This was Kenneth MacMillan’s final production at the Deutsche Oper before he returned to London to direct the Royal Ballet and it remained in the company’s repertoire for many years afterwards. In a characteristically distinctive reinterpretation of a classic, MacMillan yet again behaved as an analyst to his stage characters.
With a few deft brush-strokes he presented the story of Swan Lake in an entirely new light, centering the ballet on the Prince. During the overture the curtain rises to reveal him sleeping. What follows is the Prince’s dark nightmare. In the apotheosis there is a quick-change surprise happy ending: he wakes to find a young woman – his ideal – in front of him.
In her biography of Kenneth MacMillan, Different Drummer, Jann Parry cited MacMillan’s draft in English of the programme note: “I have made the Prince a young, freedom-loving man, raised in a court that is suffocating him by the fact that his mother is arranging a marriage for him. To compensate for this the Prince develops into wild fantasies and dreams. Therefore the whole ballet becomes a dream, in which he must struggle against forces that prevent him from reaching full maturity as a man, and the freedom of choice that he desires.”
The figure of Rothbart, who lent a sinister glamour to the staging, is the Prince’s inner demon; the Swan Queen he summons up is a false heroine; and when in the final act Rothbart is overcome by the Prince, he is revealed as Death. “The translation of the old bird-bogyman into our old friend, The Dark Stranger”, wrote The Observer’s Alexander Bland, “adds a new dimension of romanticism and adds an undertone of Hamlet to the hero’s character. His relationship to the phantom on the balustrade hints strongly at Rothbart as a father-figure from whom he seeks release.”
Nicholas Georgiadis, against convention, set the production in the Napoleonic period. The structure was essentially traditional; Act One is virtually intact, but with new court dances by MacMillan and the pas de trois given to four dancers. Later there was a new Black Swan pas de deux. Of the performances, Bland noted that Seymour was “theatrical as ever, though not yet sufficiently recovered from her recent illness to give quite her old theatrical punch”, while Frey had “inborn stage presence and a fine generous movement.” In her biography, Lynn Seymour recalled of Frei that other dancers called him the Neanderthal Man. “His quirky dance qualities appealed to Kenneth who always sought anti-cliché dancers. He thought we were the most strikingly odd couple he had ever seen in Swan Lake.”
First performance: Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 14 May 1967
Company: Ballet of the Deutsche Oper
Cast: Lynn Seymour, Frank Frey, Gerhard Bohner
Score: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Design: Nicholas Georgiadis