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Swan Lake was first performed at the Bolshoi Theater, in Moscow, in 1877. The original choreography was by Julius Reisinger. This was an incomplete and unsuccessful production, and has not survived. In 1894 a revised version of Act II (presumably choreographed by Lev Ivanov) was staged to memorialize Tchaikovsky, who had recently died. This inspired a new four-act production at the Maryinsky Theater, in St. Petersburg, on February 8, 1895 with choreography by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa. It has since been presented in varied versions by many companies, based mostly on the Ivanov/Petipa version.
The authorship of the ballet’s story (libretto) is uncertain. The libretto was published in 1876 for the 1877 premiere. Some Russian sources credit a theater head named Vladimir Begichev and a dancer colleague named Vasily Geltzer. Some presume that the composer himself gave a hand in the libretto’s reshaping of the Germanic tale about a princess bewitched into the form of a swan. For the 1895 production it is known that Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest had a hand in revising the libretto.
Swan Lake is undoubtably the most popular of all classical ballets. It is possible to see at least a major portion of the complete Swan Lake (i.e. the famous second act) danced by almost every ballet company in the world. And the ballet is a favorite of ballerinas as well as audiences. To succeed in Swan Lake is to become overnight a ballerina. Petipa and Ivanov are to the dancer what Shakespeare is to the actor: if you can succeed in their choreography parts, there is a suggestion that you can succeed at anything.
The popularity of Swan Lake is found its romantic and tragic story and the music that accompanies its unfolding. The heroines of other classics (Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, Giselle) all have some relation to the real world, they are peasant girls or princesses. The heroine of Swan Lake is a princess of the night; she is all magic, a creature of the imagination. She is a beautiful bird, except for a brief time – between midnight and dawn – when the mysterious sorcerer, Von Rothbart, allows her to become a beautiful woman. The great love she comes to have for a worldly prince is doomed at its start; she has not control over her destiny.
Act I: The Garden Prince Siegfried and his friends are celebrating his twenty-first birthday. The event is interrupted by the arrival of his mother, the Queen who presents him with a cross bow. She reminds her son that it is time he married. It is her wish that Siegfried select a bride at a ball she has arranged for him the following day. Marriage is not something he wants to think about yet, so as the Queen departs, he continues to dance with his friends. As the party draws to a close, the Prince is in a melancholy mood. He is roused by Benno who has sighted a flight of swans. Young Siegfried, deciding the night is still to be enjoyed, pursues the flock alone.
Act II: The Lakeside Prince Siegfried arrives at the lake, suddenly sees a magnificent swan in flight and carefully takes aim. To his astonishment, the bird transforms into a most beautiful young woman, Odette. Frightened, she begs the Prince not to shoot. She tells him that she and her companions have been captured by the wicked sorcerer, von Rothbart, and turned into swans. However, between midnight and dawn they are able to return to their human form. They swim on a lake which has been formed from her mother’s tears, shed at her daughter’s plight. They can only be saved if a man declares his undying love to her. Suddenly, von Rothbart appears and Prince Siegfried reaches for his crossbow. Once again Odette pleads with him not to shoot, for the death of the sorcerer could end all chances of release from the spell. As more swan maidens arrive, Siegfried and Odette express their growing love. In the distance, von Rothbart is menacing and ready to reclaim the bewitched creatures under his spell. Dawn approaches and although Siegfried tries to restrain Odette, von Rothbart’s power forces her and her companions to return to the lake as swans.
Act III: The Great Hall Courtiers and guests gather from various royal houses for Siegfried’s birthday celebration, each bringing a Princess eligible for his hand in marriage. With his mind clearly on Odette, Siegfried sinks more into despair at the choice he will have to make. At the moment of the decision, a fanfare announces the arrival of the Baron von Rothbart and his daughter Odile, disguised as Odette. Prince Siegfried, convinced he is with his beloved, declares his fidelity. He realizes too late he is the victim of a terrible plot and rushes towards the lake seeking his beloved. Act IV; The Lakeside The swan-maidens await their queen. In deepest distress Odette returns to them, and tries to drown herself in the lake. Her companions restrain her. Siegfried enters the glade in great despair, and begs her forgiveness. In Odile he had seen the image of Odette and had falsely addressed his words of affection to her. Furiously von Rothbart turns the elements against the lovers. As they fight Siegfried breaks von Rothbart’s wing, and the spell dies with the evil sorcerer. The swan maidens are all released, and Odette and Siegfried live happily ever after.