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Swan Lake

Houston Ballet Caps the Season with Romantic Classic Swan Lake

From June 5-15, 2014, Houston Ballet revives Stanton Welch's vibrantly theatrical staging of Swan Lake, which he created for Houston Ballet in 2006. Set to the hauntingly beautiful Tchaikovsky score, Swan Lake tells the classic tale of Odette – a beautiful maiden transformed into a swan by an evil knight – and the prince who swears his enduring love for her. It's good and evil in black and white, danced on rich and spectacular sets by the late, great New Zealand designer Kristian Fredrikson.

Writing in the May 2006 edition of Dance Magazine, editor in chief Wendy Perron observed of Mr. Welch's staging:

"Artistic director Stanton Welch's Swan Lake, with spectacular costumes and sets by the late Kristian Fredrikson, is a fresh read on the classic story . . . this is an emotionally rich, visually stunning, uplifting production…In Act I, Welch added a rousing dance for the men on their way to the hunt. Emerging singly from their social clusters, they danced with zest and virility, then slipped smoothly back into the groups. The dance not only showed off the company's strong male contingent, but also gave dazzle to the choreography and momentum to the narrative." 

One of the most famous and frequently performed works in the international repertoire, Swan Lake was first performed at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1877, with a specially commissioned score by Tchaikovsky. The production was not an overwhelming success at its premiere. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Dance, "neither the ballet nor its ballerina were well received." On March 1, 1894, Act II of Swan Lake, featuring choreography by Lev Ivanov, was performed for a Tchaikovsky memorial. The Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov production, which became the definitive version, was performed at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on January 27, 1895.

Mr. Welch, who collaborated with Mr. Fredrikson on Swan Lake, was inspired by John William Waterhouse's painting, The Lady of Shalott (1888). Waterhouse (1849-1917) was a British Neo-Classical and Pre-Raphaelite painter well-known for works featuring female characters from mythology and literature. The painting, which is based on Lord Alfred Tennyson's poem by the same title, depicts a tragic maiden afloat on a lake. Mr. Welch commented, "When I saw this painting I said, 'This is our Odette.'  Here is a woman, a young heroine, lost in a forest by a lake, touched by tragedy."

Inspired by Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Mr. Fredrikson's designs feature maidens in long flowing gowns, dozens of white swans, Rothbart as a menacing dragon-like monster, four glamorous and steely black swans, sumptuously outfitted Hungarian, Neapolitan, Russian and Spanish princesses, and a royal court boasting costumes made of brocade, cut-velvet, and pearl-encrusted, sequined fabrics. There are more than 50 tutus, 45 costume designs, 31 characters, and 70 headpieces.  The costume for Rothbart alone took Houston Ballet's costume shop more than 600 hours to produce.

Mr. Fredrikson was a distinguished performing arts designer whose 40 year career encompassed ballet, opera, contemporary dance, theatre, exhibitions, film and television. Born in Wellington, New Zealand, Mr. Fredrikson started attending art classes at Wellington Polytechnic College while working as a journalist and critic in Wellington newspapers. Theatre and in particular ballet was an early interest and escape for Mr. Fredrikson, who soon became apprenticed to a local theatrical designer. In 1963 he joined the Melbourne Theatre Company as resident designer, a position he held for eight years, collaborating with distinguished directors John Sumner and George Ogilvie on over forty productions. During his lifetime Mr. Fredrikson worked on productions for Sydney Dance Company, The Australian Ballet and Opera Australia. He collaborated with Mr. Welch on five ballets: Of Blessed Memory (1991), Cinderella (1997) and The Sleeping Beauty (2005) for The Australian Ballet; the Pecos Bill section of Tales of Texas (2004) and Swan Lake (2006) for Houston Ballet.  Mr. Fredrikson's design for Swan Lake was the final work of his long and distinguished career.  He died in November 2005, and the production was dedicated to his memory.

Mr. Fredrikson's work has been recognized through numerous awards, including four Erik Awards, six Green Room Awards, three Helpmann Awards, and in 1999 he was recognized by an Australian Dance Award for services to dance. In 1995 he was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Arts Centre Melbourne and in 2008 the Kristian Fredrikson Scholarship for Design in the Performing Arts was established.

As the first composer who produced symphonic music for ballet, Tchaikovsky created in Swan Lake something that delighted dancers and music lovers. For many, the musical melodies from Tchaikovsky's lush score are synonymous with ballet. Houston Ballet Music Director Ermanno Florio worked with Stanton Welch to organize Tchaikovsky's original score in such a manner that it perfectly suits Mr. Welch's vision for the work.

Commented Mr. Florio, "As we began discussing the arrangement for his Swan Lake, Stanton and I agreed that we would try to keep to the original Tchaikovsky score by using as much of the original music as possible in its original order, with few cuts within the individual musical numbers. For example, Stanton wanted the White Swan pas de deux and the Black Swan pas de deux music to be performed as is traditionally done, and we restored all of the music for the harp cadenza before the White Swan pas. 

"Stanton organized the ballet into three acts with two intermissions. This would require combining the original Act I and Act II. As the musical numbers that end the original Act I and that start the original Act II are similar, Stanton decided to keep the Act 1 finale music (which is usually cut) and create a pas de deux on it. Also, in the 'White Act' (the second half of Stanton's Act I), we decided to use the waltz three times, as in the original.

"Additionally, there are two wonderful pieces of music in the appendix to the musical score of Swan Lake that are rarely used in the full-length version of the ballet: the music used by Balanchine in his Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and a fabulous solo for violin called Danse Russe. Stanton is using the 'female variation' music from the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and all of the Danse Russe in this version of the ballet."

Houston Ballet performed the world premiere of Stanton Welch's Swan Lake on February 23, 2006 in the Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center in Houston, Texas. In his staging of Swan Lake, Mr. Welch made slight changes to the story, "the most critical of them," as William Littler noted for the Toronto Star, "showing the prince falling in love not, as fairytale tradition dictates, with the feathered swan queen Odette but with the human princess she originally was." (March 11, 2006).