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Ballet Essentials: Swan Lake

Our quick guide to Tchaikovsky’s soaring ballet masterpiece.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

2 February 2015 at 6.07pm | 1 Comment

The Story Begins…

By a lake, Prince Siegfried sees a swan transform into a beautiful maiden. He is immediately enchanted. She tells him only a faithful love will free her from her curse. Siegfried vows eternal love – but Von Rothbart has other plans…

Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic Score

Swan Lake was Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky’s first ballet score. It was commissioned in 1875 by Vladimir Petrovic Begichev, Director of the Moscow Imperial Theatres, who also selected the Czech choreographer Julius Reisinger to create the choreography. The first performances were met with widespread criticism against almost every aspect of the production, including the dancers, orchestra, designs and music (which was seen as ‘too symphonic’). However, at the ballet’s next production in 1895, Tchaikovsky’s score was recognized as a work of genius, and has since played a part in elevating ballet music as a whole to new expressive heights.

A Mysterious Fairytale

The original source for the story of Swan Lake has long been disputed. It is generally agreed to be a combination of several German fairytales, particularly Johann Karl August Musäus’s Der geraubte Schleier (The Stolen Veil), with elements of Russian folklore and a few contributions from Tchaikovsky.

Dance of the Little Swans

Of the many striking moments in the choreography of Swan Lake, one of the best loved is the pas de quatre or ‘Dance of the Little Swans’ from Act II. Set to Tchaikovsky’s distinctive music for chattering woodwind, the four dancers link hands and perform identical, fleet steps – among them coupésrelevéspas de chats, and batterie – in an extended sequence, only breaking the chain and ‘flying’ apart at the very end of the music. Other famous moments in the ballet include the national dances in Act III and, later in the same act, the ‘Black Swan’ pas de deux with Odile’s legendary 32 fouetté turns.

A Company Favourite

Anthony Dowell’s sumptuous production of Swan Lake for The Royal Ballet is based on the popular 1895 revision of the work by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa. The production’s atmospheric designs by Yolanda Sonnabend recall Imperial Russia and the work of Peter Carl Fabergé, while its choreography features all of the ballet’s most famous set pieces, with additional choreography by David Bintley and Frederick Ashton.


The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Celia Blakey, John and Susan Burns, Doug and Ceri King, Peter Lloyd and Gail Ronson. Original Production (1987) and revival (2000) supported by The Linbury Trust.


This article has 1 comment

  1. Thank you Rachel! nice resumé of this fantastic ballet.

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