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What is Swan Lake?

By KD Morgan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Swan Lake is one of the most famous ballets ever performed and has been reproduced in many countries throughout the world. Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote the ballet in 1876, and its debut performance was in 1877. Tchaikovsky was a famous composer of ballets and his other works included Sleeping Beauty in 1889 and The Nutcracker in 1892.

There is much controversy over the origin of the Swan Lake story. For centuries, legends of swans, symbolizing the purity of womanhood, can be found transcending both Eastern and Western literature. Most agree the storyline evolved through time and Tchaikovsky crystallized it in his ballet. In modern times, the tale can belong to no country as it has become beloved by every culture.

The classic ballet begins with the celebration of Prince Siegfried’s 21st birthday. He is expected to take a wife in marriage. Discouraged, he retreats to an enchanted lake and discovers a uniquely beautiful swan floating among her companions. At dusk, she turns into a beautiful woman named Odette. She is the swan queen. An evil sorcerer named von Rothbart has turned Odette and her fellow lake maidens into swans by day and they can only be human by night. The weeping of the maiden daughters parents caused the formation of the lake itself.

Odette discloses to Prince Siegfried that a man who is pure of heart can vow his love to her and break the spell. Just as Prince Siegfried begins to pledge his love, von Rothbart appears. Unbeknownst to the prince, von Rothbart is none other than the prince’s mentor. Von Rothbart separates Odette from her prince by commanding the swan maidens to dance upon the lake.

The following day Prince Siegfried’s mother commands him to choose a bride. Though he cannot choose, he is taken by von Rothbart’s daughter, Odile, who von Rothbart has cast a spell on to appear as Odette. The prince confesses his love to Odile and Odette overhears and flees. The prince follows Odette realizing the ruse.

Odette flees back to her lake and her maidens join in her sadness. The prince explains the trickery and she forgives him. Von Rothbart holds the prince to his oath of love for his daughter. Then the prince and Odette jump hand and hand into the lake and break the spell, turning the swan maidens back into humans. They drive von Rothbart and his daughter into the water where they also drown. The maidens watch the spirits of Prince Siegfied and Odette ascend from Swan Lake into the heavens.

The original storyline has been altered many times and has become the signature of many productions. The Ivanov version by the New York City Ballet has become the modern standard. It portrays the prince’s commitment to marry Odile as a betrayal of Odette, and she is condemned to remain a swan forever. The Russian and Chinese ballet companies often portray the love between the prince and Odette to be so strong that it defeats von Rothbart and Odette is restored to human form. In the American Ballet Theater, the prince’s vow to Odile condemns Odette to eternal swanhood. Her response is to throw herself in the lake, followed by Prince Siegfried. This sacrifice of eternal love defeats von Rothbart’s power and the lovers’ spirits are lifted up to heaven together.

Tchaikovsky and the Russian ballet presentation of Swan Lake was disputed and criticized and was lost due to poor production. Today, it has come to be one of the most romantic renditions of love and beauty. Adaptations of Swan Lake have come in the form of animation, film, ice shows, literature, musicals, television and games.

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Discussion Comments
By submariner — On Jan 28, 2011

@ Babalaas- Swan Lake will be playing at centennial Hall in Tucson this April. If you do not mind driving a couple of hours to see a show, then you may enjoy it. You can already buy tickets online. It might make for a nice weekend getaway.

By Babalaas — On Jan 25, 2011

@ Alchemy- I have seen this film as well, and it has made me want to go and see the swan lake ballet next time it is playing in my city. I have been looking around for swan lake tickets for about a week now, but there is nothing coming to Phoenix in the near future. Has anyone seen the ballet? How is it? Does anyone know if it is coming anywhere near Phoenix in the next few months?

By Alchemy — On Jan 22, 2011

I saw The Black Swan recently and it was a great movie. I think it was Natalie Portman's best performance ever. The movie was very intense, and it centered around a bulimic Ballerina who was cast to play both Odile and Odette. I will not give anything away, but the performance was amazing. Natalie Portman's ballet skills were also great. I thought it was a very interesting way to make a movie that was also somewhat of a ballet. The movie story was not the same as some of the more famous swan lake renditions, but it was a great story. I really felt like I was absorbed into the craziness of the movie. I would recommend this film, and I think that Natalie Portman should win an Oscar for her performance.

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