SWAN LAKE BALLET
SWAN LAKE BALLET
Enjoy Swan Lake ballet performances in Bolshoi Theatre, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre and Kremlin Palace
Many critics have disputed the original source of the Swan Lake story. The libretto is based on a story by the German author Johann Karl August Musäus, “Der geraubte Schleier” (The Stolen Veil), 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 supposedly been marked by the sign of Swan and who—either consciously or not—was chosen as the prototype of the dreamer Prince Siegfried.
The Russian ballet patriarch Fyodor Lopukhov has called Swan Lake a “national ballet” because of its swans, which he argues originate from Russian lyrically romantic sources, while many of the movements of the corps de ballet originated from Slavonic ring-dances. 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.”
Below is a synopsis based on the 1895 libretto. Swan Lake is generally presented in either four Acts, four Scenes.
A magnificent park before a palace.
Prince Siegfried is celebrating his birthday with his tutor, friends and peasants. The revelries are interrupted by Siegfried’s mother, the Queen, who is concerned about her son’s carefree lifestyle. She 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 and the tutor try to lift his troubled mood. As evening falls, Benno sees a flock of swans flying overhead and suggests they go on a hunt. Siegfried and his friends take their crossbows and set off in pursuit of the swans.
A lakeside clearing in a forest by the ruins of a chapel. A moonlit night.
Siegfried has become separated from his friends. He arrives at the lakeside clearing, just as a flock of swans land nearby. He aims his crossbow at the swans, but freezes when one of them transforms into a beautiful maiden, Odette. At first, she is terrified of Siegfried. When he promises not to harm her, she tells him that she is the Swan Queen Odette. She and her companions are victims of a terrible spell cast by the evil owl-like sorcerer Von 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 who has never loved before swears to love Odette forever. Von Rothbart suddenly appears. Siegfried threatens to kill him but Odette intercedes – if Von Rothbart dies before the spell is broken, it can never be undone.
As Von Rothbart disappears, the swan maidens fill the clearing. Siegfried breaks his crossbow, and sets about winning Odette’s trust as the two fall in love. But as dawn arrives, the evil spell draws Odette and her companions back to the lake and they are turned into swans again.
An opulent hall in the palace.
Guests arrive at the palace for a costume ball. Six princesses are presented to the prince, one of whom his mother hopes he will choose as his bride. Then Von Rothbart arrives in disguise with his enchantress daughter, Odile, transformed so that she appears identical to Odette in all respects. Though the princesses try to attract the prince with their dances, Siegfried, mistaking Odile for Odette, has eyes only for her and dances with Odile. Odette appears as a vision and vainly tries to warn Siegfried that he is being deceived. But Siegfried remains oblivious and proclaims to the court that he intends to make Odile his wife. Von Rothbart shows Siegfried a magical vision of Odette and he realises his mistake. Grief-stricken, Siegfried hurries back to the lake.
Odette is distraught at Siegfried’s betrayal. The swan-maidens try to comfort her, but she is resigned to death. Siegfried returns to the lake and finds Odette. He makes a passionate apology. She forgives him and the pair reaffirm their love. Von Rothbart appears and insists that Siegfried fulfill his pledge to marry Odile, after which Odette will be transformed into a swan forever. Siegfried chooses to die alongside Odette and they leap into the lake. This breaks Von Rothbart’s spell over the swan maidens, causing him to lose his power over them and he dies. In an apotheosis, the swan maidens watch as Siegfried and Odette ascend into the Heavens together, forever united in love.
Princess Odette, the White Swan is the lead ballerina role. Von Rothbart’s daughter Odile is danced by the same ballerina; this facilitates the scene in which Odile, disguised as Odette, tricks Prince Siegfried into being unfaithful. Odette also appears in many adaptations of the ballet.
Odette is often referred to as a “tragic heroine” and is always portrayed as vulnerable, gentle, caring, modest and warm-hearted. She appears in the second and fourth acts, though she also makes a minor appearance in the third act when she appears as a vision during the Ball. As the heroine of the story, she has been transformed into a swan by Von Rothbart 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 from the tears of her grieving mother after Rothbart kidnapped her. 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. When Odette falls in love with Prince Siegfried, hope for her freedom has come at last, until Siegfried is tricked into breaking his vow by Von Rothbart, trapping Odette as a swan forever. To escape the spell, Odette chooses to die and Siegfried chooses to die with her; the lovers drown themselves in the lake and are reunited forever in death.
Prince Siegfried is the lead male ballet dancer role. Like Odette and Von Rothbart, he appears in many adaptations of the ballet, although he has a different name in almost every one, despite retaining some or all of his characteristics.
Out of all the characters in the ballet, Siegfried is the only one to appear in all four acts. He is a young Prince, full of bright spirit and enthusiasm, and seems to have little interest in his royal role. He clearly cares more for socialising, merry events and sporting activities, as shown when he is celebrating his 21st birthday with his best friend, Benno and his tutor, Wolfgang. When his mother, the Queen tells him he must soon marry, he refuses because he has not yet found a woman of his preference. His favourite hobby is hunting, so to end his birthday celebrations, he and Benno head into the forest on a hunting expedition with their companions. However, everything takes an ironic twist on this expedition, for deep in the forest, Siegfried and his friends arrive at a lake, where Siegfried spots a beautiful swan wearing a crown. But before he can shoot it, the swan transforms into the most beautiful woman he has ever seen: Princess Odette, the Queen of the Swans. Struck by her beauty, Siegfried falls in love with her at once. She tells him her story, explaining that she is under a spell of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. It is at this point in the ballet that Siegfried’s carefree spirit is overcome by a sudden growth to manhood out of his love for Odette and from that point, it becomes his goal to save and marry her. He invites her to attend a Ball at his castle and promises to choose her as his bride, but everything takes a turn for the worse.
On the night of the Ball, Siegfried is thinking of nothing but Odette, and after rejecting various potential brides in her favour, he is overjoyed when she finally arrives. But it is actually Von Rothbart’s daughter Odile in disguise, for Rothbart has magically disguised her as Odette. Suspecting nothing, Siegfried falls for the trickery and pledges eternal love to Odile, thinking she is Odette and now all seems lost. Siegfried follows Odette back to the lake and begs her to forgive him, swearing that he loves her only. She forgives him, but explains that she has chosen to die so she can escape Rothbart’s spell. Unwilling to live without her, Siegfried chooses to die with Odette and the lovers throw themselves into the lake, reuniting in death for all eternity.
Odile, the Black Swan is the daughter of Von Rothbart, who is also an evil witch and who is willing to follow in her father’s footsteps. She only appears in the third act, usually dressed in black (though in the 1895 production, she did not wear black) and magically disguised as Odette in order to help her father trick Siegfried into breaking his vow of love to Odette. In some productions, Odile is known as the Black Swan and, rather than being magically disguised as her, is actually Odette’s evil twin or double; an example of this type of portrayal is seen in the production by the Bolshoi Ballet. There are also some productions where Odette and Odile are danced by two different ballerinas.
Von Rothbart is the central antagonist in the ballet. Von Rothbart is rarely seen in human form, as he appears as a giant owl in the second and fourth acts. His human form is seen only in the third act with his daughter Odile, when she dances with the Prince Siegfried.
Von Rothbart is a powerful and evil 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 von Rothbart’s curse upon Odette is unknown; several versions, including two feature films, have suggested reasons, but none is typically explained by the ballet.
When von Rothbart realises that Odette has fallen in love with Prince Siegfried, he tries to intervene by tricking Siegfried into declaring his love for his daughter Odile. The plan succeeds, yet in the end, von Rothbart is not triumphant. When Siegfried and Odette make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of their love by throwing themselves into the lake, von Rothbart’s powers are overcome and he is destroyed.
However, his fate is different in some versions, as there are productions where von Rothbart is triumphant and survives. One example is the Bolshoi Ballet’s version, where he is portrayed as a sadistic schemer and plays a wicked game of fate with Siegfried, which he wins at the end, causing Siegfried to lose everything. In the second American Ballet Theatre production of Swan Lake, he 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 defeats him.