Facts about Swan Lake

We found 14 facts about Swan Lake

One of the world’s most famous ballet performances

A classic ballet in four acts, telling the story of love confronting evil. Although modified, each version delights with beautiful music composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and magnificent choreography, drawing on the work of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Swan Lake motifs have been used in other areas of art, from film works or literature to controversial street art. 

Now also interpreted by some as a political manifesto tool, it is undoubtedly a world-renowned work that has had a tremendous impact on the art of ballet.

Swan Lake
The premiere of Swan Lake took place on March 4, 1877.

The libretto was created by Vladimir Begichev and Vasily Gelcer, and the choreography was by Wentzel Reisinger.

The first performance was staged at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. It was not a success and nothing suggested it would one day become one of the best-known ballet pieces.  

Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, prominent choreographers working in St. Petersburg, gave the show the character needed to make it a success.

Petipa, along with Lev Ivanov, was responsible for the choreography created for the St. Petersburg premiere. The libretto was also modified by Modest Tchaikovsky, Petipa’s brother, who was responsible for the musical setting of the show.

The ballet was staged in St. Petersburg on January 15, 1895, and only then was it a success that guaranteed its popularity on the stages of other countries’ theaters.

The music for the performance was composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

It was the first ballet composed by a Russian composer, commissioned by the Moscow Theater in 1875/1876.

The libretto tells a love story of a girl bewitched into a swan, Odetta, and Prince Siegfried.

The play reflects the tenets of Romanticism - the main theme is tragic love, and supernatural motifs appear.

The story takes place in an unspecified corner of Germany. Odetta, enchanted by the evil sorcerer Rothbart, leads a life in the guise of a swan, as Queen of the flock. Siegfried is a prince who is faced with choosing his future wife at an upcoming ball.

In Act I, the prince and his friends decide to hunt swans and head to the lake. At one point, Siegfried gets separated from the rest of his companions, led by the Evil Spirit disguised as an owl.

In Act II, the young man notices birds landing but stops firing his crossbow when one of them turns into a beautiful girl - Odetta. Odetta tells him her story, and the young man falls in love with her.   

Act III focuses on the engagement ball, but the prince, enchanted with Odetta, pays no attention to potential candidates. Everything changes when Rothbart enters the hall with his daughter Odilia (the black swan) who, as a result of the spell, resembles the Swan Queen. The unaware prince begins to dance with Odilia and expresses his will to marry her. Odetta, who observes the entire scene through the window, flees to the lake. Siegfried realizes his mistake and follows his beloved, but it is too late.

In the last Act IV, Siegfried meets Odetta again at the lake, but the spell cast on the girl can no longer be removed because Siegfried pledges his love to another. The girl decides to kill herself so as not to spend the rest of her life in the guise of a bird. She throws herself into the lake, and the prince follows her. The act of sacrificing their lives takes the spell off the rest of Odetta’s companions, who regain their human form. The Evil Spirit is defeated, and the lovers ascend to heaven, being bound to each other forever.

Act II, by Lev Ivanov, is the least modified by other choreographers.

It is considered one of the most outstanding displays of choreography. It is from this part that the world’s most famous pas de quatre (dance of four) - the dance of the four swans - originates.

Act III features passages characteristic of the so-called divertissement ballet.

The appearance of the divertissement ballet is linked to the achievements of Marius Petipa, who was responsible for creating the choreography for Acts I and III. This type of show abounds in dance show-offs and folk dances, which can be observed precisely in Act III. These include the Hungarian czardas, a Spanish dance, a Neapolitan dance, and a Polish mazurka.

Over the years, the libretto of Swan Lake has been modified, also giving happy endings to the story.

For the first time in 1950, Konstantin Sergeyev staged a new version at the Mariinsky Theatre, mixing the version by Begichev and Gelcer with the one created by Petipa and Ivanov. The ending was changed to culminate in the happy lives of Odette and Siegfried. In Soviet Russia, as well as in China, it was often decided to stage the happy-ending version.

In 1986, the Paris Opera staged a production with an even more ominous ending than the original.

In this version, Prince Siegfried fights the sorcerer and loses, which allows the Evil Spirit to take Odetta.

In contrast, in the 2010 version, staged by the National Ballet of Canada, both Siegfried, and Rothbart die during the battle, and Odetta remains alone.

There are also versions of the libretto with a sad but unending death.

As an example, there is the 2006 New York City Ballet version, in which Siegfried’s betrayal condemns Odetta to spend the rest of her life as a swan. The lovers do not reunite in the act of death but are separated forever, as the Swan Queen sails away, and the prince stays behind.

The Grand Theater - National Opera in Warsaw has a domestic version of Swan Lake in its repertoire.

The author of the new libretto is Pawel Chynowski. The production contains only three acts plus a prologue and epilogue. It tells the story of the love affair between the future Russian Tsar Nicholas II and ballet dancer Mathilde Kschessinska.

Mathilde Kschessinska was Polish, born in St. Petersburg on August 31, 1872, and hit the stage there. She was the second St. Petersburg dancer after Pierina Legnani to receive the title prima ballerina assoluta. She met the future Tsar of Russia when she was 17. The couple dated, but in 1894, the Tsar officially became engaged to Alexandra Feodorovna (also known as the Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine)

In the Polish version, it is Kschessinska who plays the role of the black swan. The story ends happily when the tsarevich is reunited with his beloved Alix.

After the outbreak of war in Ukraine in February 2022, caused by Russian aggression, everything associated with Russia was boycotted. The same thing happened with the art.

Many theaters abandoned staging Russian ballets, including Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. At the same time, the National Ballet of Ukraine embarked on a world tour, staging, among other things, this production. This was met with comments and misunderstandings from some ballet lovers. The Ukrainian version is based on a libretto leading to a happy ending, hence some viewers are trying to interpret this as a symbolic message that the Evil Spirit (Russia) is finally defeated by the good. However, this has not been officially confirmed.

Swan Lake is the theme of many films about ballet.

One of the most famous, which brought Natalie Portman, who plays the female lead, her first ever Oscar, is titled Black Swan and tells the story of a ballet soloist who must discover the dark side within herself needed be authentic in the role of the black swan in the upcoming premiere of Swan Lake. The personification of the real black swan in the heroine’s eyes is her rival from the ballet group, portrayed by Mila Kunis. The girl eventually brings out the dark part of her personality and perfectly plays the role of both a white and black swan, but this leads to tragedy and losing herself in the meanderings of her own mind.

A rather innovative and controversial approach to the work was presented by Swedish choreographer Fredrik Rydman.

Rydman created a street dance/modern style show based on Swan Lake, titled Swan Lake Reloaded. It tells the story of heroin-addicted prostitutes (swans), united around their pimp, Rothbart. The original music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky is combined with contemporary genres such as hip-hop and techno.

Swan Lake is also present in literature.

In 1999, a fantasy novel called Black Swan was published. It centers around the person of Odilia.

In November 2016, French author Charlotte Gastaut published an illustrated children’s book retelling the initial ballet’s content.

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