Swan Lake

Swan Lake
Ballets by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Swan Lake (1876)
Sleeping Beauty (1889)
The Nutcracker (1892)
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Swan Lake (Russian: Лебединое озеро, Lebedinoye ozero) ballet, op. 20, by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, composed 1875–1876. The scenario, initially in four acts, was fashioned from Russian folk tales [1] and tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer's curse. The choreographer of the original production was Julius Reisinger. The ballet was premièred by the Bolshoi Ballet on March 4 [O.S. February 20] 1877[2][3] at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, billed as The Lake of the Swans. Although it is presented in many different versions, most ballet companies base their stagings both choreographically and musically on the 1895 revival of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, first staged for the Imperial Ballet on January 15, 1895, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. For this revival, Tchaikovsky's score was revised[clarification needed] by the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre's chief conductor and composer Riccardo Drigo.



Origins of the Swan Lake story

Many critics have disputed the original source of the Swan Lake story. The Russian ballet patriarch Fyodor Lopukhov has called Swan Lake a "national ballet" because of its swans, who originate from Russian lyrically romantic sources, while many of the movements of the corps de ballet originated from Slavonic ring-dances.[4] According to Lopukhov, "both the plot of Swan Lake, the image of the Swan and the very idea of a faithful love are essentially Russian".[4] The libretto is based on a story by the German author Johann Karl August Musäus, "Der geraubte Schleier" (The Stolen Veil),[5] though this story provides only the general outline of the plot of Swan Lake. The Russian folktale "The White Duck" also bears some resemblance to the story of the ballet, and may have been another possible source. The contemporaries of Tchaikovsky recalled the composer taking great interest in the life story of Bavarian King Ludwig II, whose tragic life had allegedly been marked by the sign of Swan and who—either consciously or not—was chosen as the prototype of the dreamer Prince Siegfried.[4]

Composition history

Design by F. Gaanen for the décor of Act II of Swan Lake, Moscow, 1877

Origins of the Swan Lake composition

The origins of the ballet Swan Lake are rather obscured, and since there are very few records concerning the first production of the work to have survived, there can only be speculation about who the author of the original libretto was. The most authoritative theory appears to be that it was written by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, director of the Moscow Imperial Theatres during the time that the ballet was originally produced, and possibly Vasily Geltser, Danseur of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre. However, Geltser was in all probability merely the first person to copy the scenario for publication, as a surviving copy bears his name. Since the first published libretto of the ballet and the actual music composed by Tchaikovsky do not correspond in many places, we may infer that the first actual published libretto was possibly crafted by a newspaper writer who had viewed the initial rehearsals, as new productions of operas and ballets were always reported in the newspapers of Imperial Russia, along with their respective scenarios.

According to two of Tchaikovsky's relatives—his nephew Yuri Lvovich Davydov and his niece Anna Meck-Davydov—the composer had earlier created a little ballet called The Lake of the Swans at their home in 1871. This ballet featured the famous leitmotif known as the Swan's Theme (or Song of the Swans ). Begichev commissioned the score of Swan Lake from Tchaikovsky in 1875 for a rather modest fee of 800 rubles, and soon Begichev began to choose artists that would participate in the creation of the ballet. The choreographer assigned to the production was the Czech Julius Reisinger (1827–1892), who had been engaged as balletmaster to the Ballet of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre (today known as the Bolshoi Ballet) since 1873. It is not known what sort of collaborative processes were involved between Tchaikovsky and Reisinger. It seems that initially Tchaikovsky worked without complete knowledge of Reisinger’s specific requirements.[6] Tchaikovsky likely had some form of instruction in composing Swan Lake, as he had to know what sort of dances would be required. But unlike the instructions that Tchaikovsky received for the scores of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, no such written instruction is known to have survived. When Reisinger began choreographing after the score was completed, he demanded some changes from Tchaikovsky. Whether by demanding the addition or removal of a dance, Reisinger made it clear that he was to be a very large part in the creation of this piece. Although the two artists were required to collaborate, each seemed to prefer working as independently of each other as possible.[6]

Tchaikovsky's influences

From around the time of the turn of the 19th century until the beginning of the 1890s, scores for ballets were almost always written by composers known as "specialists": composers who were highly skilled at scoring the light, decorative, melodious, and rhythmically clear music that was at that time in vogue for ballet. Tchaikovsky studied the music of these "specialists", such as the Italian Cesare Pugni and the Austrian Ludwig Minkus, before setting to work on Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky had a rather negative opinion of the "specialist" ballet music until he studied it in detail, being impressed by the nearly limitless variety of infectious melodies their scores contained. Tchaikovsky most admired the ballet music of such composers as Léo Delibes, Adolphe Adam, and later, Riccardo Drigo. He would later write to his protégé, the composer Sergei Taneyev, "I listened to the Delibes ballet 'Sylvia'...what charm, what elegance, what wealth of melody, rhythm, and harmony. I was ashamed, for if I had known of this music then, I would not have written 'Swan Lake'". Tchaikovsky most admired Adam's 1844 score for Giselle, which featured the use of the technique known as leitmotif: associating certain themes with certain characters or moods, a technique he would use in Swan Lake, and later, The Sleeping Beauty.

Tchaikovsky drew on previous compositions for his Swan Lake score. He made use of material from The Voyevoda, an opera that he had abandoned in 1868. The Grand adage (a.k.a. the Love Duet) from the second scene of Swan Lake was fashioned from an aria from that opera, as was the Valse des fiancées from the third scene. Another number which included a theme from The Voyevoda was the Entr'acte of the fourth scene. By April 1876 the score was complete, and rehearsals began. Soon Reisinger began setting certain numbers aside that he dubbed "unsuitable for ballet." Reisinger even began choreographing dances to other composers' music, but Tchaikovsky protested, and his pieces were reinstated.

Composition process

Tchaikovsky's excitement with Swan Lake is evident based on the quick speed with which he composed. Commissioned in the spring of 1875, the piece was created within one full year, however from Tchaikovsky’s letters to Sergei Taneyev from August 1875, it was not only his excitement which compelled Tchaikovsky to create it so rapidly, but his wish to finish it as soon as possible, so as to allow him to start on an opera. Respectively, he created scores of the first three numbers of the ballet, then the orchestration in the fall and winter, and was still struggling with the instrumentation in the spring. By April 1876, the work was fully completed. Judging upon Tchaikovsky’s mention of a draft, the presence of some sort of abstract would be plausible. However, no such draft has ever been seen. Tchaikovsky wrote various letters to friends expressing his longstanding desire to work with this type of music, and his excitement concerning his current stimulating, albeit laborious task.[6]

Performance history

Adelaide Giuri as Odette and Mikhail Mordkin as Prince Siegfried in Aleksandr Gorsky's staging of the Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake for the Bolshoy Theatre, Moscow, 1901. A young Vera Karalli is seen kneeling.

Moscow Première (World Première)

  • Date: March 4 (O.S. February 20), 1877
  • Place: Bolshoy Theatre, Moscow
  • Balletmaster: Julius Reisinger
  • Conductor: Stepan Ryabov
  • Scene Designers: Karl Valts (Acts 2 & 4), Ivan Shangin (Act 1), Karl Groppius (Act 3)

St. Petersburg Première

Other Notable Productions

Original Interpreters

Rôle Moscow 1877 Moscow 1880 St. Petersburg 1895[7] Moscow 1901 London 1911
Princess Olga Nikolayeva Giuseppina Cecchetti
Siegfried Victor Gillert Alfred Bekefi Pavel Gerdt Mikhail Mordkin Vaslav Nijinsky
Benno Sergey Nikitin Aleksandr Oblakov
Wolfgang Wilhelm Wanner Gillert
Odette Pelageya Karpakova Yevdokiya Kalmїkova Pierina Legnani Adelaide Giuri Mathilde Kschessinska
Von Rothbart Sergey Sokolov Aleksey Bulgakov K. Kubakin
Pierina Legnani Mathilde Kschessinska

Original Production of 1877

The première of Swan Lake on Friday, March 4th, 1877, was given as a benefit performance for the ballerina Pelageya Karpakova (also known as Polina Karpakova), who performed the role of Odette, with the Bolshoy Theatre's Première Danseur Victor Gillert as Prince Siegfried. Karpakova likely also danced the part Odile, although it is not known for certain.

The Russian ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya—for whom the original (1877) rôle of Odette was intended — was pulled from the première performance when a governing official in Moscow complained about her, stating that she had accepted several pieces of expensive jewelry from him, only to then marry a fellow danseur and sell the pieces for cash. Sobeshchanskaya was replaced by Pelageya Karpakova who danced the rôle of the Swan Queen until the former was reinstated by Petipa.

The première was not well-received, with near unanimous criticism concerning the dancers, orchestra, and décor. Unfortunately Tchaikovsky's masterful score was lost in the debacle of the poor production, and though there were a few critics who recognized its virtues, most considered it to be far too complicated for ballet. Most of the critics were not themselves familiar with ballet or music but rather with spoken melodrama. Critics considered Tchaikovsky's music "too noisy, too 'Wagnerian' and too symphonic".[8] The critics also found fault with Reisinger's choreography which they thought was "unimaginative and altogether unmemorable".[8]

The production was unsuccessful due to several reasons. The German origins of the story of Swan Lake were "treated with suspicion while the tale itself was regarded as 'stupid' with unpronounceable surnames for its characters".[8] The dancer of Odette (and probably Odile though this has never been proved for certain) was a secondary soloist and "not particularly convincing"[8]

"The poverty of the production, meaning the décor and costumes, the absence of outstanding performers, the Balletmaster's weakness of imagination, and, finally, the orchestra...all of this together permitted (Tchaikovsky) with good reason to cast the blame for the failure on others."
—Modest Tchaikovsky, brother of the composer

Though the original composition of Swan Lake was initially received negatively, with audiences and critics claiming that the music was too complex to be a ballet piece, currently the work is seen as one of Tchaikovsky’s most valuable, and surged him into the realm of the most important ballet composers.

Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux 1877

Anna Sobeshchanskaya as Odette in Julius Reisinger's original production of Swan Lake, Moscow, 1877

In spite of the poor reaction to the première, the ballet nevertheless continued being performed. On April 26, 1877 the prima ballerina of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre Anna Sobeshchanskaya made her début as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, and from the start she was completely dissatisfied with the production of the ballet, but most of all with Reisinger's choreography and Tchaikovsky's music. Sobeshchanskaya travelled to St. Petersburg to have Marius PetipaPremier Maître de Ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres—choreograph a new pas de deux to replace the Pas de six that functioned as the third act's Grand Pas. For a ballerina to request a supplemental pas or variation was standard practice in 19th century ballet, and often these "custom-made" dances quite literally became the legal property of the ballerina they were composed for.

Petipa choreographed Sobeshchanskaya's pas de deux to music composed by Ludwig Minkus, who held the post of Ballet composer to the St Petersburg Imperial Theatres. The piece was a standard pas de deux classique that consisted of a short entrée, the grand adage, a variation for the dancer, a variation for the ballerina, and a coda.

Word of this change soon found its way to Tchaikovsky, who became very angry, stating that, whether the ballet is good or bad, he alone shall be held responsible for its music. He then agreed to compose a new pas de deux for the ballerina, but soon a problem arose: Sobeshchanskaya had no reservations about performing a pas to Tchaikovsky's new music, but she wanted to retain Petipa's choreography, and she had no wish to travel to St. Petersburg again to have the Ballet Master arrange a new pas for her. In light of this, Tchaikovsky agreed to compose a pas that would correspond to Minkus' music to such a degree that the ballerina would not even be required to rehearse. Sobeshchanskaya was so pleased with Tchaikovsky's new version of the Minkus music that she requested he compose for her an additional variation, which he did.

Until 1953 this pas de deux was thought to be lost, until an accidentally discovered repétiteur was found in the archives of the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre among the orchestral parts used for Alexander Gorsky's revival of Le Corsaire (Gorsky had included the piece in his version of Le Corsaire staged in 1912). In 1960 George Balanchine choreographed a pas de deux to this music for the Ballerina Violette Verdy, and the Danseur Conrad Ludlow under the title Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux,[9] as it is still known and performed today.

Subsequent productions 1879-1894

Julius Reisinger left Moscow in 1879, and his successor as Balletmaster was Joseph Peter Hansen. Hansen made considerable efforts throughout the late 1870s/early 1880s to salvage Swan Lake, and on January 13, 1880, he presented a new production of the ballet for his own benefit performance. The part of Odette/Odile was danced by Evdokia Kalmykova, a student of the Moscow Imperial Ballet School, with Alfred Bekefi as Prince Siegfried. This production was far more well-received than the original, though it was by no means a great success. Hansen presented another version of Swan Lake on October 28, 1882, again with Kalmykova as Odette/Odile. For this production Hansen arranged a Grand Pas for the ballroom scene which he titled La Cosmopolitana. This was taken from the European section of the Grand Pas d'action known as The Allegory of the Continents from Marius Petipa's 1875 ballet The Bandits to the music of Ludwig Minkus. Hansen's version of Swan Lake was given only four times, the final performance being on January 2, 1883, and soon the ballet was dropped from the repertory altogether.

In all, Swan Lake was given a total of forty-one performances between its première and the final performance of 1883—a rather lengthy run for a ballet that was so poorly received upon its premiere. Hansen would go on to become Balletmaster to the Alhambra Theatre in London, and on December 1, 1884, he presented a one-act ballet titled The Swans, which was inspired by the second scene of Swan Lake. The music was composed by the Alhambra Theatre's chef d'orchestre Georges Jacoby.

The second scene of Swan Lake was then presented on February 21, 1888, in Prague by the Ballet of the National Theatre in a version mounted by the Balletmaster August Berger. The ballet was given during two concerts which were conducted by Tchaikovsky. The composer noted in his diary that he experienced "a moment of absolute happiness" when the ballet was performed. Berger's production followed the 1877 libretto, though the names of Prince Siegfried and Benno were changed to Jaroslav and Zdenek, with the rôle of Benno danced by a female dancer en travestie. The rôle of Prince Siegfried was danced by Berger himself with the Ballerina Giulietta Paltriniera-Bergrova as Odette. Berger's production was only given eight performances, and was even planned for production at the Fantasia Garden in Moscow in 1893, but it never materialized.

Petipa-Ivanov-Drigo revival of 1895

Pierina Legnani as Odette (1895)

During the late 1880s and early 1890s, Petipa and Vsevolozhsky considered reviving Swan Lake and were in talks with Tchaikovsky about doing so. However, Tchaikovsky died on November 6, 1893, just when plans to revive Swan Lake were beginning to come to fruition. It remains uncertain whether Tchaikovsky was even going to revise the music for the prospected revival of Swan Lake. Whatever the case, as a result of Tchaikovsky's death, Drigo was forced to revise the score himself, but not before receiving approval from Modest. There are major differences between Drigo's and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake score. (Today, it is Riccardo Drigo's revision of Tchaikovsky's score as done for Petipa and Ivanov's 1895 revival, and not Tchaikovsky's original score of 1877, that many—though by no means all—ballet companies use when performing Swan Lake.)

Pavel Gerdt as Prince Siegfried (Mariinsky Theatre, 1895)

In February 1894, two memorial concerts planned by Vsevolozhsky were given in honor of Tchaikovsky. The production included the second Act of Swan Lake, choreographed Lev Ivanov, Second Balletmaster to the Imperial Ballet. Ivanov's choreography for the memorial concert was unanimously hailed as wonderful.

The Ballerina who danced Odette and Odile was the Italian virtuosa Pierina Legnani, and it was because of her great talent that the prospected revival of Swan Lake was planned for her benefit performance in the 1894-1895 season. She had made her début with the Imperial Ballet in Cinderella, produced in December 1893 (choreographed by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Enrico Cecchetti to the music of Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell). Her performance demonstrated her phenomenal technique, climaxing in her variation from the final tableau no fewer than thirty-two fouettés en tournant (the most ever performed at that time) during the grand pas. The dazzled public roared with demands for an encore, and the Ballerina repeated her variation, this time performing twenty-eight fouettés en tournant.

Ivanov's 1895 choreography for the Dance of the Little Swans

However, the death of Tsar Alexander III on November 1, 1894 and the period of official mourning that followed it brought all ballet performances and rehearsals to a close for some time, and as a result all efforts were able to be concentrated on the pre-production of the revival of Swan Lake. Ivanov and Petipa chose to collaborate on the production, with Ivanov retaining his dances for the second Act while choreographing the fourth, and with Petipa staging the first and third Acts.

Tchaikovsky's younger brother Modest was called upon to make the required changes to the ballet's libretto, the most prominent being his revision of the ballet's finale; instead of the lovers simply drowning at the hand of the wicked Von Rothbart as in the original 1877 scenario, Odette commits suicide by drowning herself, with Prince Siegfried choosing to die as well, rather than live without her, and soon the lovers' spirits are reunited in an apotheosis. Aside from the revision of the libretto the ballet was changed from four acts to three—with Act II becoming Act I-Scene 2.

All was ready by the beginning of 1895, and the ballet had its première on Friday, January 27th. Pierina Legnani danced Odette/Odile, with Pavel Gerdt as Prince Siegfried, Alexei Bulgakov as Von Rothbart, and Alexander Oblakov as Benno.

The première of the Petipa/Ivanov/Drigo was quite a success, though not as much of one as it has been in modern times. Most of the reviews in the St. Petersburg newspapers were positive.

Unlike the première of The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake did not dominate the repertory of the Mariinsky Theatre in its first season. It was given only sixteen performances between the première and the 1895-1896 season, and was not performed at all in 1897. Even more surprising, the ballet was performed only four times in 1898 and 1899. The ballet belonged solely to Legnani until she left St. Petersburg for her native Italy in 1901. After her departure, the ballet was taken over by Mathilde Kschessinskaya, who was as much celebrated in the rôle as was her Italian predecessor.

Later productions

Zenaida Yanowsky as Odette in a 2007 production of Swan Lake at London's Royal Opera House

Throughout the long and complex performance history of Swan Lake the 1895 edition of Petipa, Ivanov, and Drigo has served as the version from which many stagings have been based. Nearly every balletmaster or choreographer who has re-staged Swan Lake has sought to make modifications to the ballet's scenario, while still maintaining to a considerable extent the traditional choreography for the dances, which is regarded as virtually sacrosanct. Likewise, over time the rôle of Siegfried has become far more prominent, due largely to the evolution of ballet technique.

Several notable productions have diverged from the original and its 1895 revival:

  • Illusions Like "Swan Lake" 1976: John Neumeier Hamburg Ballet, Neumeier interpolated the story of Ludwig II of Bavaria into the Swan Lake plot, via Ludwig's fascination with swans. Much of the original score was used with additional Tchaikovsky material and the choreography combined the familiar Petipa/Ivanov material with new dances and scenes by Neumeier. The ballet finishes with Ludwig’s death by drowning while confined to an asylum, set to the dramatic music for the Act Three conclusion. With the theme of the unhappy royal being forced into heterosexual marriage for reasons of state and also the cross reference to the personal lives of actual royalty, this work anticipated both Bourne’s and Murphy’s interpretation. Illusions Like "Swan Lake" remains in the repertoire of major German ballet companies.
  • Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake departed from the traditional ballet by replacing the female corps de ballet with male dancers. Since its inception in 1995, Matthew Bourne's production has never been off the stage for more than a few months[citation needed] (but one could say the same of Swan Lake after 1895 in general). It has toured the United Kingdom and returned to London several times. It has been performed on extended tours in Greece, Israel, Turkey, Australia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Russia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States, in addition to the United Kingdom.
  • The 2000 American Ballet Theatre version (taped for television in 2005), rather than having the curtain down as the slow introduction is played, used this music to accompany a new prologue in which the audience is shown how Von Rothbart first transforms Odette into a swan. This prologue is similar to the Vladimir Burmeister's production of the "Swan Lake" (firstly staged in Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow, 1953) but has some differences. Von Rothbart in this production is played by two dancers; one appears as a handsome young man who is easily able to lure Odette in the new prologue, and the other dancer is covered in sinister "monster makeup" which reveals the magician's true self. (in the film Black Swan , Natalie Portman, as Nina, dreams this in the film's opening sequence). About half-an-hour of the complete score is omitted from this production.
  • Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake was first performed in 2002, and was loosely based on the breakdown of the marriage of Lady Diana to Prince Charles and his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. It combined the rôles of Von Rothbart and Odile into that of a Baroness, and the focus of the story is a love triangle.[10]
  • In 2010, Black Swan, a film starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, featured sequences from Swan Lake.


Swan Lake is scored for the typical late 19th-century large orchestra:


  • The Sovereign Princess
  • Prince Siegfried, her son
  • Wolfgang, his tutor
  • Benno von Sommerstern, the Prince's friend
  • Odette, the Swan Princess
  • von Rothbart, an evil genius, by appearance a guest
  • Odile, his daughter, who resembles Odette
  • Master of Batons
  • Baron von Stein
  • The Baroness, his wife
  • Freiherr von Schwarzfels
  • His wife
  • A herald
  • A footman
  • Court gentlemen and ladies, friends of the prince, heralds, guests, pages, villagers, servants, swans, cygnets

By 1895 Benno von Sommerstern became just "Benno", and Odette "Queen of the Swans". Also Baron von Stein, his wife, and Freiherr von Schwarzfels and his wife were no longer identified on the program. The sovereign or ruling Princess is often rendered "Queen Mother". Rothbart ("Redbeard") may also be spelled Rotfart.


Princess Odette is the lead ballerina role. Von Rothbart's daughter Odile is danced by the same ballerina; this explains how Odile is able to trick Prince Siegfried into being unfaithful to Odette. She also appears in many adaptations of the ballet.

Odette is an enchanted princess under a spell of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart; she has been transformed into a swan by day and can only regain her human form at night. She has many companions under the same spell, who have made her their queen, hence her title "The Swan Queen." She is forced to live by a lake that was magically formed by her grieving mother's tears when Rothbart kidnapped her; Rothbart's reasons for kidnapping Odette and enchanting her are unknown in the ballet. The only way for the spell to be broken is by the power of eternal love between Odette and a young man who will remain faithful to her, for if the vow of eternal love is broken, she will remain a swan forever.

One day, the young Prince Siegfried ventures upon the lake while out hunting and sees Odette transform from her swan form back into her human form. He is so struck by her beauty that he falls in love with her at once and when she tells him her story, he promises to love her forever and invites her to a Royal Ball at his castle so he may choose her as his bride. They spend the night dancing together, falling more and more in love with each other until dawn breaks and Odette is forced to return to the lake as a swan, leaving Siegfried alone.

Siegfried waits for Odette at the Ball and believes she has attended when two strangers arrive. But it is actually Rothbart and his daughter Odile in disguise. Rothbart has planned to trick Siegfried into breaking his vow to Odette by magically disguising Odile in Odette's shape and form. Siegfried dances with her and fails to see the real Odette appearing at the window in her swan form to warn him of Rothbart's plot and pleading with him to remain faithful to her. Rothbart's plan is a success when Siegfried declares his eternal love to Odile, thinking she is Odette and Rothbart joyfully reveals that Odette is now forever in his power.

Odette flees back to the lake in distress and Siegfried follows her, begging her to forgive him, which she does but she tells him that she will never be freed from Rothbart's spell. The only way she can be freed is if she dies, for she would rather die than live without Siegfried. Siegfried cannot live without Odette and declares that he will die with her. When Rothbart appears, Odette throws herself into the lake and Siegfried follows her. In the climax of their sacrifice, Rothbart's powers are destroyed and the spell is finally broken; Odette's companions are freed from the enchantment. As the sun rises, Siegfried and Odette ascend into Heaven together, united in love for all eternity.[citation needed]


Prince Siegfried is the lead male ballet dancer role. Like Odette and Von Rothbart, he also appears in many adaptations of the ballet, although an interesting fact of his rôle in the ballet's adaptations is that he has a different name in almost every one, although he retains some or all of his characteristics.

Siegfried is a young Prince, full of bright spirit and enthusiasm and seems to have little interest in his role as a Prince. His favourite hobby is hunting and he often hunts with his best friend Benno. He is celebrating his 21st birthday with his friends and tutor, but the celebrations are interrupted and almost ruined by the arrival of his mother, the Queen. After presenting him with a new crossbow, she tells him that it is time for him to settle down and marry. Siegfried, however, has no intention to marry because he is not in love and is enjoying life as it is, but his mother makes it clear that he is expected to choose a bride at an upcoming Royal Ball before she departs, leaving Siegfried depressed by what is expected of him. But suddenly, a flock of swans flies over the castle and Benno urges Siegfried to join him and their friends in a hunting expedition. Armed with his new crossbow, Siegfried heads into the forest with Benno and their companions.

Deep in the forest, Siegfried and his friends arrive at a lake and Siegfried sends his companions away. Suddenly, he spots a beautiful swan wearing a crown swimming towards the lakeside and prepares to shoot but before he can, the swan transforms into a most beautiful young girl. She is Princess Odette, the Queen of the Swans. Struck by her beauty as she is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen, Siegfried falls in love with her. Although she is terrified at first, Odette loses her fear and tells him her story, explaining that she is under a spell of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart; she has been transformed into a swan by day and can only regain her human form at night. Her companions are also under the same spell and only a vow of eternal love to Odette will free them. When Rothbart appears, Siegfried tries to kill him but Odette intercedes, explaining that Rothbart's death will only make the spell permanent if it is not already broken. Siegfried is able to stop Benno and his other companions from shooting the Swan Maidens and sends them away so he can stay at the lake with Odette. They spend the night dancing together, falling more and more in love and Siegfried vows to love Odette for eternity, promising to save her from Rothbart's evil enchantment. He invites her to attend the Ball at his castle and promises to choose her as his bride. Odette agrees, but warns him that if his vow to her is broken, she will remain a swan forever. When dawn breaks, Odette is forced to return to the lake as a swan, leaving Siegfried alone in despair.

On the night of the Ball, Siegfried is thinking of nothing but Odette. His mother introduces him to various potential brides, but he rejects them all because he is in love with Odette. He continues to wait for her and suddenly, two more guests arrive and Siegfried is joyful to see that Odette has appeared to have arrived. But the mystery guests are actually Rothbart and his daughter Odile in disguise. Rothbart has magically disguised Odile in the shape and form of Odette to trick Siegfried into breaking his vow. Siegfried dances with Odile and she completely beguiles him that he fails to see the real Odette at the window in her swan form trying to warn him of Rothbart's plot and pleading with him to remain faithful to her. Siegfried falls for Rothbart's deception and pledges eternal love to Odile, thinking she is Odette. Triumphant, Rothbart reveals himself and Odile in their true forms and declares that Odette is now forever in his power. Horrified to discover that he has been tricked into breaking his promise to Odette, Siegfried flees from the Ball in search of her.

Odette flees back to the lake in despair over Siegfried's betrayal. He follows her, finds her amongst her companions and begs her to forgive him, swearing that he loves her only. She forgives him, but explains that she is now under Rothbart's spell forever and the only way she can escape the enchantment is if she dies. Rothbart appears to part the lovers and reminds Siegfried of his vow to Odile. Siegfried declares he would rather die with Odette than marry Odile and a fight ensues as Rothbart tries to take Odette away. Unable to live without her Prince, Odette throws herself into the lake and Siegfried follows her. In the climax of their sacrifice, Rothbart and his powers are destroyed and Odette's companions are finally freed from the spell. As the sun rises, Siegfried and Odette ascend into Heaven together, united in love for all eternity.


Odile is the daughter of Von Rothbart and is willing to follow in her father's footsteps. She is magically disguised as Odette so that the spell on Odette can never be broken. In Swan Lake, she is the Black Swan and the rival of Odette (Odile appears only in the third act.)

Von Rothbart

Von Rothbart is the central antagonist in Swan Lake. Rothbart is rarely seen in human form in most productions as he appears as an evil bird for most of the ballet. His human form is seen once in the scene with his daughter Odile, when she dances with the Prince Siegfried.

Rothbart is a powerful sorcerer who casts a spell on Odette that turns her into a swan every day and returns her to human form at night. The reason for Rothbart's curse upon her is not known; several other versions of the ballet, including two feature films, have suggested reasons, but none is typically explained by the ballet.

The story changes in each version, yet when Rothbart realizes that Odette has fallen in love with Prince Siegfried, he tries to intervene by tricking Siegfried into marrying his daughter Odile. The plan succeeds, yet Rothbart's fate is undecided depending on the ballet. In some versions it is presumed that he has survived, while in the original version the love of the two dying lovers breaks the spell and Rothbart is overthrown and destroyed.

In the second American Ballet Theatre production of Swan Lake, telecast by PBS in 2005 and now out on DVD, von Rothbart is portrayed by two dancers. One of them depicts him as young and handsome; it is this von Rothbart that is able to lure Odette and transform her into a swan (this is shown during the introduction to the ballet in a danced prologue especially created by choreographer Kevin McKenzie). He is also able to entice the Prince to dance with Odile, and thus seal Odette's doom. The other von Rothbart, a repulsive, reptilian-like creature, reveals himself only after he has performed an evil deed, such as transforming Odette into a swan. In this version, the lovers' joint-suicide inspires the rest of von Rothbart's imprisoned swans to turn on him and overcome his spell, which ultimately kills him.


Swan Lake is generally presented in either four Acts, four Scenes (primarily outside Russia and Eastern Europe) or three Acts, four Scenes (primarily in Russia and Eastern Europe).

Act I

A magnificent park before a castle.

Swan Lake begins at a royal court. Prince Siegfried, heir to the kingdom, must declare he has chosen a wife at his birthday ball. Upset that he cannot marry for love, Siegfried makes for the forest and escapes into the night. He sees a flock of swans flying overhead and sets off in pursuit of them.

Act 2

A mountainous wild place, surrounded by forest. In the distance a lake, on the right side of which are ruins. A moonlit night.

The Valse des cygnes from Act II of the Ivanov/Petipa edition of Swan Lake

Siegfried aims his crossbow at the swans and readies himself for their landing by the lakeside. When one comes into view, however, he stops. Before him is a beautiful creature dressed in white feathers, more woman than swan. Enamoured, the two dance and Siegfried learns that the swan maiden is the princess Odette. An evil sorcerer, von Rothbart, has captured her and used his magic to turn her into a swan by day. Every night, she becomes a woman again.

A retinue of other captured swan-maidens attend Odette in the environs of Swan Lake, which was formed by the tears of her parents when she was kidnapped by von Rothbart. Once Siegfried knows her story, he takes great pity on her and falls in love. As he begins to swear his love to her, an act that will render the sorcerer's spell powerless, von Rothbart himself appears. Siegfried threatens to kill von Rothbart but Odette intercedes. If von Rothbart dies before the spell is broken, it can never be undone.

Act 3

An opulent hall in the castle.

Scene from Act 4 of Swan Lake.
Vienna State Opera, 2004

The Prince returns to the castle to attend the ball. Von Rothbart arrives in disguise with his own daughter Odile. He has made Odile identical to Odette in all respects except that she wears black rather than white. The prince mistakes her for Odette, dances with her, and proclaims to the court that he intends to make her his wife. Only a moment too late, Siegfried sees the real Odette and realizes his mistake. (The method in which Odette appears varies. In some versions she arrives at the castle, while in other versions von Rothbart shows Siegfried a magical vision of her.)

Act 4

Same scene by the lake as in Act 2.

Siegfried returns to the lake and finds Odette. He makes a passionate apology and she forgives him. Von Rothbart appears and tries to pull the lovers apart. In the original 1877 ballet, Siegfried struggles with Von Rothbart and tears off one of his wings, thereby destroying his powers. Siegfried has broken the spell of the swan maidens and marries Odette.

In the 1895 Mariinsky revival, Tchaikovsky's brother altered the ending to a tragic one. The lovers realize that the spell cannot be broken because of Siegfried's accidental pledge to Odile. In order to complete and fulfill the pledge initiated in Act 2 by Siegfried to Odette, ultimately making it possible for the lovers to stay together, Odette and Siegfried leap into the lake and drown. This breaks von Rothbart's spell over Odette, causing him to lose his power over them, and he dies as a result.

Alternative endings

Many different endings exist, ranging from romantic to tragic. Some performed in recent years include:

  • In a version which has an ending very close to the 1895 Mariinsky revival, danced by American Ballet Theatre in 2005, Siegfried's mistaken pledge of fidelity to Odile consigns Odette to remain a swan forever. After realizing that her last moment of humanity is at hand, Odette commits suicide by throwing herself into the lake. The Prince does so as well. This act of sacrifice and love breaks von Rothbart's power, and he is destroyed. In the final tableau, the lovers are seen rising together to heaven in apotheosis.
  • In a version danced by the Mariinsky Ballet in 2006, Siegfried and Odette's true love defeats von Rothbart, who dies after the prince breaks one of his wings. Odette is restored to human form to unite happily with the prince. This version is close to the 1877 original and has often been used by Russian and Chinese ballet companies. A similar ending was used in The Swan Princess.
  • In a version danced by New York City Ballet in 2006 (with choreography by Peter Martins after Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa, and George Balanchine), the Prince's declaration that he wishes to marry Odile constitutes a betrayal that condemns Odette to remain a swan forever. Odette is called away into swan form, and Siegfried is left alone in grief as the curtain falls.
  • In a version danced by San Francisco Ballet in 2009, Siegfried and Odette throw themselves into the lake, as in the 1895 Mariinsky revival, and von Rothbart is destroyed. Two swans, implied to be the lovers, are then seen flying past the Moon.
  • In a version danced by National Ballet of Canada in 2010, Odette forgives Siegfried for his betrayal and the promise of reconciliation shines momentarily before Rothbart summons forth a violent storm. Rothbart and Siegfried struggle. When the storm subsides, Odette is left alone to mourn the dead Siegfried.
  • In the 1986 version Rudolf Nureyev choreographed for the Paris Opera Ballet, Rothbart fights with Siegfried, who is overcome and dies, leaving Rothbart to take Odette triumphantly up to the heavens.


The score used in this comparison is Tchaikovsky's score,[11] which may be different from Drigo's score, which is commonly performed today. The titles for each number are taken from the original published score. Some of the numbers are titled simply as musical indications, those that are not are translated from their original French titles.


Moderato assai, Allegro non troppo

Act I

No. 1 Scène: Allegro giusto
No. 2 Waltz: Tempo di valse
No. 3 Scène: Allegro moderato
No. 4 Pas de trois
I. Intrada (or Entrée): Allegro
II. Andante sostenuto
III. Variation: Allegro semplice, Presto
IV. Variation: Moderato
V. Variation: Allegro
VI. Coda: Allegro vivace
No. 5 Pas de deux for Two Merry-makers (this number was later fashioned into the Black Swan Pas de Deux)
No. 6 Pas d'action: Andantino quasi moderato – Allegro
No. 7 Sujet (Introduction to the Dance with Goblets)
No. 8 Dance with Goblets: Tempo di polacca
No. 9 Finale: Sujet, Andante

Act II

No. 10 Scène: Moderato
No. 11 Scène: Allegro moderato, Moderato, Allegro vivo
No. 12 Scène: Allegro, Moderato assai quasi andante
No. 13 Dances of the Swans
I. Tempo di valse
II. Moderato assai
III. Tempo di valse
IV. Allegro moderato (this number later became the famous Dance of the Little Swans)
V. Pas d'action: Andante, Andante non troppo, Allegro (material borrowed from Undina)
VI. Tempo di valse
VII. Coda: Allegro vivo
No. 14 Scène: Moderato


No. 15 Scène: March – Allegro giusto
No. 16 Ballabile: Dance of the Corps de Ballet and the Dwarves: Moderato assai, Allegro vivo
No. 17 Entrance of the Guests and Waltz: Allegro, Tempo di valse
No. 18 Scène: Allegro, Allegro giusto
No. 19 Grand Pas de six.
I. Intrada (or Entrée): Moderato assai
II. Variation 1: Allegro
III. Variation 2: Andante con moto
IV. Variation 3: Moderato
V. Variation 4: Allegro
VI. Variation 5: Moderato, Allegro semplice
VII. Grand Coda: Allegro molto

Appendix I

Pas de deux for Mme. Anna Sobeshchanskaya fashioned from the original music by Léon Minkus (AKA the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux)

No. 20 Hungarian Dance: Czardas – Moderato assai, Allegro moderato, Vivace

Apendix II

No. 20a Russian Dance for Mlle. Pelageya Karpakova: Moderato, Andante semplice, Allegro vivo, Presto
No. 21 Spanish Dance: Allegro non troppo (Tempo di bolero)
No. 22 Neapolitan/Venetian Dance: Allegro moderato, Andantino quasi moderato, Presto
No. 23 Mazurka: Tempo di mazurka
No. 24 Scène: Allegro, Tempo di valse, Allegro vivo

Act IV

No. 25 Entr'acte: Moderato
No. 26 Scène: Allegro non troppo
No. 27 Dance of the Little Swans: Moderato
No. 28 Scène: Allegro agitato, Molto meno mosso, Allegro vivace
No. 29 Scène finale: Andante, Allegro, Alla breve, Moderato e maestoso, Moderato

Adaptations and references

Live action film

  • The opening credits for the 1931 version of Dracula starring Béla Lugosi includes a modified version of the Swan Theme from Act II. The same piece was later used for the credits of The Mummy and is often used as a backing track for the silent film, "Phantom of the Opera".
  • The 1940 film I Was an Adventuress featured a long sequence from the ballet.
  • In Brain Donors (1992), the three main characters try and succeed in sabotaging a fictional production of the ballet.
  • Darren Aronofsky's 2010 film Black Swan focuses on two characters from Swan Lake - the Swan Princess Odette, sometimes called the White Swan, and her evil duplicate, the Black Swan, and takes its inspiration from the ballet's story, although it does not literally follow it.


  • The Great Chinese State Circus has made an acrobatic version of the ballet, which is on tour around the world. Set to excerpts from Tchaikovsky's suite, it contains such acrobatic moves as Odette doing a pirouette on top of Siegfried's head, without any supports.

Animated theatrical and direct-to-video productions

  • Swan Lake (1981) is a feature-length anime produced by the Japanese company Toei Animation and directed by Koro Yabuki. The adaptation uses Tchaikovsky's score and remains relatively faithful to the story. Two separate English dubs were made, one featuring regular voice actors, and one using celebrities as the main principals (Pam Dawber as Odette, Christopher Atkins as Siegfried, Kay Lenz as Odile, and David Hemmings as Rothbart). The second dub aired on The Disney Channel in the early 1990s.[12] It is presently distributed in France and the United Kingdom by Rouge Citron Production.
  • The Swan Princess (1994) is a Nest Entertainment film based on the Swan Lake story. It stays fairly close to the original story, apart from the addition of sidekicks Puffin, Speed, and Jean-Bob, renaming the Prince Derek instead of Siegfried, and allowing both Odette and Derek to survive as humans once Rothbart is defeated. It has two sequels, The Swan Princess II: Escape from Castle Mountain and The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Kingdom. The films do not feature Tchaikovsky's music.
  • Barbie of Swan Lake (2003) is a direct-to-video children's movie featuring motion capture from the New York City Ballet. Some character's names do not correspond with those in the ballet.

Computer games

  • The 1990 LucasArts adventure game Loom used a major portion of the Swan Lake suite for its audio track, as well as incorporating a major swan theme into the storyline. It otherwise bore no resemblance to the original ballet.


  • Amiri & Odette (2009) is a verse retelling by Walter Dean Myers with illustrations by Javaka Steptoe. Myers sets the story in the Swan Lake Projects of a large city. Amiri is a basketball-playing “Prince of the Night”, a champion of the asphalt courts in the park. Odette belongs to Big Red, a dealer, a power on the streets.
  • The Black Swan (1999) is a fantasy novel written by Mercedes Lackey that re-imagines the original story and focuses heavily on Odile. Von Rothbart's daughter is a sorceress in her own right who comes to sympathize with Odette.
  • Swan Lake (1989) is a children's novel written by Mark Helprin and illustrated by Chris van Allsburg, which re-creates the original story as a tale about political strife in an unnamed Eastern European country. In it, Odette becomes a princess hidden from birth by the puppetmaster (and eventually usurper) behind the throne, with the story being retold to her child.


  • Odette – The Dark Side of Swan Lake, a musical written by Alexander S. Bermange and Murray Woodfield, was staged at the Bridewell Theatre, London in October 2007.
  • In Radio City Christmas Spectacular, The Rockettes do a short homage to Swan Lake during the performance of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Rock and Dance Version), with the line "Seven Swans A-Swimming."
  • Billy Elliot the Musical incorporates the most famous section of Swan Lake in a dance number, in which the main character dances while shadowed by his future, adult self.
  • German singer Jeanette Biedermann uses the Swan Lake melody structure for her 2001 single release How It's Got To Be.


  • The 2002 anime Princess Tutu (2002) frequently alludes to Swan Lake. The heroine, Ahiru, whose costume design is reminiscent of Odette's, is a duck transformed by a sorcerer into a girl (rather than the other way around), while her antagonist, Rue, dressed as Odile, is a girl who had been raised to believe she is a raven. The score of Swan Lake, along with that of The Nutcracker, features heavily throughout, as does, occasionally the Petipa choreography, most notably in episode 13, where Ahiru dances the climactic Pas de Deux alone, complete with failed lifts and catches.
  • In the second season of the anime Kaleido Star, a circus adaptation of Swan Lake becomes one of the Kaleido Stage's most important and successful shows. Main character Sora Naegino plays Princess Odette, with characters Leon Oswald as Prince Siegfried and May Wong as Odile.
  • In the Japanese tokusatsu show Kamen Rider Den-O, the main protagonist has the ability to take different forms, based on the "imagin" that possess him. One of the imagin, known as Sieg, is analogous to the legend of Swan Lake.
  • In Episode 213 of The Muppet Show, Rudolf Nureyev performs "Swine Lake" with a giant ballerina pig.
  • Swan Lake was heard in two episodes of the Playhouse Disney series Little Einsteins. The episodes were "Quincy and the Magic Instruments" and "The Blue Footed Boobey Bird Ballot".

Selected discography



  • 1966, John Lanchbery (conductor), Wiener Symphoniker, Ballet of the Wiener Staatsoper, Rudolf Nureyev (Siegfried), Margot Fonteyn (Odette / Odile)
  • 1968, Viktor Fedotov (conductor), Kirov Ballet, Yelena Yevteyeva, John Markovsky, Makhmud Esambayev
  • 1976, Algis Zhuraitis (conductor), Bolshoi Ballet, Aleksandr Bogatirev, Maya Plisetskaya (centennial anniversary performance).
  • 1982, Ashley Lawrence (conductor), Sadler's Wells Orchestra, Royal Ballet, Natalia Makarova (Odette / Odile), Anthony Dowell (Siegfried)
  • 1983, Algis Zhuraitis (conductor), Bolshoi Ballet, Aleksandr Bogatirev, Natalya Bessmertnova
  • 1989, Algis Zhuraitis (conductor), Bolshoi Ballet, Yuri Vasyuchenko (Siegfried), Alla Mikhalchenko (Odette / Odile)
  • 1990, Viktor Fedotov (conductor), Kirov Ballet, Igor Zelensky (Siegfried), Yuliya Makhalina (Odette / Odile)
  • 2002, Michel Queval (conductor), Orchestra and Ballet of the Royal Opera of Stockholm, Anders Nordström (Siegfried), Nathalie Nordquist (Odette / Odile)
  • 2004, James Tuggle (conductor), Scala de Milan, Roberto Bolle (Siegfried), Svetlana Zakharova (Odette / Odile)
  • 2005, Jonathan Darlington (conductor), Opéra de Paris, Patrick Dupond (Siegfried), Marie-Claude Pietragalla (Odette / Odile)
  • 2005, Ormsby Wilkins (conductor), American Ballet Theatre, Angel Corella (Siegfried), Gillian Murphy (Odette / Odile)
  • 2007, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet, Danila Korsuntsev (Siegfried), Ulyana Lopatkina (Odette / Odile)


  1. ^ such as The White Duck collected by Alexander Afanasyev in Narodnye russkie skazki
  2. ^ Kant, Marion (2007). The Cambridge companion to ballet. Cambridge University Press. p. 164. 
    'Old style' date March 4
  3. ^ Chaĭkovskiĭ,, Modest Ilʹich; Jeaffreson Newmarch, Rosa Harriet (1906). The life & letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. J. Lane. p. 735. 
  4. ^ a b c Leimanis, Aivars (2002). "Synopsis" (Press release). Latvian National Opera. http://www.music.lv/opera/ballets/gulbju_ezers_2002/default_E.htm. Retrieved 2008-06-03. 
  5. ^ Der geraubte Schleier at Projekt Gutenberg-DE
  6. ^ a b c Wiley 1991
  7. ^ a b "Swan Lake". American Ballet Theatre. http://www.abt.org/education/archive/ballets/swan_lake.html. Retrieved 3 December 2010. 
  8. ^ a b c d Rosen, Gary (1998). "Swan Lake: An Historical Appreciation". Swan Lake programme (Cape Town: Cape Town City Ballet). 
  9. ^ "Repertory Index — New York City Ballet". Nycballet.com. http://www.nycballet.com/company/rep.html. Retrieved 2010-02-03. 
  10. ^ interview, David McAllister and Graeme Murphy, Ballet.co magazine, July, 2005
  11. ^ The correspondence is drawn from http://www.rohedswanlake.org.uk/pgs/main/news_story.asp?id=2, which describes a four-act play. Drigo's version of the ballet is in three acts.
  12. ^ D., Annie (6 September 2009). "Anime Swan Lake". Cbl.orcein.net. http://cbl.orcein.net/swanprincess/misc/anime.htm. Retrieved 3 February 2010. 


  • Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music. London, England: Faber and Faber, 2006. 108-119
  • Brown, David. "Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa." The Musical Times 125.1702 (1984): 696-698.
  • C.W. Beaumont : The Ballet called Swan Lake (London, 1952)
  • G. Abraham, ed.: Tchaikovsky: a Symposium (London, 1945/R, R 1970 as The Music of Tchaikovsky)
  • Norris, George : Stanford, the Cambridge Jubilee and Tchaikovsky (London, 1980)
  • Nuzzo, Nancy B. "Swan Lake: a chronology; The sleeping beauty: a chronology; other Tchaikovsky ballets." Dance magazine, 55 (June 1981), 57-58.
  • Pudelek, Janina. "Swan Lake" in Warsaw, 1900. Dance Chronicle, 13 (1990–1991): 359-36
  • Wiley, Roland John : Tchaikovsky’s Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker (Oxford, 1985, 2/1991)
  • Review: Robinson, Harlow. "Review: Untitled." The Slavic and East European Journal, 31 (1987): 639-640

External links


Video recordings of the ballet:


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