All About Swan Lake

Today is the first of a series that will be popping up every now and then – All About the Ballet!  We will overview the structures, plots, and notable moments and casting of different ballets.  You can see all of them together by clicking the link under Series at the bottom of every page, or by clicking HERE.  Our first one is Swan Lake, of course.  Let’s go!

(Please note that the structure and synopsis are both based on the American Ballet Theatre 2005 version, and all my own work.)


Before we get into the plot, it’s important that we have a detailed structure of the ballet to overview and reference.  This will make basically no sense to you, but here it is:

Act 1

  1. Overture
  2. Peasant’s dance: The peasants enter and bow to the Prince and his friends
  3. Waltz: The princesses dance with the Prince and his friends
  4. Prince Variation: The prince dances a solo
  5. Pas d’action: The queen enters, gives the crossbow, and tells Siegfried he must marry
  6. Pas de trois: A celebratory dance
    1. Adagio
    2. Male variation
    3. Female variation 1
    4. Female variation 2
    5. Coda
  7. Peasant’s dance: The peasants dance and then exit
  8. Pas d’action: The Prince and his friends get their crossbows and go hunting

Act 2

  1. Hunting scene: The Prince gets separated from his friends
  2. Pas d’action: Odette tells Siegfried her story
  3. Swan scene: The swans come onstage and Siegfried finds them
  4. Waltz: The swans dance
  5. Dances of the Swans
    1. Adagio
    2. Four swans
    3. Two swans
    4. Female variation
    5. General coda
  6. Theme: Odette is turned back into a swan

Act 3

  1. March: The party guests perform a celebratory dance
  2. Waltz: The Queen reminds Siegfried he must make a decision, the princesses dance
  3. Pas d’action: Odile and Von Rothbart make a brief appearance
  4. Czardas Divertissement
  5. Spanish Divertissement
  6. Neapolitan Divertissement
  7. Russian Divertissement
  8. Mazurka: The guests dance
  9. Pas De Deux: Siegfried and Odile dance together
    1. Adagio
    2. Male Variation
    3. Female Variation
    4. Coda
  10. Pas d’action: Siegfried realizes his mistake

Act 4

  1. Scene: Odette and the swans enter
  2. Adagio: Odette and Siegfried dance together
  3. Theme: Siegfried and Rothbart fight, Odette goes back to swan

(NOTE: I’ve added explanations of what happens in each scene, but it needs more explanation).

Plot or Synopsis

Let’s overview the plot of the ballet now that we know the order of the scenes:

The ballet opens with Prince Siegfried’s birthday party.  Princesses and peasants are in the park to celebrate.  Many dances are performed.  The Queen enters.  She tells the Prince that she must choose a wife that evening at the ball.  She then gives Prince Siegfried a crossbow.  More dances are performed, including a celebratory pas de trois.  Prince Siegfried and his friends decide to go swan hunting after the Prince sees one in the sky.  The friends and Siegfried head off.

The Prince and his friends are wandering through the woods.  The Prince gets separated from his friends.  He sees a large, beautiful swan.  He aims his crossbow at it, but, right before he could shoot, the swan turned into a beautiful woman.  Siegfried, taken aback, abruptly stands up to inspect this swan-woman.  Scared of his crossbow, Odette at first runs away from Siegfried.  But, when Siegfried promises not to shoot her, she relaxes and tells the Prince her story.  She is Odette, a princess who had been cursed by Von Rothbart, an evil sorcerer, to live as a swan forever.  She is swan by day, and beautiful woman by night.  She lives underneath Von Rothbart’s castle, by the giant lake full of her tears.  The curse can only be broken if one who has never loved before swears love to her forever.

Von Rothbart appears, and Siegfried attempts to shoot him with his crossbow.  But Odette stops him, as if Von Rothbart dies before the curse is broken, then it is permanent.  After Von Rothbart and Odette leave, many swan maidens appear and perform many dances, including the famous Four Swans number.  Odette comes in and out inbetween dances.  Siegfried and Odette perform a pas de deux.  Then Von Rothbart appears and Odette and the rest of the maidens turn back into swans.

It’s the evening of the next day, and it’s the birthday ball for Siegfried.  A march is performed to celebrate.  The Queen tells Siegfried that he needs to choose one to marry that evening.  Siegfried is angry because he says he doesn’t love any of the people there.  Then, Odile, Odette’s evil twin, appears.  The Prince is convinced that Odile is Odette.  Von Rothbart is also with Odile.  The Prince is very grateful because then he can choose to marry the one he actually loves, Odette.  But, little does he know that it isn’t actually Odette.  They go off into the outskirts of the party.  Many celebratory divertissements are performed.  Finally, Odile and Von Rothbart come back out.  A vision of the real Odette is projected in the back, but the Prince doesn’t notice.  Odile and Siegfried perform a pas de deux, after which the Prince swears his love forever to Odile, who he thinks is Odette.  Von Rothbart and Odile then reveal their identity by showing the Prince the vision of Odette again.  He realizes his mistake, and, infuriated, runs out of the ball.

Prince Siegfried arrives in the forest, where he tells Odette what happened and apologizes.  More dances are performed both by Odette, Siegfried, and the corps de ballet of swans.  Von Rothbart appears, and, after a brief confrontation by Siegfried, wins the fight.  Odette is turned back into a swan and the curtain closes with Siegfried, disappointed and angry with himself, crying and running off toward the lake and Odette.

Extra Information

The ballerina who dances Odette dances Odile in the third act as well.  That is what makes the role utmost challenging – you have to portray two extremely different characters whilst doing the notoriously difficult choreography.

The black swan pas de deux in the third act, danced by Odile and Siegfried, is famous for it’s 32 fouettés in the coda.

In some versions, Odette jumps into the lake, followed by Siegfried as an emotional ending to their lives.  The finale includes the corps de ballet of swans doing bourrées in the smoke as Siegfried and Odette rise up to the sky together.

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