.”

SF Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake. (© Erik Tomasson)

Christensen’s Swan Lake became a beloved staple in SF Ballet’s repertory for many years until 1988 when newly appointed Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson created a brand-new production. Based on the Petipa/Ivanov version, Tomasson’s Swan Lake would serve the Company for the next 21 years. Of this version, dance writer Cheryl Ossola noted, “He retained much of the choreography and all of the spirit of the Petipa/Ivanov version while making changes that clarified the story.”

In 2009, inspired to revamp the production, Tomasson collaborated with a team of artists to create a whole new look for Swan Lake. Tomasson said, “Swan Lake is the most well-known story ballet of all the full-lengths, and probably the most universally loved. I didn’t want it to become a museum piece. I felt that this was the right time [to update it], and I found the right designer.” The design team is made up of scenic and costume design by Jonathan Fensom, who designed the scenery and costumes; Jennifer Tipton, who designed the lighting; Sven Ortel, who designed the projections and video; and Michael Ward who designed the production's hair, wig, and make-up. 

Today Swan Lake is as popular as ever. Ossola notes, “The staging, environment, costumes, lighting, plus the added component of the projections combine to make the story clear and compelling…the visual components of this Swan Lake are sleek and contemporary, yet still echo the ballet’s centuries-old themes and emotions.”