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Repertoire Spotlight: Swan Lake

A Beginner’s Guide to Swan Lake

Choreographer: Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov

Composer: Peter Tchaikovsky

Story: No one knows! It is speculated that Swan Lake may take some influence from Russian and German folk tales.

Premiere: 1895, Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

Quick Facts:

1. The origin of the story of Swan Lake is unknown.

2. The short stand-alone pas de deux ballet Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux choreographed by George Balanchine is actually originally intended for Swan Lake. This music was specifically composed to be additional choreography for the role of Odile in Act 3.

3. Originally, the roles of Odette and Odile were called for two different dancers. However, nowadays it is common practice for the same dancer to dance both roles.


The first production of Swan Lake was actually in 1877 with original choreography by Julius Reisinger, however this production flopped. It wasn’t until 1895 that the production was revived with choreography by Petipa that it was a success.

In addition to Petipa's new choreography, Tchaikovsky’s original score is not the score that was featured in the 1895 revival. Italian composer Riccardo Drigo revised Tchaikovsky’s score for the new production. It is this version of the music that ballet companies use today when performing Swan Lake! (Tchaikovsky himself never saw the 1895 revival production as he died in 1893).


ACT I: Prince Siegfried is celebrating his birthday in the town. His mother, the Queen, shows and tells him that he must choose a bride at the royal ball the following evening. Siegfried is upset that he cannot marry for love. His friend Benno tries to lift his troubled mood by suggesting that they go on a hunt when a flock of swans flies overhead. Siegfried and his friends take their crossbows and set off in pursuit of the swans.

Prince Siegfried in Act I of St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre's production.

ACT II: Siegfried arrives at the lakeside, just as a flock of swans land. He aims his crossbow but stops when one of them transforms into a beautiful maiden, Odette. At first, she is scared of Siegfried but explains that she and the other swans are victims of a spell cast by the evil sorcerer Rothbart. By day they are turned into swans and only at night, by the side of the enchanted lake – created from the tears of Odette's mother – do they return to human form. The spell can only be broken if one declared their true love for her. Rothbart suddenly appears and Siegfried threatens to kill him but Odette intercedes – if Rothbart dies before the spell is broken, it can never be undone. As Rothbart disappears, the swan maidens enter the lakeside. Siegfried sets about winning Odette's trust as the two fall in love. But as dawn arrives, the evil spell draws Odette and the other maidens back to the lake and they are turned into swans again.

The Royal Ballet's swan corp de ballet.

ACT III: Guests arrive at the palace for the royal ball. Rothbart arrives in disguise with his daughter, Odile, who is transformed to look like Odette. Though the princesses try to attract the prince with their dances, Siegfried has eyes only for Odile who he thinks is Odette. Odette actually appears at the castle window and attempts to warn Siegfried, but he does not see her. After dancing with Odile, he declares his love for Odile to the whole ball before Rothbart shows him a magical vision of Odette. Grief-stricken and realizing he was tricked, Siegfried hurries back to the lake.

Prince Siegfried and Odile (disguised as Odette) dance together in Act III (Bolshoi Ballet).

ACT IV: Siegfried returns to the lake and makes a passionate apology to Odette. She forgives him, but his betrayal cannot be undone – the curse cannot be undone. Rather than remain a swan forever, Odette chooses to die. Siegfried chooses to die with her and they leap into the lake, where they will stay together forever. This breaks Rothbart's spell over the swan maidens, causing him to lose his power over them and he dies.

The swans grieve with Odette at the beginning of Act IV. (English National Ballet)

Famous Productions and Adaptations:

Most stagings of Swan Lake are based on the 1895 version with Petipa and Diago; much of the traditional choreography is still danced today!

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake features an all-male cast with a plot focused on Siegfried struggling with his sexuality and the pressures of being royalty.

Black Swan 2010 movie starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis


Don't forget to sign up for our new Ballet Repertoire Class starting in 2021!

This class take place over the course of 10 weeks. Dancers will learn the original Petipa choreography from Swan Lake! This includes the dances of both the principal roles of Odette and Odile, as well as variations from each act of the ballet!

** Existing TBA students to receive 10% off term fees!! **


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