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Theatre / Swan Lake

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Swan Lake (Russian: Лебединое Озеро, Lebedinoye Ozero) is a ballet composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1875-1876. The scenario, initially in four acts, by Vladimir Begichev and Vasiliy Geltser was fashioned from Russian folk tales as well as an ancient German legend. It tells the story of Odette, a girl turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer's curse, and her romance with Prince Siegfried, who vows to love only her and save her from the curse. The choreographer of the original production was Julius Reisinger. The ballet received its premiere on February 27, 1877, at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow as Le lac des cygnes ("The Lake of the Swans"), French being the language of the Imperial Russian court. 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, Russia. For this revival, Tchaikovsky's score was revised by the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre's chief conductor and composer Riccardo Drigo.

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" due to the swans which are common in Russian romantic lyrics, while many of the movements of the corps de ballet originated from Slavonic ring-dances. According to Lopukhov, "both the plot of Swan Lake (despite the fact that it is based on German source), the image of the Swan, and the very idea of a faithful love are essentially Russian". Though the scenario is (as in the case of The Nutcracker) tenuously based on a story by a German author, in this case Johann Karl August Musäus' Der geraubte Schleier ("The Stolen Veil"), this provides only the general outline of the plot; the Russian folktale "The White Duck" also bears some resemblance to the story of the ballet and might have been another possible source. The contemporaries of Tchaikovsky recalled the composer taking great interest in the life story of Ludwig II, the Bavarian King and Count Palatine of the Rhine, who was constantly associated with the symbol of the Swan, and whom "whether consciously or not" Tchaikovsky chose as the prototype of the dream-haunted Prince Siegfried.

Alongside The Nutcracker, also composed by Tchaikovsky, it's probably the most famous ballet of all time. Any time a character in a movie or a television series goes to the ballet, it's likely to be Swan Lake by default. Even the general public, which is largely ignorant to the ballet, is familiar with at least the basics of Swan Lake.

Works that are based on or revolve around Swan Lake include:

In Russian media Swan Lake is somewhat of a trope in its own right. If there is any scene involving ballet or ballet will be shown on TV it will always be Swan Lake. Always. Specifically "the dance of the little swans" scene.

Also notable for having additional meaning for Russians because during the 1991 crisis, all normal television programs were shut down and all channels showed Swan Lake instead. Notably during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, last remaining independent TV station TV Rain aired Swan Lake as their final broadcast before shutting down.

Swan Lake has examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Some productions include a prologue that shows Odette being turned into a swan by Rothbart.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • Siegfried and Odette are more heroic in the revised versions than the 1877 version, which had Odette refuse to forgive the prince for his mistake, Siegfried falling for Odile without the need for a disguise, and throwing Odette's protective crown away, which resulted in both their deaths.
    • Some versions give Odile a more sympathetic portrayal and/or have her perform a HeelĖFace Turn.
  • Adapted Out:
    • Depending on the production, Siegfried's friend Benno, his tutor Wolfgang, and/or the Jester can be cut out without disrupting the narrative.
    • Odette's evil stepmother is traditionally adapted out, with von Rothbart as the main villain.
    • Film adaptations of the story often cut out the other swan-maidens, making Odette the sole enchanted swan.note 
    • The Northern Ballet and Scottish Ballet productions have removed von Rothbart in order to create an original story (in the case of the Northern Ballet production) or to modernise the narrative and make Odette less passive (in the case of the Scottish Ballet production).
  • Alleged Lookalikes: Odile is an exact copy of Odette, but she dresses in black while Odette wears white.
  • All Just a Dream: Some productions imply that the story is a dream of Siegfried's or Odette's.
  • All There in the Manual: Odette's stepmother, her family, and the story behind her curse were only explained in the libretto for the 1877 version of the ballet, all of which is left out of modern productions.
  • Animal Stereotypes: The swans are graceful and elegant, and Rothbart, who's like an owl, is watchful and predatory.
  • Anti-Villain: Some productions portray Odile as a sympathetic or even tragic figure.
  • Ascended Extra: Some productions cast a different dancer to play Odile so she can have a bigger role rather than just appearing at the ball in act III.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: In some versions of the ballet, Rothbart defeats and kills Siegfried and forces Odette to marry him, or forces Siegfried to marry his daughter Odile.
  • Betty and Veronica: Odette and Odile are this for Siegfried, with the demure, innocent Odette as the Betty and the vivacious, seductive Odile as the Veronica.
  • Big Bad: Von Rothbart is the main force of evil in the ballet, though originally the role went to Odette's wicked stepmother.
  • Big Bad Friend: In some productions Rothbart doubles as Wolfgang, Siegfried's tutor, or as an evil advisor to the Queen Mother.
  • Bittersweet Ending: When Siegfried accidentally confesses his love to Odile, he seals Odette's fate: her spell is now unbreakable. Odette, doomed to swan form perpetually, leaps into the lake and drowns herself. Unwilling to live without her, Siegfried follows suit and the two die together. Sometimes, the two are shown rising to heaven in an apotheosis. In some versions of the ballet, this is changed to a happy ending, where Odette lives and she and the other swans are freed from their captivity, and sometimes this includes a more sympathetic role for an Odile who is redeemed as well.
  • Canon Foreigner:
    • In The Royal Ballet and The National Ballet of Canada productions, Prince Siegfried has two sisters whereas most productions imply that he is an only child.
    • Lac by Jean Christophe Maillot adds a father for the prince who is the king. Most productions donít explain the kingís absence though itís safe to assume that he is already dead by the time of the balletís events. note 
  • Clip Its Wings: In happy endings, von Rothbart's power is usually broken at the end by tearing off one or both of his wings.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Odette wears white. Odile wears black. This was not the case in early versions of the ballet, where Odile wore gaudy colors.
  • Composite Character: In the Graeme Murphy version the characters of Rorthbart and Odile are combined into a baroness.
  • Curse Escape Clause: Siegfried pledging undying love for Odette and subsequently marrying her would break the curse von Rothbart cast, so he disguises his daughter to fool the prince into declaring love for another.
  • Crying a River: The titular lake is made of tears. In the original version, they were cried by Odette's grandfather when his daughter, her mother, died, while in the later revised version they were cried by Odette's mother herself when Odette was changed into a swan.
  • Daddy's Little Villain: Some interpretations of Odile, especially when the two are played by different women.
  • Damsel in Distress: Odette and all the other swan maidens are captives of von Rothbart.
  • Disneyfication: Depending on the staging, the Bittersweet Ending may be changed to Happily Ever After. The same change was made in the animated feature The Swan Princess, a direct example applied to the ballet's plot.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Several endings have the other swan maidens turn against Rothbart and kill him.
  • Downer Ending: There are a few alternative endings including Siegfried's accidental betrayal causes Odette to turn into a swan permanently and Siegfried is left alone to mourn her and Siegfried attempts to fight Von Rothbart with the result that they both fall into the lake and drown, leaving Odette both widowed and cursed forever. Another has Rothbart kill Siegfried and claim Odette forever, taking her away as Siegfried futilely reaches towards them in his dying moments.
    • The original ending was also a downer. After Siegfried throws away Odetteís protective crown and her stepmother flies off with it while disguised as an owl, the lake overflows and the lovers are drowned.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: In some versions where the prologue is used, Siegfried dreams of Odette and her transformation before meeting her. In one variation, this turns out to also be foreshadowing a Dying Dream that he has in the finale.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The 1877 version of the ballet is very different from the popularized 1895 one. Odette and her friends could voluntarily shapeshift into swans, with her grandfather's magic crown protecting her from her evil stepmother, and von Rothbart and Odile were the witch's minions. Odette also refused to forgive Siegfried for his betrayal, which drove him to cast the crown from her head, and the lake overflowed and killed them both.
  • Evil Counterpart/Evil Twin: Odile to Odette, although given that she has no established character beyond being The Vamp, whether or not she's evil depends on the interpretation of the production.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Von Rothbart is a wicked sorcerer who cursed Odette and other maidens to become swans.
  • Fainting: It's common for the Queen Mother to faint when Siegfried goes off to find Odette after von Rothbart and Odile trick him.
  • Gayngst: The Matthew Bourne version has the prince in turmoil over not being accepted due to his sexuality.
  • Gender Flip:
    • The Matthew Bourne version features male swans.
    • In Lac by Jean Christophe Maillot, the Rothbart character is portrayed by a female dancer. Erik Bruhnís 1967 production for the National Ballet of Canada also have the Rothbart character portrayed by a female.
    • At least one production had Odile played by a male dancer.
  • HeelĖFace Turn: Odile turns good in some versions, with a kid-friendly production having von Rothbart turn good as well.
  • I Gave My Word: von Rothbart exploits this in one of the endings by forcing Siegfried to marry Odile, who he'd mistakenly sworn to love.
  • Idiot Ball: Siegfried has it bad in the 1981 anime, where Odile tells him her real name and he still thinks she's Odette, including thinking he misheard Odette originally telling him her name. Although Odile comes alone in this version.
  • Involuntary Shape Shifting: Odette and the other swan maidens are cursed to become swans during the day.
  • I Want Grandkids: Siegfried's mother wants her son to marry and have children before she passes on.
  • Karmic Death: Depending on the production, the lovers or Rothbart can die this way.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Siegfried is a classic prince and is devoted to his love.
  • Leitmotif: The swans' theme is repeated all throughout the ballet.
  • Light Feminine Dark Feminine: Odette is light while Odile is dark.
  • Light Is Good/Dark Is Evil: Played straight with Odette and Odile, who wear white and black tutus respectively.
  • Love at First Sight: Odette and Siegfried fall in love immediately on the night the prince is to choose his bride.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Odile is von Rothbart's daughter who seduces the prince.
  • Master of Illusion: Von Rothbart uses glamour magic to make his daughter an exact copy of Odette, and in some productions hides his true, monstrous appearance this way.
  • Mistaken Declaration of Love: Von Rothbart tricks Siegfried into declaring his love to his daughter Odile, whom he has disguised as Odette, and so dooms the lovers.
  • Multiple Endings: Quite a few endings have been performed, most of them bittersweet. This video lists many variations.
    • The 1877 ballet, which few modern productions follow, has Odette refuse to forgive Siegfried for his betrayal. Unwilling to be without her in life or death, he throws the magic crown protecting her into the lake, which overflows and kills them both.
    • In the 1895 ballet, 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.
    • The happiest ending has Siegfried struggle with Von Rothbart and tear off one of his wings, thereby destroying his powers. Siegfried has broken the spell of the swan maidens and marries Odette.
    • In yet another, 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.
    • One has a Hope Spot. Odette forgives Siegfried for his betrayal and the promise of reconciliation shines momentarily... before Rothbart summons forth a violent storm, causing the lake to overflow and drown Siegfried. When the storm subsides, Odette is left alone to mourn the dead Siegfried.
    • The Paris Opera version is a straight up The Bad Guy Wins. Rothbart fights with Siegfried, who is overcome and dies, leaving Rothbart to take Odette triumphantly up to the heavens in bird form.
    • Still another has the Prince drag Rothbart into the lake, where both drown. Odette is left as a swan, cursed and widowed forever. The Ballet Jörgen version has a similar ending except that Rothbart's death frees Odette from his curse.
    • Another ending has a Pyrrhic Victory. Odette kills herself, and as Siegfried goes to do the same, Rothbart blocks his way. They fight, with Siegfried victorious, and the other swan maidens break free and trample Rothbart. That done, Siegfried goes to follow Odette into death. His friend Benno fetches his body from the lake.
    • There is an ending where Siegfried tries to kill Rothbart with his crossbow, missing and hitting Odette instead. Odette falls as a human since Rothbart's spell is now broken. The Prince embraces her as she dies, then carries her lifeless body into the lake, where he also drowns himself.
    • The 1981 anime version has an ending that is played very ambiguously as to whether it's happy or bittersweet, as Odette and Siegfried could have survived, or it could be their spirits that are seen reuniting in the end. It's done so that either interpretation is valid.
    • The Royal Danish Ballet ending has Siegfried being forced by Rothbart to marry his daughter, after condemning Odette to her curse as a swan forever by mistakenly professing his love to Odile.
    • The 2019 Dutch National Ballet version combined several elements of various endings, having Rothbart summon Odile in the finale to force the prince's hand. When Siegfried persists in picking Odette, Odile takes her away while Rothbart kills him with a storm, leaving the courtiers and Benno to search for Siegfried and mourn over his body.
    • The Boston Ballet had Rothbart defeated, but his spell was unbreakable even in death, leaving Odette a swan. Siegfried followed Odette into the lake and drowned. A similar ending by the Royal Ballet had Siegfried rescue Odette only to find her dead.
    • The Matthew Bourne version has the Prince confined to an asylum as he is considered mad. The Swan appears and dances with the Prince, reassuring him of his love. However, the rest of the swans turn on the lead Swan when it becomes clear that the Swan values his relationship with the Prince more than with them. They separate the lovers and attack the Prince. The Swan leaps in to save his lover and gets killed in the process. A heartbroken Prince wails and collapses onto his bed; the Queen finds her son dead. However, the final tableau shows the Swan tenderly embracing a young Prince.
    • The Milwaukee Ballet version has Rothbart stabbing Odette before Siegfriedís eyes. Odette mortally wounded, is carried to the lake by Siegfried where they drown themselves. Their love defeats both Rothbart and Odlie. As in as in the 1895 ballet, the apotheosis reveals the lovers reunited in death.
    • The Bolshoi Ballet production has a The Bad Guy Wins ending as Siegfried is defeated in a confrontation with Rothbart, who seizes Odette and takes her away to parts unknown before the lovers can unite, and Siegfried is left by himself at the lake.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Prince Siegfried is said to be based on King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the nineteenth century Bavarian monarch often referred to as "the Swan King."
  • No Ontological Inertia: Inverted; Odette warns Siegfried not to kill Von Rothbart until the curse is broken, because otherwise it will become permanent. Though in some versions, cutting off his wings will break the spell instead.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: The anime has Odile as a Hypercompetent Sidekick to her father, while Rothbart himself is a lovesick buffoon...until the ending, where he conjures up tornados, defeats Siegfried in a swordfight and forces Odette's hand in marriage. That said, Odetteís explanation of the circumstances behind her being captured by Rothbart does foreshadow his being very dangerous at the end.
  • Ominous Owl: Rothbart is traditionally portrayed as a fearsome owl-like creature, conflating his role with Odette's stepmother, who in the earliest plays appeared as an owl.
  • Only Sane Man: The Jester sees right through Odile's deception when no one else does, but no one believes him.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different: Women cursed to become swans during the day as opposed to the usual night for animal transformation times.
  • People Puppets: Rothbart makes the other swan maidens separate Odette and Siegfried in Act 2, preventing her from following him to the palace. In one version, he forces them to attack Siegfried and push him into the lake, where he drowns.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: In earlier versions of the ballet, Odile wore a rainbow colored jewel-laden dress to suggest she was an enchantress.
  • Please Wake Up: This version of the ending has Benno find Siegfried's body and try to revive him, before giving up and carrying him away.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: The Jester is mainly there to act the comic fool, and is usually left out of modern productions.
  • The Power of Love: This can save the lovers, doom them, or both.
  • Rebel Prince: Siegfried is sometimes characterized this way, wanting to marry for love instead of politics and generally being unhappy with the weight of the crown.
  • Redemption Equals Death: In some productions, Siegfried dies with Odette to atone for his betrayal.
  • Related Differently in the Adaptation: In English National Balletís My First Swan Lake, a kid friendly adaptation of the ballet, Rothbart and Odile are siblings rather than father and daughter in traditional productions.
  • Revised Ending: Russia and China popularized changing the bittersweet traditional endings to a happy one where both lovers survive and are wed.
  • Setting Update: Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake is set during contemporary times and is based upon the relationships between Princess Diana, Camilla Parker-Bowles and Prince Charles. The love triangle between Odette, Siegfried, and Baroness von Rothbart consigns Odette to a sanatorium, where she escapes into a dream-world of swans.
  • Shapeshifting Lover: Odette is cursed to become a swan during the day, only retaining her human form at night.
  • Small Reference Pools: Put it this way, if a work features a ballet and itís not Swan Lake, itís either The Nutcracker or somebody is really committed to broadening the audienceís minds a bit.
  • Spectacular Spinning: In one of the ballet's most famous moments, Odile executes thirty-two fouettés while seducing the Prince.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: In most versions of the story Odette and Siegfried are doomed to not be together in life.
  • Swans A-Swimming: Odette and the other maidens are swans during the daylight hours, and their human forms retain swanlike qualities in dancing.
  • Together in Death: Odette and Siegfried die together in some endings and are seen happy in the afterlife.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: The Queen Mother, with her insistence that Siegfried marry, helps jumpstart Rothbart's plan to doom him.
  • The Vamp: Odile, though some versions make her more sympathetic and thus she becomes a mix of Broken Bird and Femme Fatale instead.
  • Villainous Crush: Some versions have Rothbart cursing Odette because she has rejected his marriage proposal, such as the 1981 anime. In the anime version, Odile develops a crush on Siegfried as well.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: The 1877 ballet had Odette and her companions freely able to turn into swans and back.
  • The Von Trope Family: Von Rothbart is the villain.
  • Wicked Stepmother: The original production had given one to Odette to be the main villain (though production material suggests that Odette was turned into a swan to protect her from the witch rather than being cursed directly by her). Rothbart and Odile are her minions. Obviously, most productions avert this by making Rothbart the main villain.