Sounding a Siren with ‘Swan Lake’

Bridging Ballet and Contemporary Choreography with a Call to Climate Action

Sounding a Siren with

‘Swan Lake’

Bridging Ballet and Contemporary Choreography with a Call to Climate Action

By Leslie Dinaberg | February 23, 2023

Preljocaj Ballet brings a contemporary twist to the classic ‘Swan Lake’ February 25-26. | Credit: Courtesy

A bold and innovative interpretation of one of the most iconic and timeless ballets is in store for us this weekend with Ballet Preljocaj’s two performances of Swan Lake, February 25-26 at The Granada Theatre. Presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures, the beloved Russian “story ballet” of Swan Lake, with its magical and immediately recognizable Tchaikovsky score, was first performed in 1877, predating even the composer’s classic The Nutcracker, which was first performed in 1892.

French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, whose works are already ranked as contemporary classics, is known for alternating large narrative ballets with more abstract pieces. He created his own distinctive version of Swan Lake for his Aix-en-Provence–based company, the Preljocaj Ballet. The critically acclaimed artist — who studied both classical ballet and contemporary dance before founding his own company in 1984 — shared some of his insights about his take on this timeless story of love, betrayal, seduction, and remorse, and what audiences can expect to see in Santa Barbara.

Choreography for bare feet, rather than on pointe, is one of the contemporary dance features of this ballet. | Credit: JC Carbonne

Some describe Swan Lake as the “Mount Everest” or highest peak of the ballet world. First, do you agree with this characterization?  Angelin Preljocaj: Yes, totally. The Lake is Everest for a choreographer. It’s the title that immediately comes to mind when you’re asked to quote a ballet; it’s even become a concept. Works like Swan Lake are ultimately rituals that connect us.

 And second, what made you want to take on this production at this time?  When I discovered Swan Lake when I was 10 years old, it made a big impression on me at the time, but then when I went down the road of contemporary dance, Swan Lake became the work to avoid at all costs. Until very recently, I was very frightened by this music. It is so full of clichés — when you hear the music of Swan Lake, you see steps. So you have to fight against the tide to invent something new.

And it was while working on a short piece on pointe in homage to Marius Petipa [Ghost] that I started working on the Lake. It made me want to continue! But this time without the pointe shoes! Contemporary dance is anchored in the ground, and I don’t give up on it: A bird takes support in the ground before taking flight. I am looking for a way of rising in the work of the arms, the jump, the way of getting up.

This production of Swan Lake transposes the classic story with the context of today’s society. | Credit: JC Carbonne

Can you tell us a bit about the environmental themes that run through your new vision of Swan LakeI wanted to transpose the tale into the world of industry and finance. But it was not possible to make a Swan Lake without keeping this mysterious dimension, where water takes on a special meaning. The original symbols — the eroticism of the swan, for example — are things I wanted to play with. But at the same time, I wanted to reconnect them to our societal issues.

The world of the Lake is one of mystery, fantasy, and eroticism through the swans. This is also what creates the tension between the father and the young heir to the financial empire, who is so opposed to his father because he is a nature lover, who loves the lake. Two worlds clash: the city, industry, and finance; and on the other hand, the lake, still preserved, but suddenly threatened. Like water, a rare commodity. There is a dramaturgy that leads to catastrophe and that is played out against the backdrop of the lake, which is about to be desecrated by the refinery or drilling plant, the model of which we see in the first act.

How do you get from a romantic tragedy to an eco-tragedy (assuming that’s a correct characterization)?  As a father, I ask myself a lot of questions about what the next generation and the one after that will experience. Our era underlines this great gap between a somewhat terrifying world (especially as the period of creation was in the COVID period) and a desire for something else.

I wonder what kind of world we are going to leave them when I see the world my daughters live in, a world where 600 species have disappeared in the space of 30 years. Will our children’s children know what a swan is? I’m not sure.

Angelin Preljocaj’s interpretation of Swan Lake promises an interpretation of the swan-dancer unlike anything we’ve seen before. | Credit: JC Carbonne

Why do you think classical ballets like Swan Lake lend themselves so well to modern retellings?  Works are meant to be revisited. The context of what we live in is always very important to me, very inspiring — to put a work back into our society is exciting.

In addition to the thematic update, you also put a contemporary spin on the musical arrangements and the choreography. Can you tell us a bit about both of those?  Tchaikovsky’s music really takes the cake. I had to resist. But not very well. It’s such a joy to let yourself slide on this score! I interjected a bit of atmospheric music with 79D [the group has previously worked with Preljocaj on productions ranging from Ghost to Snow White] to play the counterpoint. And to give me the pleasure as soon as it stops to hear the composer again.

We hear that Santa Barbara is one of just three stops in North America for this tour, along with the Mondavi Center at Davis and the Opera House in Detroit for UMS (University Musical Society). How did you decide on where to stage this production? And how did you choose the performances in Santa Barbara as one of the places you would visit?  We have several long-standing relationships with major American presenters, and we wanted to bring this new Swan Lake to the long-term partners who were able to host us in this limited period. We certainly hope to bring Swan Lake to other audiences across America in future seasons.

Swan Lake shows Saturday-Sunday, February 25-26, at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). For more information and tickets, see or

Credit: JC Carbonne


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