It’s strange today, but the music of Swan Lake was considered a failure on its debut for being “symphonic” rather than ballet. The composer’s genius in this work would only be recognized after his death, thanks to Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.
At her debut in March 1877, it was ballerina Polina Karpakova who danced Odette, with Victor Gillert as Siegfried. She was replacing the real star of the production, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, embroiled in a scandal that prevented her from dancing. Without Anna’s talent, with a choreography that went down in history as hideous, there was little the artists could do. With just 41 performances, Swan Lake would be forgotten.
However, before that, Anna got to dance the ballet made for her, but, openly dissatisfied with Julius Reisinger‘s work in the choreography, she had the authorization to ask Marius Petipa, from the Imperial ballet, to change a pas de six of the third actor and replace it with a pas de deux, unique to her. The choreographer complied with the request, using music by Ludwig Minkus, following the formal structure: entrée, adagio, solos, and coda.
Understandably Tchaikovsky was furious at the change in his music and decided to write a new song for the pas de deux. However, as Anna wanted to keep the choreography, it was the composer who took the trouble to make the melody fit with each step and tempo so that all the movements were exact and the dancer didn’t even need to rehearse. She and the musician got along so well that he even added one more variation.
With the failure of the ballet as well as Anna’s possession of the third actor’s passage, both the music and the choreography were lost over time, being accidentally relocated only in 1953, 76 years later, mixed in the scores of Le Corsaire, in the Bolshoi archives. Ironically, Minkus‘ original music for the piece was the one that actually disappeared and no one knows about it to this day.
George Balanchine used the music to create a piece for Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, naming the work simply Tchaikovsky Pas de deux and featuring Karinska‘s costumes. Its premiere was in 1960. The piece is said to be “eight minutes of technique and bravery”, with almost breathtaking acrobatic steps.
Rudolf Nureyev used Tchaikovsky’s pas de deux music in his Swan Lake, with Margot Fonteyn, replacing the traditional melody for the Black Swan‘s pas de deux. Compare the two.