The Story of Swan Lake in Black and White - Michigan Opera Theatre

The Story of Swan Lake in Black and White

By Jon Teeuwissen, MOT Artistic Advisor for Dance

Swan Lake performed by the Bolshoi Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, August 2019, starring Semyon Chudin as Prince Siegfried and Olga Smirnova as Odette.© Damir Yusupov


Swan Lake is perhaps the most well-known ballet, next to The Nutcracker. Petipa choreographed this famous ballet, danced to a glorious score by Tchaikovsky, in 1877. Swan Lake is the love story of Prince Siegfried, who on a hunting trip encounters a flock of swans, falls in love with the Swan Queen, Odette, and swears his allegiance and undying love to her. As a result of a curse by the evil sorcerer Baron von Rothbart, Odette can only take human form between midnight and daybreak. Only faithful, true love can break the spell. This love is expressed in the White Swan pas de deux, danced to one of the most familiar sections of the music, and is both gentle and tender. During this pas de deux, Odette’s timidness and sense of fear of the Prince transitions to acceptance of his love and hope for the future.

To prevent his spell from being broken, von Rothbart transforms his own daughter, Odile, to look exactly like Odette. Dressed in black, she is presented to Price Siegfried at his birthday party, and he thinks she is actually his beloved Odette. Filled with seduction, confidence and bravura dancing, the Black Swan pas de deux is in complete contrast to the White Swan pas de deux. Technically one of the most difficult variations for a ballerina, this piece is famous for its 32 fouettésa turn requiring the dancer to use her leg to whip herself around, made even harder turning on pointe. Many consider it to be the most exciting dancing in the entire ballet. 

Swan Lake doesn’t end well. Thinking she is his Odette, Prince Siegfried swears his love for Odile, both destroying his future with the Swan Queen and dooming her to death. In most productions, the prince, distraught, commits suicide by jumping into the lake. But there have been many variations on a theme. The Bolshoi Ballet created great controversy in the ballet world with a 1984 production that had a different ending, where Prince Siegfried and Odette lived happily ever after.

For more information on Swan Lake, please have a look at our website where you can access and view two very different versions of the full ballet – one traditional and one non-traditional. You can also connect via Zoom for a virtual meeting of our new Dance Dialogues on Tuesday, August 18 at 3 p.m.. Guest facilitator David Lyman, dance critic, will share the history and background of Swan Lake, and compare and contrast the Bolshoi and the Matthew Bourne productions. Please join us!

Dance Dialogues

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