This weekend, 26 dancers will showcase a reimagining of the iconic Swan Lake, turning it from a romantic tragedy to an ecological tragedy.
The show depicts a wealthy developer who wants to exploit a fossil source by the lake, which would desecrate the lake and the habitat for the beautiful wildbird swans. The developer’s son, and the swans, try to fight back and prevent the contamination.
The ‘Swan Lake’ remake coming to the Detroit Opera House is among 50 works by the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, who founded his ballet company in 1984. Preljocaj created the performance in hopes of inspiring people to live differently, to avoid climate catastrophe.
“As a father, I ask myself a lot of questions about what the next generation and the one after that will experience,” said Preljocaj. “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 thirty years. Will our children’s children know what a swan is? I’m not sure.”
Detroit is one stop among several international locations for the dance company, including cities in France, Germany, and South Korea.
Detroiters may feel especially connected to the show’s theme, as residents of a city marred by the effects of the fossil fuel industry, and quite literally, at the Detroit River. Residents are advised to limit consumption of fish caught from the Detroit River due to contamination. The city also experiences asthma rates 46% higher than the state’s average, some of which is due to fossil fuel industry along the river. Just a few months ago, an underground storage tank leaked diesel into the river, and in 2019, uranium and lead contaminated the water after a dock site collapsed.
And some Detrioters, like characters in the performance, fight back against the pollution and environmental degradation, but struggle to protect their health in the face of wealthy entities.
The University of Michigan’s University Musical Society (UMS) partnered with the Detroit Opera House to host the performances.
“Specifically to Detroit, it’s an urgent conversation,” said Michael J. Kondziolka, vice president of production and programming at UMS, referencing the city’s history of industrialism and manufacturing. UMS previously offered Ballet Preljocaj performances in Ann Arbor, but Kondziolka said this show was so special that he wanted to bring it to the opera house.
“We thought that this production is so big and epic in scale, that it made a lot of sense for us to partner with Detroit Opera to make sure the largest number of people got to see it,” he said.
“A lot of people would kind of stand back and think, ‘how could a production of Swan Lake be speaking to environmental issues in Detroit?’” said Kondziolka. “Well, people forget that Swan Lake is a story about the natural world, and the environment, the swans, the animals that need a habitat to exist. And how we as human beings need a habitat to exist in as well, and we’re clearly under siege.”
In the last decade, the world lost 467 species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Today, many more are on the precipice of extinction, like the northern white rhino, of which only two elderly females exist, or the last 10 vaquita porpoises, struggling to survive in Mexico’s Gulf of California. The United Nations has urged action to preserve biodiversity, citing that the current rate of species loss is hundreds of times higher than it has been in the past 10 million years.
Not only did Preljocaj adapt the original theme of ‘Swan Lake’, he rearranged some of the Tchaikovsky score, added electronic music, and incorporated image projections and animations onto the stage. The performance keeps the emotional romance as an underlying motif, blending it with a modern environmental political critique.
“The world of the Lake is one of mystery, fantasy, eroticism through the swans. It is also this that creates the tensions between the father and the young heir of 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, finance, and on the other hand, the lake, still preserved but suddenly threatened. Like water, a rare commodity,” Preljocaj said.
“Having Ballet Preljocaj in Michigan is a wonderfully big deal. It’s not an exaggeration to say they’re the premier contemporary ballet company in France,” said Kondziolka.
France holds a pivotal role in the history of ballet: It originated in the 15th century during the Italian Renaissance and quickly spread to France where it was transformed into its own stand-alone production, separate from the opera.
“Here’s a production of Swan Lake that really satisfies the person that’s wanting to go to the theater to see a big grand spectacle, but also it’s going to leave them really thinking about and talking about environmental issues, in a way that they might not have expected,” added Kondziolka.
Swan Lake will play for three nights, Feb. 17-19. Tickets start at $29 and can be purchased online or by calling (313) 237-7464.