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The Story of Swan Lake

BalletMet Dancers rehearsing Swan Lake BalletMet Dancers rehearsing Swan Lake BalletMet Dancers rehearsing Swan Lake BalletMet Dancers rehearsing Swan Lake BalletMet Dancers rehearsing Swan Lake BalletMet Dancers rehearsing Swan LakeSwan Lake, one of the most recognizable classical ballets, comes to the Ohio Theatre at the end of April! This ballet dates back to the late 1800s, with original choreography by Julius Reisinger and more well-known choreography from Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 revival.  Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic score has always been a core part of the ballet. 

Since the initial premiere, countless artists have created variations of the ballet. Some stick closely to Petipa’s steps. Others find a spark of inspiration in the original and then let their creativity wander, resulting in groundbreaking work like Matthew Bourne’s entirely-male Swan Lake (1995), Hannah Brictson’s satirical Olympic saga Swans (2019), and Dada Masilo’s magnificently iconoclastic Swan Lake (2010). 

But what is the original story of Swan Lake? The main characters tend to remain constant across productions: the White Swan Queen Odette, Prince Siegfried, the owl-magician Baron Von Rothbart, and his Black Swan daughter Odile. Baron Von Rothbart has cursed young women so that they are swans by day and human by night, trapped in a lake deep in a forest. The only cure for this curse is faithful love. 

The ballet often begins with Prince Siegfried at his coming-of-age celebration, where he receives a crossbow and a firm reminder from his mother the Queen. She insists it is time for him to pick a bride and get married. Distressed, Siegfried leaves the party and goes into the woods to hunt with his new crossbow. He stumbles upon a lake filled with beautiful swans. He takes aim, but before he can shoot, his target transforms into a beautiful woman! This is the first meeting of Siegfried and Odette, the White Swan. Despite his poor first impression, the two quickly fall in love. Siegfried promises his love to her before they are interrupted by Baron Von Rothbart and must flee. 

The next day, the Queen hosts another celebration. Visiting princesses from many lands come to try and win Siegfried’s favor. At first, he is resolute in his vow to Odette, accepting no one. However, Baron Von Rothbart disguises himself and his daughter Odile as visiting nobles. He makes Odile—the Black Swan—look like Odette. Siegfried falls for the deception and, thinking that Odile is his love Odette, promises himself to her. This breaks his vow to Odette and their hopes of ending the curse. 

At this point in the ballet, plotlines differ. The 1877 ballet ends with Siegfried ripping off one of Von Rothbart’s owl wings, stripping him of his power and breaking the curse. Siegfried and Odette then happily marry. Other versions have more tragic endings, where the curse continues and Odette remains a swan forever, or the two lovers commit suicide and break the curse in a final act of true love. In some productions, one of the two will die, leaving the other to grieve their lost love. These different versions may have different numbers of acts as well, from two to four. This doesn’t change the overall storyline too much. It simply reflects how the choreographer chooses to structure their storytelling. The original 1877 concept has changed in so many ways over the years, but the lasting intrigue of a cursed Swan and a conflicted Prince remains. 

In Edwaard Liang’s interpretation of Petipa’s Swan Lake, you’ll have to wait for the curtain to go up to learn our ending. Beyond the storyline, however, our production is unique in that we spend a bit more time with Baron Von Rothbart. Typically, he is an evil sorcerer with no explanation. Our Rothbart, on the other hand, is a more sympathetic character. He suffers under a curse as well. Long, long before the events of the ballet, he was a happy man with a family and a beloved daughter. However, one day, a witch cursed him. The curse had the unexpected side effect of allowing him to live on and on, far past when most men would have aged and died, and certainly far past his own family. One day, centuries after the curse took hold of him, he sees a little girl that reminds him of his own daughter. He raises this girl, Odile, as his own. 

Whether a happy ending or a tragic ending, the original steps or new choreography, structured in two or three or four acts, Swan Lake is a classic tale and a beautiful ballet. Twenty-four Trainees will take the stage alongside the BalletMet 2 and BalletMet Company dancers to tell the story of the swans. We cannot wait to share it with you! 

Thanks to our presenting sponsors Susan and Grant Douglass.

Reserve your seats now!

Written by Sara Wagenmaker