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Understanding Ballets: Swan Lake

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

Swan Lake: the world-renown iconic masterpiece and repertoire… every dancer and spectator’s dream.

While attending a ballet, the beautiful technique of the dancers might be the focal point of the show, especially for the novice audience. In contrast to a play where characters are easily identifiable, ballet requires some analysis. Before attending or viewing a performance, comprehending the complete story through the history, characters, setting, plot, and themes can make for a more engaging experience. As an avid theatergoer and seasoned dancer myself, I believe the artistry is just as important--if not more--than the technique in order to understand the complete scope of the story.

In support of Culturally’s mission, ballet and dance should be accessible to all! Let’s begin with a deep dive into the mystifying plot of Swan Lake with a front-row seat the magic.


Swan Lake was the first ballet ever performed. The Russian and German-influenced choreography was commissioned to Czech artist Julius Reisinger for the Bolshoi Ballet company in 1877. The intricate and well know score was composed by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky. Sounds familiar? The composer was well known for his work in the ballet realm with contributions such as The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. The masterful score behind the dark scenes of Swan Lake highlights the themes of mystery and romance lingering throughout the choreography. Today, a staple in every major company’s repertoire, the choreography depicts that of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 revival for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg.

Major Characters

The two main characters Odile (black swan) and Odette (white swan) are usually played by the same principal dancer. The two symbolize a test of strength with good versus evil.

A ballet company has various ranks beginning with apprentices, corps de ballet, soloists, and more in between, with the highest rank being a principal dancer. The technique and artistry of these dancers make them the elite of the elite. Odile/Odette requires high technical mastery and demanding artistic emotion. The mental and physical preparation for this role is so demanding, that dancers usually perform Odile/Odette only once or twice in a season. Odile is commonly recognized as the role with the 32-fouettés. In the Black Swan variation in Act 2, the dancer will perform 32-consecutive fouettés in place on one leg, classifying it as one of the hardest steps in ballet and the hardest variation to perform.

Princess Odette was transformed into a white swan through a curse (ah ballet and its curses).

Prince Siegfried, also played by a principal, falls in love with Odette.

Baron Von Rothbart is the sorcerer who enchants Odette.

Odile is Rothbart’s daughter, who is later transformed into the Black Swan. Can we sense where this is going?

Of course, we must shout-out the corps de ballet--the multitude of dancers in the white tutus--who truly bring the show to life. The trademark swan arms can be found in Act 2 and Act 4 to symbolize the wings of a swan.



New viewers to the spectacle of Swan Lake are often surprised at the true intricacy of the plot. If you blink, chances are you missed something important.

Act 1 (Park setting)

Princess Odette meets Rothbart, who turns her into a swan. Prince Siegfried celebrates his birthday with his friend Benno. His careless yet lavish life angers the Queen, who demands he takes a bride at the ball that evening. Siegfried wants to marry for love (Romeo and Juliet vibes anyone). A flock of swans approaches, and Benno and Siegfried head off to hunt the swans.

Act 2 (A lakeside moonlit night)

Siegfried proceeds to hunt the swans, but suddenly one transforms into a maiden--Odette. Siegfried warns he won’t harm her, and she explains the spell by Rothbart: by day, she is a swan, but by night, she becomes a woman by the lake. To break the spell, someone must love Odette forever. The prince wishes to kill Rothbart, but the spell can never be undone if he dies. The two fall in love and Odette becomes a swan once more.

Act 3 (A palace ballroom)

Now it’s time for the ball mentioned in the beginning. Six princesses come to win the hand of the prince. Rothbart arrives with his own daughter Odile, who he transformed to look like Odette. Poor Siegfried only watches Odile who he believes is Odette, for he promised to love only her. He announces his engagement to Odile, when suddenly Rothbart mistakenly reveals the truth. The prince rushes to the lake to undo his mistake and meet up with the real Odette.

Act 4 (A palace ballroom)

Siegfried apologizes to Odette, but his betrayal is irreversible. The only way for Odette to break her swan form forever is to die, and the two jump into the lake. As a result, all other swan maidens who were struck with the same spell are free and Rothbart dies.



What a whirlwind of a story! Now that you know the story, watch the entire ballet! I guarantee once you watch one, you’ll never want to stop learning more about each ballet or choreography work throughout history!

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