California Ballet’s Swan Lake – The Names Behind the Steps

Swan Lake ink

California Ballet is presenting our full-length Swan Lake on May 18 and 19, 2013 at the San Diego Civic Theatre. Swan Lake is one of the world’s most loved ballets, filled with romance, sorcery, betrayal and deceit. It’s the art form at its finest, and has only improved over time as ballet icon after ballet icon has put their own signature touches on the choreography.

California Ballet’s version of this quintessential ballet was choreographed by Thor Sutowski and the late Sonia Arova. Yet, like all geniuses, Thor and Sonia knew when to stand on the shoulders of giants, and the entire Act II of our Swan Lake uses the original choreography by Lev Ivanov.

Now, you may be asking, who are these people that put their touches on the ballet? Who’s this Lev guy that was so influential that California Ballet had to use his choreography? Well, let’s take a look at the choreographers who made this ballet legendary.

Swan Lake first made it’s appearance on the ballet stage at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, 1877. The original choreography was by a man named Julius Reisinger. Reisinger was the ballet master for the Russian Imperial Ballet at the time, and an uninspiring one at that. The only thing he was ever noted for was his failure with Swan Lake, which brought an end to his time as ballet master.

Yup. Ballet’s most beloved production was a flop the first time out. Peter Tchaikovsky’s score (Swan Lake was his first) was considered too complex and Reisinger’s choreography was called “lackluster.” The ballet was a critical failure in 1877, and ended up being shelved for twenty years.

It wasn’t until the Tchaikovsky’s death that Swan Lake would get a second chance. In tribute to the great composer, a man by the name of Lev Ivanov re-choreographed the second act (that’s the one with the lake and swans) for Tchaikovsky’s memorial concert. His re-imagination of the second act was so popular, that Ivanov and his master, Marius Petipa, were commissioned to breath new life into the old ballet. With a rewritten libretto, and a rearranged Tchaikovsky score, Swan Lake became the ballet that the world over associated with the art form at its finest.

Who are are these choreographic masterminds?

Marius Petipa 1898

Marius Petipa is considered one of the greatest ballet choreographers to ever grace the stage. He dominated the Russian Imperial Ballet as Ballet Master for 30 years, producing over 50 ballets. Talk about prolific! The three ballets he is most keenly remembered for, however, are his collaborations with Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty,  and Swan Lake. Petipa is often credited with creating the framework of the classical story-book ballet with dancing that furthers the storyline, a section of divertissement pieces that are simply dances for entertainment (think the variations in Act II of The Nutcracker), and everything culminating in a grande pas de deux. The technique required to execute a Petipa ballet was often very demanding, pushing the dancers to higher levels. Many of the solos Petipa choreographed were created with specific dancers in mind, leading to each solo being specifically tailored and stylized. Many dancers today still consider the work of the 19th century genius to be the ultimate challenge to the perfection of their technique.

But to think that Petipa did it all alone would be foolish. Always trapped in his shadow was another choreographic giant of the time, Lev Ivanov. Petipa viewed his assistant as a threat to his career, so always kept the man firmly under his thumb. The truth of the matter is, Ivanov create many works during his career, and all of them ended up with Marius Petipa’s name on them because that was the ruling of the Imperial Theater’s director. Petipa was ballet master, and he was the one who would see the glory.

200px Lev Ivanov St Petersburg circa 1885

But, Ivanov was able to bring something to the Imperial stage that Petipa could not: an amazing sense of musicality. This would become especially apparent when working withthe complex music provided by Peter Tchaikovsky. In fact, the two ballets that are arguable the most famous and beloved of all should be credited to Ivanov: The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Petipa may have gotten the credit for The Nutcracker, but he was bedridden with illness when it came time to stage the ballet. Instead, Lev Ivanov did all of the work under Petipa’s name, and the ballet we see today , as well as the popularity it has gained, is truly due to Ivanov’s brilliance.

And remember how we mentioned that the re-staging of Swan Lake led to it being given a second chance? That’s right, it was Ivanov who re-choreographed that second act. When the ballet was given a green light to be restaged in its entirety, Petipa was given acts one and three, and Lev Ivanov was given acts two and four to choreograph. Just in case you’re wondering, acts two and four take place on the lake with the enchanted swans. When you think of the ballet Swan Lake, what image pops into your head first? 

Yeah, we thought so.

Ivanov never truly saw the spotlight or the glory that he deserved in his time, but his musicality, paired with the technical demands learned from Petipa, made a mark on the ballet world. The two choreographic giants together reassured that their story ballets would become a part of every ballet company’s repertoire across the globe. That’s why California Ballet’s version by Thor Sutowski and Sonia Arova made the decision to include Lev Ivanov’s Act II choreography in their version. The way the choreography becomes a part of the music instead of just being informed by it will impress and stun you!

But, what about Thor Sutowski and Sonia Arova? Who are they? Why is California Ballet using their version?

Both Thor and Sonia – a husband and wife team, but the way – are well known and much loved by the San Diego dance community. They are also internationally renowned dancers of some stature.

Sonia arova

Sonia Arova is internationally recognized as one of the great 20th century  ballerinas. She danced with the original Ballet Russes, the Royal Ballet, the National Ballet of Washington D.C., and ABT. In fact, she was even Rudolph Nureyev’s partner for the ballet legend’s American debut! For her outstanding achievements in ballet, she was knighted by King Olav V of Norway, making her a Dame. But, as amazing as she was as a dancer, some of her greatest work happened while directing, choreographing, and teaching. She served as the director of the National Ballet of Norway, co-directed the San Diego Ballet with Thor Sutowski, became the Artistic Director for Alabama Ballet and a faculty member at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and an Artistic Advisor for California Ballet. In all of these capacities, her greatest contribution to the world of dance was teaching and shaping some of the greatest dancers of the recent generations. Her sense of musicality, photographic memory for choreography, and understanding of a dancer’s needs made her unarguably one of the greatest ballet instructors and directors of the late 20th century.

Working side by side with Dame Sonia Arova was her husband, and fellow famed ballet dancer, Thor Sutowski. Like Dame Arova, Mr. Sutowski is a principal dancer of international fame. He danced with many famous ballet dancers, including Margot Fonteyn, Natalia Makarova, and George Balanchine. But, just likeSutowski thor his late wife, Mr. Sutowski’s greatest achievements would be seen once he hung up his ballet slippers. His work as a teacher, coach, choreographer, and mentor have shaped many up-and-coming dancers into the finest of their time. His choreography has been seen around the world, and has even received three Emmy Awards! He co-directed the San Diego Ballet with his wife, served as a resident choreographer for the Atlantic Ballet and Dance Chairperson for the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and was the Associate Director of California Ballet. His sense of style, love of the art form, and natural empathy with those under his tutelage make him a much loved and well respected figure in the dance community.

Together, this husband and wife team are responsible for the full-length version of Swan Lake that has been a part of the California Ballet Repertoire since 1997. The ballet was originally set on our company by Thor and Sonia themselves in 1997, and each successive time Mr. Sutowski has been present to ensure that style and choreographic integrity not only remains consistent, but is improved upon with each iteration. Dame Arova’s musicality paired with Mr. Sutowski’s vision blend to create something that is unique, dynamic, and believably gorgeous! Amazingly, but not surprisingly, Thor’s and Sonia’s choreography blends seamlessly with the 120 year-old choreography by Lev Ivanov. The resulting production is monumental in stature, emotionally cathartic, and thoroughly enchanting. California Ballet’s Swan Lake shows the workmanship of not one choreographic genius, but three.

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If you haven’t seen Swan Lake, you owe it to yourself to experience what is easily the greatest and best known ballet in history. Join California Ballet Company at the San Diego Civic Theatre on May 18th and 19th, 2013 for the full-length Swan Lake, starring Dutch National Ballet Principals Maia Makhateli and Artur Shesterikov.

For tickets and information call (858) 560-6741 or go online to


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