Susan Jaffe: Swan Queen

When Susan Jaffe was 19 years old, she danced the lead role in Swan Lake for the first time with American Ballet Theatre. Forty years later, Susan’s journey with Swan Lake has come full circle as she finishes out her first full season as artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre with her own choreography of this iconic show. Read on to learn more about how Susan’s extensive experience informed her choreography for this new production, running May 6 – 15 at the Benedum Center!

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It all started when Susan’s coach at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) Elena Tchernichova taught her Swan Lake behind closed doors. As a very young member of the corps de ballet, Susan had to learn the role in secret for fear that the company members would be upset that someone so young was learning the role. At the age of 19, she danced the first of what would be many performances of Swan Lake as Odette-Odile while on tour with ABT in Miami, with Mikhail Baryshnikov playing Prince Siegfried. 

Susan Jaffe Dancing the Role of Odile | Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

When she danced Swan Lake for the first time in New York City on April 28, 1982, The New York Times published a glowing review of her performance. “Susan Jaffe is the American Ballet Theatre’s wonderful new discovery, the star of the future who radiates a star quality so vibrantly now at the age of 19 that one is dazzled at the prospect of her development,” wrote New York Times Dance Critic Anna Kisselgoff. The review continues, “[Susan’s performance] was a beautiful triumph, a performance of amazing depth for a novice, but also thrilling in itself, in a young dancer’s understanding of this great Tchaikovsky ballet.” Read the full review here.

Susan danced Swan Lake every year after that, and was coached by some amazing people, including the legendary ballerina Natalia Makarova. In 1989, Susan was introduced to Irina Kolpakova, who had been Baryshnikov’s mentor and was the last student of the great Russian pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova.

“I wanted to learn from Kolpakova so much, I would’ve done anything,” Susan says. “So I basically stood in front of her with my arms at my side and said, ‘I don’t know anything. Teach me from scratch.’ I learned so much more than technique from her. She was one of the most brilliant, heartfelt performers that the world has ever seen.”

Susan went on to dance Swan Lake all around the world, guesting with companies in Sweden, England, Vienna and more. “I got to work with a lot of brilliant partners and experience other companies dancing Swan Lake as well,” Susan says.

Watch Susan performing the role of the Black Swan for American Ballet Theatre here:

Having danced the role of Odette-Odile so many times, Susan developed a keen understanding of the characters’ motivation, the symbolism in the music and dancing, and the themes of the ballet.

“It’s a great story of love and betrayal, and it really reflects our humanity,” Susan says. “When I sit in the audience and watch it, there are so many moments that I am moved to the depth of my soul.”

Susan says that one of the reasons why she loves Swan Lake is because of the wide range of emotions that the dancer portraying Odette-Odile has to convey. “It is the ultimate test of a ballerina’s powers, not only in character, but in physicality,” Susan says. “The dancer must show the softness and vulnerability of Odette, and the attack of Odile, a femme fatale. You have to develop all of those things in order to be a real interpreter of this role.

Susan Jaffe receives applause for her performance in “Swan Lake” | Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

Susan is bringing her expertise to this new production with her own choreography created after the original choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. “It feels incredibly scary, but also incredibly exhilarating to be choreographing my own Swan Lake,” Susan says. While the storyline in Susan’s production will remain traditional, the new production coming to the Benedum this May will be her own rendition.

For example, Susan’s critical eye has adjusted Odile’s choreography. “When I was growing up, I saw a lot of Odiles that were just plain mean, and I thought, ‘The prince isn’t that stupid,’” Susan says. “If you’re going to be deceptive, you’re going to be alluring, kind, everything that the prince wants. So, I think that honors that the prince is truly deceived, not just by magic but by intention. I think, in that way, it’s almost more evil.”

Of course, when the prince isn’t looking, Susan says Odile will be glancing an eye at Rothbart, letting the audience in on the trickery happening onstage. “That’s how I interpreted the Black Swan — not as being mean spirited, but as being a siren,” Susan says. “I certainly had a lot of fun with that.”

The ending is another place where Susan has added her personal touch. “There are many endings to Swan Lake,” she says. “Mine is one of tragedy and redemption all at the same time. Because life is a dichotomy.”

Hear Susan discuss the inspiration behind her new choreography and get a peek into rehearsals:

You won’t want to miss your chance to see this new production of Swan Lake, running May 6 – 15, 2022 at the Benedum Center. If you would like to hear Susan speak about her new choreography in a conversation with acclaimed dance historian Elizabeth Kaye, join us for Director’s Cut at 6:30 p.m. on opening night.

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