If only the Soviets had had Christopher Wheeldon, the world might have been spared their bollixing of the Western dance world’s crown jewel. Swan Lake had already endured several face-lifts by 1945, when Fyodor Lopukhov orchestrated a wrestling match between Prince Siegfried and Von Rothbart, in which the prince yanks a wing from the magician’s costume, breaking his evil spell and freeing the swan-maidens. Odette then joins her beloved in a Socialist paradise.

Thankfully, not all twists on the original produced happy endings: Erik Bruhn’s 1966 production (for the National Ballet of Canada), for example, had the prince destroyed by the swan corps. In others, the white swan and her faithless lover have suffered assassination, double suicides, accidental deaths by drowning, imprisonment in a mental asylum, and – if memory serves me correctly – a gang rape, in a Swan Lake set in a trailer park (inflicted by a company whose name escapes me. In the winter scenes, the swans wore parkas over their scrawny feathers.)

V Jaiani and d Gutierrez in Wheeldon's <i>Swan Lake</i> © Cheryl Mann
V Jaiani and d Gutierrez in Wheeldon's Swan Lake
© Cheryl Mann

Wheeldon first reimagined this classic for Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004; today, on the Joffrey, at Chicago’s opulent Auditorium Theatre, it looks magnificent, timeless. As with Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, Wheeldon brilliantly frames the classic tale with opening and closing scenes that shift time and place, layering fantasy upon fantasy. This production opens and closes in a rehearsal studio at the Paris Opera in the 19th century, in which dancers comport themselves between Swan Lake rehearsals in the casual manner depicted by French painter Edgar Degas. Costuming by Jean-Marc Puissant, lighting by Natasha Katz (recreated by Christine Binder), the elegant set by Adrianne Lobel and Wheeldon’s rarefied movement transport us magically into Degas’ pastel paintings. The Black Swan action in Act III is played out at a gala dinner with a decadent air redolent of cabaret scenes painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, in which wealthy, top-hatted patrons of the ballet, known as abonnés, wined and dined their favorite dancers, with the expectation of sexual favors.

This stratagem permits Wheeldon to finesse the ending in a poetic manner that is not entirely tragic nor fatuously joyful: in a fury, the swan-maidens turn on Von Rothbart and destroy him – and presumably the entire system of patronage that effectively prostitutes ballerinas – though the spell that turns them into swans remains unbroken. Odette, broken-hearted but eternally dignified, forgives Siegfried his betrayal, and retreats sorrowfully into the lake. The scene shifts back to the rehearsal studio, where the bewildered dancer who portrays the Prince is recovering from his nightmare. In wanders a group of dancers in their practice clothes. The Prince comes face to face with the ballerina who plays Odette… and the curtain falls.

Elizabeth Hansen, Alexis Polito and Cara Marie Gary in Wheeldon's <i>Swan Lake</i> © Cheryl Mann
Elizabeth Hansen, Alexis Polito and Cara Marie Gary in Wheeldon's Swan Lake
© Cheryl Mann

On Saturday night, Victoria Jaiani melted hearts as the pure and damned White Swan, and set men’s pulses racing with her boldly sensuous, self-assured Black Swan. Blessed with a princely physique and courtly manners, Dylan Gutierrez was a strangely remote Siegfried. He adopted the meditative pose of Rodin’s Thinker at the climax of each Act, though the events immediately preceding warranted a complete nervous breakdown. He might take acting lessons from his mother, the Queen – a tiny role in this production, inhabited by Joanna Wozniak with such grace and authority that there could be no debate about who wears the trews in this kingdom.

The eighteen swan-maidens boasted filigree arms, exquisitely hammered by Wheeldon out of both ancient and modern elements. The heartrending beauty of their unison movement, amplifying Jaiani’s interior conflict, was marred only by the clatter of their pointe shoes during their signature hops. Swan footfalls should be silent – though the fault most likely lies in the hollowness of the stage’s sprung floor, not the dancers’ technique. (Ballet companies must contend with a variety of floors that are either nicely springy but noisy, or quiet but uncomfortably hard.)

The only sour notes in this production were hit during the Act III gala entertainment, and by the weak characterisation of Von Rothbart as a sort of zombie drifter, who doubles as a creepy abonné in the studio scenes. The formidable Fabrice Calmels is given little to work with, slinking around and skulking behind furniture in a sort of Judson Church anti-dance aesthetic. Wheeldon boldly introduces a Slavic stripper and a quartet of can-can dancers in the run-up to the Black Swan’s entrance, in lieu of the parade of folk dancers – a masterful move, considering that Odile will prove to be the ultimate seductress. Yet Tchaikovsky simply did not go there – and Wheeldon brushed off a golden opportunity to throw some Offenbach or Khachaturian or Cole Porter into the mix – rendering the striptease and can-can maladroit and jarring.

V Jaiani and R Hohenstein in Wheelson's <i>Swan Lake</i> © Cheryl Mann
V Jaiani and R Hohenstein in Wheelson's Swan Lake
© Cheryl Mann

Overall, however, this Swan Lake resonates more profoundly today than it probably did in 2004. Today, even as ballerinas assume increasing agency – with top dancers flitting from company to company, and agents who negotiate their contracts and endorsements – there are still arcane pressures on dancers. Wheeldon sets his Swan Lake in a historical context in which power struggles – including that most ancient of struggles, between female entertainers and businessmen and politicians – shape what we see on stage: a provocative artistic choice that suggests that we have not really come that far.