Reconstruction is the new innovation. Most 21st century choreographers have exhausted modern vocabulary, creating works increasingly deprived of narrative pretext. Full-length ballets of bygone days had been lurking below the surface, ready to steal the spotlight again. Alexei Ratmansky – (former artistic director of the Bolshoi and artist in residence at American Ballet Theater) – has been a reliable archeologist over the years, advocating for the revival of vividly theatrical ballet evenings. 

Alexander Jones (Siegfried) and Viktorina Kapitonova (Odile) © Carlos Quezada
Alexander Jones (Siegfried) and Viktorina Kapitonova (Odile)
© Carlos Quezada
No ballet has had such far-reaching an influence as Swan Lake. It is cemented by a transcendent union of music and dance. Yet there's not much left of the famous 1895 version that was choreographed by Petipa and Ivanov at the Mariinsky theatre. Ratmansky revived part of it, thus bringing the ballet closer to its initial argument. And quite magically, what was old became new again. 

Ratmansky’s Swan Lake brings a fairy tale alive. Odette wears a real crown; she is more of a princess than a swan. Pantomime is omnipresent. No buns allowed; women’s hair move beautifully in ponytails. What’s more, the hackneyed dichotomy between the virgin and the seductress has been toned down, if not torn apart, by a less "black and white" approach to women. Speaking of which, Odile comes out in multicolour tulle, the black-feathered tutu nowhere to be found. Indeed, there is no such thing as a black swan Odile in early versions of the ballet. 

Viktorina Kapitonova, a Russian trained principal of the Ballett Zürich, made the evening an otherworldly vision. Graceful, long-limbed and definitely swanish, she powered through the 19th century unfamiliar choreography with needle-sharp precision. Even though Ratmansky aims to emphasise the human side of Odette, Kapitonova couldn't help but remind us of the supernatural DNA which flows through her heroine's veins. Her weightless arms seemed to have a life of their own and a Russian mysticism permeated her every move. 

Fortunately, the first act's pastoral style meets Ratmansky's demand for naturalism. The villagers' party is reminiscent of Giselle's carefree peasant atmosphere. No one can tell a tragedy is at hand. Alexander Jones' Siegfried embraced his princely status with ease, pointedly oblivious to duty. Indeed, his character was narrowed to near zero intensity. A Disney prince, Jones was neither melancholic nor rebellious towards his social condition, just living in the moment along with his male companions.

Dancers of the Zurich Ballet and Junior Ballet © Carlos Quezada
Dancers of the Zurich Ballet and Junior Ballet
© Carlos Quezada
In the first scene the ensemble may have encountered difficulties adapting to the style; frenzied footwork and low extensions sometimes ended up in a clumsy commotion. The corps de ballet, it turns out, proved brighter in the 3rd act's character dances and in the 4th act swan-maidens variations. 

This new-old Swan Lake was roughly robbed of the psychological turmoil that the 1877 Moscow première had seeped. Freud-friendly versions of our time tend to eclipse the narrative in favour of a symbolic interpretation. Ratmansky focused on the crux of the matter. The romance between Odette and Siegfried achieved a realistic status. Extensive mime sequences were restored for the sake of a clearer argument – that's how Swan Lake gave way to a play on pointe. Heart-wrenching languor showed in their embraces and the love story itself became more human. 

Through Ratmansky’s time-machine, the choreography underwent stunning changes. Expressive and elaborate pas de trois were introduced again between Siegfried, Odette and Benno (the prince’s best friend). When Kapitonova's Odette dropped motionless in Siegfried's arms, in the most delicate way, she heralded a doom-laden outcome. 

Viktorina Kapitonova (Odette), Alexander Jones (Siegfried) and dancers of the Zurich Ballet © Judith Schlosser
Viktorina Kapitonova (Odette), Alexander Jones (Siegfried) and dancers of the Zurich Ballet
© Judith Schlosser
Tchaikovsky's legendary music sounds rather unfamiliar in the last act. Teardrops of Drigo’s revisions are part of the final nocturnal act, which ballet goers often picture as a mourning procession of cursed women to their fate. La Valse Bluette for instance, with its both melancholic and hopeful patterns, seems too light-hearted for the drama that is at stake. This moment should be a display of white agony. Yet Ivanov had white and black swans beautifully waltz on it. Jerome Kaplan's white feathered tutus remain a wonder to the eye. But as aesthetically haunting as it is, the fourth act still doesn't make sense dramatically. Even the ending is somewhat confusing.

Tchaikovsky is said to have poured his darker torments into his masterpiece. He married without love, because life left him no other alternative – so he thought – and translated his sorrow into introspective music. In present-day versions of Swan Lake, Siegfried's psychological complexity is thought to mirror Tchaikovsky's own conflicts. The 1895 version that Ratmansky partly revived waves that theory away as a retrospective illusion. Prince Siegfried is not much more than a "white tights character", devoid of emotional depth. Ratmansky may have stayed true to Petipa's-Ivanov's legacy but he betrayed Tchaikovsky's inner intentions, sadly enough. Hadn't the ballet been such a clever and exquisite revival, such a divorce would have been lèse-majesté.

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