When it comes to ballets, most everyone has heard of The Nutcracker during Christmastime; other well-known ballets include versions of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
But also one of the more well known and liked ballets is Swan Lake.
My family enjoys watching this, even though the ending isn't to our liking (more of that later).
Let's learn more about it – so dive right in. The water's fine.
So what is ballet? In short it's like opera, but with dance rather than singing.
Opera, you say?
OK, for many, opera brings to mind the prospect of unpleasant experiences – including being bored out of one's skull.
But one thing I enjoy in watching a ballet performance is that the story is told mainly through dance and music – with costumes and some scenery helping out.
The result, a story presented in pageant form. A story told through beauty expressed by dance. This makes for an enjoyable evening's entertainment.
Breaking things down
So let's break down the storyline for Swan Lake.
**Note: Some performances might take a slightly different plot than outlined below. What follows is simply to give an idea.
We begin with a birthday party for Prince Siegfried. His evening's enjoyment gets cramped when his mother, the Queen, says he must get married to a woman at a ball the following night. (Sounds familiar? We see this in Cinderella, not to forget in countless households around the world.)
What a downer! So his friend and tutor suggests a diversion to ease his mind. A flock of swans flying overhead suggests a trip to go hunt swans. (People hunt swans? Who knew?)
And they're off!
Birds of a feather
While hunting, Siegfried gets separated from the others and ends up by the lake with the swans. He aims at a swan but, to his great surprise, it transforms into a beautiful maiden named Odette. She explains to an overwhelmed Siegfried that she, and the rest of the flock, are under the spell of an evil bird-sorcerer named Rothbart. By day, they are swans; at night, they return to human form. (I guess only a prince gets changed into a frog, princesses get to become swans.)
The key to breaking the spell is that someone who has never loved before must swear his forever love for her. (Hmm, where have we seen this before?)
Siegfried is ready to so swear when guess who shows up?
Yes, it's the evil Rothbart.
Siegfried wants to kill the sorcerer right away, but Odette forbids – how can the spell ever be broken if he's dead?
Sadly, after all this commotion, the sun rises, and Odette returns to be a swan. The spell must wait a little longer to be broken.
But Rothbart is not about to be so easily defeated.
The shell game
Back at the palace, a grand costume ball is being held with ladies presented as possible wives for the prince. None of these will due, as the prince is in love with Odette.
But guess who shows up? Yep, Rothbart is there with his daughter Odile – disguised as Odette. Fooled, Prince Siegfried thinks the imposter is Odette. The real Odette does show up and tries to warn him off, but he cannot see in time. He swears true love to the pretender.
That did it!
Siegfried had sworn devotion to someone else and now cannot break the spell. In triumph, Odile takes off the disguise to reveal who she is.
**Note: To make the story as convincing as possible (in the version I know), the same ballerina plays both Odette and Odile. A change in costume from white to black conveys that it is a different person.
A sad tale
Horrified at what he did, Siegfried races back to the lake and seeks forgiveness for what he did. Odette forgives him but refuses to remain a swan the rest of her days. So they both decide to go into the lake and end it all.
On the plus side – somehow this breaks the evil spell over the other maidens, setting them free, resulting in the evil sorcerer's death.
OK, there is something like a happy ending. Kind of??
Swan Lake was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who also wrote The Nutcracker, based on old German and Russian folk stories such as "The White Duck" and "The Stolen Veil." Both involve swans and spells. Why not have swans that are fair maidens? They are, after all, such beautiful creatures.
It makes for enchanting imagery.
Swimming into life
It may be a bit of a surprise, but Swan Lake has cropped up in aspects of popular culture in one form or another. Some of the music, parts of the performance, etc., have been included in films, plays, and even video games.
Culture pops up everywhere.
But, in a sense, this shouldn't come as too great a surprise. Despite its bummer ending, this ballet provides a refreshing display of beautiful music, not to forget a delightful treat of dancing to view. Indeed, beauty should be recognized.
On the web
The White Duck by Storyberries
This webpage gives the story of the White Duck, a folktale that is part of Swan Lake's inspiration.
A video recording of a performance of Swan Lake. Some advice – whenever we watch a new ballet, have a synopsis at the ready to help make sense of what's going on.
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