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The history of Swan Lake in Finland

Swan Lake’s century-long journey with the Finnish National Ballet

Swan Lake, which was the first ever ballet to be staged at the Finnish Opera in 1922 and seen at the opening celebration of the new Opera House in 1993, has been one of the most important works in the history of the Finnish National Ballet. It was also performed to mark the 10th anniversary of the Finnish National Ballet in 1932, 40th anniversary in 1962, and 50th anniversary in 1972.

By the time Swan Lake premiered in Helsinki in 1922, it had only ever been performed by Russian and Czech ballet groups, and only visiting Russian ballet groups had brought it to Western Europe.

The Finnish National Ballet had the honour to perform Swan Lake on its first ever grand overseas tour in Stockholm in 1946. This was the first time the ballet was seen in its entirety in Sweden. To date, the Finnish National Ballet has performed Swan Lake more than 700 times.

Swan Lake had its world premiere in Moscow in 1877, and the Petipa–Ivanov choreography on which most of today’s versions are based, was first performed in 1895.

As more than a century has passed, the ballet has evolved. Aesthetic ideas, the movement language of dance, technical possibilities and the expectations of the audience have all changed drastically. The development of Swan Lake reflects the development of the entire ballet genre in Finland. 


At the time of Swan Lake’s Finnish premiere in 1922, many dancers in the recently established group still only had the skill level of students. Despite this, the performance was received enthusiastically, and it was a landmark event in the Finnish culture scene. Even the President of the Republic, K. J. Ståhlberg was seen in the presidential box with his wife. The newspaper reviews included explanations of what ballet, described as “beautiful and dramatic movement art accompanied by instruments,” actually represents.

Premiere 17 January 1922
Mise-en-scene by Marius Petipa
Choreography rehearsed by George Gé
Odette/Odile Mary Paischeff / Valentina Pavlova / Margit Lilius
Siegfried George Gé
Performed 42 times

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The 10th anniversary of the ballet was celebrated by bringing a fully revisioned Swan Lake back to the repertoire. Ballet had evolved considerably in the past ten years, and George Gé had also found new confidence as a choreographer.

Premiere 30 January 1932
Choreographer and Director George Gé
Set design Martti Tuukka
Costumes S. Veseloff
Odette/Odile Irja Aaltonen / Lucia Nifontova / Helena Tangijeva-Birzniece / Olga Spessivtseva
Siegfried Arvo Martikainen
Performed 17 times

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Soon after the war, ballet master Alexander Saxelin was tasked with rechoreographing Swan Lake. Saxelin who was enjoying a successful career as a choreographer had already discovered Swan Lake in St. Petersburg, and his version of the final act in particular was praised for decades to come. In 1946 the Finnish National Ballet also took this Swan Lake to Stockholm, where only Gé’s choreography of the second act had been performed before.

Premiere 18 October 1945
Choreography Alex. Saxelin
Sets Olavi Karpalo
Odette/Odile Lucia Nifontova / Irja Koskinen / Margaretha von Bahr / Eva Hemming / Hannele Keinänen / Elsa Sylvestersson
Siegfried Klaus Salin / Arvo Martikainen / Uno Onkinen / Jaakko Lätti
Performed 118 times

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In 1953 Mary Skeaping from England who was working at the Royal Swedish Opera was invited to revive Swan Lake. Skeaping’s version was based on extensive notes brought by Nicholas Sergeyev from St. Petersburg to London, to which she also added her own elements. Skeaping’s Swan Lake also made media history, as it was live broadcast by TES-TV from the old Opera House on 30 January 1957. This was the first ever remote broadcast on Finnish television, before the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle was even established.

Premiere 12 Novermber 1953
Choreography Mary Skeaping, after Sergeyev’s version of Petipa–Ivanov choreography
Sets Wäinö Aaltonen (Janos Horvath 1957)
Costumes Janos Horvath 1957
Odette/Odile Elsa Sylvestersson / Margaretha von Bahr / Doris Laine / Maj-Lis Rajala / Irina Hudova / Irina Tihomirnova / Marianne Orlando / Sofia Golovkina / Beryl Grey / Margot Fonteyn / Raisa Struchkova / Ninel Kurgapkina / Marina Svetlova / Elsa-Marianne von Rosen / Nina Timofeeva
Siegfried Klaus Salin / Uno Onkinen / Jaakko Lätti / Leonid Zhdanov / Heikki Värtsi / Michael Somes / Yuri Kondratov / Semjon Kaplan / Björn Holmgren / Nikolai Fadeyechev
Performed 85 times

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The new Swan Lake of 1957 came to the Finnish National Ballet from Moscow. It differed in several ways from its predecessors, which had been based on versions from Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The end, for example, had Odette ascend towards the glow of the sunrise in the spirit of Soviet optimism. Besides resident dancers, the lead roles were performed by visiting global stars from both the East and the West.

Premiere 26 October 1957
Choreography Lev Ivanov, Aleksander Gorski, Asaf Messerer
Sets and Costumes Janos Horvath (Costumes Seppo Nurmimaa 1963–)
Odette/Odile Doris Laine / Margaretha von Bahr / Maj-Lis Rajala / Lisa Taxell / Raisa Struchkova / Olga Moiseeva / Elsa Sylvestersson / Svetlana Beriosova / Maya Plisetskaya / Yelena Ryabinkina / Claude Bessy
Siegfried Boris Hohlov / Uno Onkinen / Klaus Salin / Vladlen Semyonov / Veit Bethke / Oleg Sabline / Bryan Ashbridge / Nikolai Fadeyechev / Vladimir Tihonov / Attilio Labis / Fred Richard / Martti Valtonen / Yuri Zhdanov / Donald MacLeary / Verner Klavsen / Heikki Värtsi
Performed 85 times

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As Swan Lake returned to the repertoire in 1966, the production based on old Russian versions was rehearsed by the Finnish National Ballet’s own Klaus Salin. Seppo Nurmimaa’s airy and modern set design gave the production a new look. The dancers of the Finnish National Ballet also performed Swan Lake on a Latin American tour that took them from Mexico all the way to Buenos Aires in 1968. The 50th anniversary celebrations of the Finnish National Ballet culminated with Swan Lake in 1972.

Premiere 26 October 1966
Choreography Lev Ivanov, Aleksander Gorski, Asaf Messerer
Sets and Costumes Seppo Nurmimaa
Lighting design Gleb Schorin
Odette/Odile Maj-Lis Rajala / Doris Laine / Kirsten Simone / Seija Silfverberg / Elsa Sylvestersson / Marianna Rumyantseva / Maya Plisetskaya / Lyudmila Bogomolova / Arja Nieminen / Raisa Struchkova / Arja Nieminen / Lyudmila Brzozovskaja / Elena Ryabinkina / Tarja Ranta / Rimma Karelskaya
Siegfried Martti Valtonen / Fred Negendanck / Henning Kronstam / Seppo Koski / Nikolai Fadeyechev / Vladimir Romanenko / Georges Golovine / Vladimir Nikonov / Vladimir Tihonov / Antony Geeves / Hans Meister / Yuri Troyan / Roger Lucas / Matti Tikkanen / Markku Heinonen / Maris Liepa / Aku Ahjolinna
Performed 105 times

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The final Swan Lake of the old Opera House was choreographed by Alla Shelest from Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). It was considered to be more in line with traditions than the earlier productions from Moscow. The small stage of the old Opera House was a challenge to a large-scale ballet like Swan Lake, which was no longer performed there after 1981.

Premiere 8 April 1976
Choreography Alla Šelest, after Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa and Rafael Vagabov
Libretto Alla Šelest, after V. Begitšev and V. Geltser
Director Alla Šelest
Sets and Costumes Seppo Nurmimaa
Lighting design Simo Järvinen
Odette/Odile Marianna Rumyantseva / Doris Laine / Ulrika Hallberg / Vera Kirova / Ella-Britt Hammarberg / Tarja Ranta / Soile Heinonen / Riitta Heinonen / Seija Silfverberg / Yelena Ryabinkina / Arja Nieminen / Tiina Väre / Jaana Puupponen
Siegfried Aku Ahjolinna / Seppo Koski / Jarmo Rastas / Attilio Labis / Matti Tikkanen / Vladimir Romanenko / Per-Arthur Segerström / Martti Valtonen / Antti Honkanen
Performed 99 times

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In 1993 Swan Lake premiered in the opening week of the new Opera House. The spacious stage was ideal for Vladimir Bourmeister’s version from 1953. Its music adhered strictly to the original order of the score, with all modifications from over the years deleted. Bourmeister had added a prologue to the libretto and attempted to remove excess pathos from the expression.

Premiere 1 December 1993
Choreographer and Director Vladimir Bourmeister, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Sets and Lighting design Petrika Ionesco
Costumes Anna Kontek
Odette/Odile Nina Hyvärinen / Eleonora Cassano / Minna Tervamäki / Anu Sistonen / Kirsi Aromaa / Ulrika Hallberg / Susanna Vironmäki / Barbora Kohoutková / Jessica Kellgren
Siegfried Antti Honkanen / Julio Bocca / Juha Kirjonen / Timo Kokkonen / Jarkko Niininen / Kare Länsivuori / Jukka Aromaa / Roberto Bolle
Performed 79 times

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Rudi van Dantzig’s version put Prince Siegfried centre stage instead of Odette. Odette was not a woman transformed into a swan but the symbol of the prince’s ideals. Unlike many other notable choreographers of the time, however, Dantzig did not create a completely new Swan Lake. Instead, his choreography combined the old with the new. 

Premiere 8 May 2004
Choreography Rudi van Dantzig, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Choreography, character dance Toer van Schayk
Sets and Costumes Toer van Schayk
Lighting design Jan Hofstra
Odette/Odile Carolina Agüero / Anu Viheriäranta / Minna Tervamäki / Petia Ilieva / Salla Suominen / Natalia Ledovskaya
Siegfried Dario Franconi / Stanislav Belyayevski / Nicholas Ziegler / Kare Länsivuori / Jani Talo / Boris de Leeuw / Tamás Solymosi
Performed 40 times

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Kenneth Greve, then artistic director of the Finnish National Ballet, staged his own revival of Swan Lake in 2009. Greve condensed the ballet into two acts by removing several scenes and cutting the music. The visual look of the production was transformed with modern technical effects, such as video projections on smoke. Greve aimed to add credibility to the story by having Siegfried first meet a woman, not a swan, by the lakeside.

Premiere 23 October 2009
Choreography Kenneth Greve, after Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa
Sets and Costumes Karin Betz
Lighting design Mikki Kunttu
Odette / Odile Salla Eerola / Nikola Márová / Eun-Ji Ha / Petia Ilieva / Julie Gardette / Minna Tervamäki / Wang Ye / Yimeng Sun
Siegfried Andrew Bowman / Jaakko Eerola / Nicholas Ziegler / Jani Talo / Michal Štípa / Xiaodong Ma / Michal Krčmář / Sergei Popov / Florian Modan
Performed 45 times

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In 2022, as the Finnish National Ballet gets ready to celebrate its centenary, Swan Lake will return as a new version by the Australian choreographer David McAllister.

Hanako Matsune is one of the dancers to perform as Odette in the 2022 Swan Lake.

Premiere 2022
David McAllister, after Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa
Sets and Costumes 
Gabriela Týlešová
Lighting design 
Kalle Ropponen

Text and image selection by JUSSI ILTANEN
Images THE ARCHIVES OF THE FINNISH NATIONAL OPERA AND BALLET (credits incl. L. Brännlund, Kuva-Keskus, Aarne Tenhovaara, Ikäheimo, TV-kuva Oy, Esko Manninen, Taisto Tuomi, Veikko Kankkunen, Kari Hakli, Sakari Viika, Jonas Lundqvist)