London — A Russian composer named Peter Tchaikovsky once wrote a ballet about a woman who turned into a swan. When it appeared at the Bolshoi Theater in 1877, it was not an instant success. Not until 17 years later, when the second act was restaged in a gala concert in the composer's memory, followed the next year by the full-length ballet, did it acquire the classic status that ''Swan Lake'' has had ever since.
Today, 88 years later, the music of another composer, Finland's Jan Sibelius, is stirring and fluttering a new ballet about a swan.
The choreography comes not from the experience of that earlier famous duo, Petipa and Ivanov, but from an astonishingly talented, young (25 years of age) dancer called David Bintley, a soloist with the Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet.
At its first recent showings, the London ballet world was divided on whether this swan song succeeds or not. Certainly agreed, however, is that the ambitious three-act ballet ''The Swan of Tuonela'' has made an enormous impact.
It also represents a new departure in British ballet this year.
The work is a major effort - expensive to stage, done at full length, and combining a dramatic story (the Kalevala poetic folk legend of Finland) with extravagant sets, rich costumes, and mime.
It reverts to the type of ballets Tchaikovsky, Petipa, and Ivanov created, a type that has been out of fashion here lately. Recent choreographers have concentrated more on compressing multitudes of balletic steps into each musical phrase. They have produced muscular, sinuous contemporary ballets. Partly by choice and partly to cut costs, most of the works have been in one single act.
David Bintley himself has produced seven of these single-act ballets. He has won much acclaim for his talent.
But now he has surprised London by boldly returning to older traditions.
He uses so much mime (and dry ice to make swirling fog in the prologue, when the god Jumala's new world is invaded and death and destruction ensue) that the first ballet steps do not appear for a full 15 minutes after the curtain goes up.
The immediate reaction of some critics was disappointment. They pointed to a lack of new choreography - and it is true that in this ballet Bintley favors basic, flowing steps, very much in the style of the last century.
When I saw the ballet recently, I found myself seated between two differing views, symbolized by the man on my right and the woman on my left.
The man held a full-time position in the ballet world; the woman was a ballet fan. The man dismissed the production as being like ''an opera without singing. . . . (Bintley) has too small a vocabulary of choreography. . . . Anyway, he should have realized that Sibelius is undanceable. . . .''
The woman, there with her family and seeing it for the second time in one week, said with shining eyes, ''It's a wonderful production to watch. Look at those breathtaking costumes. And what an atmosphere he creates with the scenery and actions of the dancers. Wait until you see act two - it's electrifying!''
My own view was a synthesis of the two. It is certainly not a meaty feast of choreographical depths, with passages that can be extracted as concert pieces and danced worldwide. It has nothing to compare with the second act of ''Swan Lake,'' which is a performance in itself - and which challenges dancers through the ages, just as Hamlet challenges actors, constituting an important measuring rod for audiences and enabling them to judge the technique of one soloist against another.
But for most of the paying public, which wants a diverting, colorful, well-mounted, attractive, and exciting evening, ''The Swan of Tuonela'' fills the bill.
Bintley has mixed several forms of dance, evoking thoughts of ''Giselle'' in pure classical scenes, contemporary dance in the slitherings and slidings by the sons of Tuoni, the demon ruler (odd fellows in sleek unitards, sporting floppy wigs that look like the manes of Chinese New Year lions), and Kabuki-like mime movements.
The dancing of the ensenble was reminiscent of Russian folk dancing - an authentic touch, since when the poem was written in 1835, Finland was an outlying province of tsarist Russia.
This epic ballet is aided by the superb costumes of Terry Bartlett. Yet Bintley's swan is a bird with an '80s look. Bereft of feathers and tutu, she is loosely swathed in soft, white knit knickerbockers, a dolman-shaped top and lacy tights.
Her first appearance finds her in the mist with her back to the audience, arms spread-eagled and draped with a gorgeous, lacy, huge, floor-length shawl. On her head is a white Norman-conquest-like helmet, complete with beak-like nose protector.
I found the ballet very Soviet in its theatrical flamboyance, which reminded me of several of the contemporary productions to be seen in the Bolshoi Company's repertoire in Moscow.
But overall, ''The Swan of Tuonela'' is the kind of expensive extravagance that makes for a good night out: romantic, flowing pas de deux; dramatic and exciting ''good versus evil'' battles; suspense; lively and enthusiastic company dancing; masculine leapings and bravado; and a sad, but ''good wins in the end, '' finale.
The Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet is now touring New Zealand, and will also tour Australia (from Oct. 12), Singapore (from Nov. 24), and Bangkok (from Nov. 30). The company is performing six works by established choreographers - Frederick Ashton, Galina Samsova, George Balanchine, and Kenneth MacMillan.
The new ''Swan'' is under wraps until the company returns.
During the company's absence, perhaps David Bintley can adapt and condense some elements of his ballet and lengthen other parts, and thus won't have to wait 17 years for it to be unanimously acclaimed.