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Swan Lake is ballet’s most famous calling card. Whether in Björk’s controversial Swan Dress at the 2001 Academy Awards, Darren Aronofsky’s hugely successful Black Swan psychodrama (which garnered Natalie Portman an Oscar), Russian gymnast Viktoria Komova’s famous Swan Lake floor routine, or Taylor Swift’s tutus in Shake It Off, this is one ballet which has been referenced in other media and pop culture for decades.
Tchaikovsky’s ballet tells the story of a princess cursed by an evil sorcerer and the heady swirl of romance and tragedy which ensues. Following the curse, the princess, Odette, becomes a White Swan by day, only transforming into a human by night. She can lose her waterfowl shape only if someone pledges his love to her. Odette meets Prince Siegfried one night and they fall in love, but he is later deceived into pledging himself to the sorcerer Rothbart’s daughter, the Black Swan Odile.
It is a sweeping ballet of dichotomies—love and loss, light and dark, evil and good, chastity and sexuality, life and death. Set to an iconic score—with expressive choreography that is at times grand and triumphant, at times quiet and romantic—it is a ballet that offers up something new each time, varying between stagings, companies, dancers, and even performances.
We take a look at some of the reasons why this ballet is so beloved by audiences, 140 years after its Moscow premiere.
Once performed by two separate dancers, the roles of Odette and Odile—the White and Black Swan—are now performed by the same person. Getting to dance this dual role is an iconic moment in any ballerina’s career, with fans eagerly awaiting her interpretation of these characters.
Tchaikovsky chose swans for his female characters as they represented different aspects of the feminine beauty. Odette as the White Swan is pure, virginal, shy and innocent. The Black Swan Odile is bold, sensual and confident. This makes Odette/Odile a unique challenge that requires the dancer to portray two opposing characters with extraordinary depth and nuance—too demure, and the delicate Odette becomes boring. Too exaggerated, and the brazen Odile becomes a caricature. A prima ballerina can perform the role her entire career and still make new discoveries each time, constantly seeking that perfect balance between the Black and White Swans.
The part of Odette is filled with adage—controlled and slow, graceful movements that evoke the character’s delicacy, and melancholy at her plight. The dancer’s upper body is used to great emotive effect: pliant arms suggest wings that can undulate quickly with Odette’s building emotion; her arms raised by her head as she hides behind them when she first meets Siegfried hints of shyness; arms stretched behind her with her head tipped back and her body arched backward, a swan in full resplendence.
The best ballerinas honour the original choreography Lev Ivanov created for Odette but are not afraid to experiment, playing with subtle moments and gestures. The pioneer of this was the renowned Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova, who infused Odette/Odile’s movements with those famous swan-like qualities. As she transforms from a swan into a maiden, Mariinsky Ballet prima ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina’s White Swan shakes her head like a bird removing water from her body. During a series of piqué turns in Odette’s variation, Diana Vishneva (Mariinsky Ballet, American Ballet Theatre) keeps her arms low, evoking the character’s delicacy, gradually bringing them up to first position with each turn as the music builds.
Like her character, Odile’s dancing is full of virtuoso steps that reflect the character’s confidence—there is no doubt in her mind that she will succeed in winning over Siegfried. Her movements echo Odette’s—the swanlike arms, beating, raised or outstretched, but with a glint in her eye and seduction in every step.
Odile’s are bold and commanding, fluid and sensual as she teases the prince—an arm held out to him is quickly withdrawn before he can kiss it, a dangerous game of constant offering and withholding. When she finally has Siegfried, they perform a dazzling grand pas de deux, where she shows him up with her infamous 32 fouettés en tournant—American Ballet Theatre’s Gillian Murphy sometimes reels off triple turns during this coda—the full power of Odile on display.
A hallmark of Swan Lake is a spectacular corps de ballet. This group of dancers is known as the body of the ballet, filling it with depth and width. And there are few ballets that demand more from a corps. The female corps of Swan Lake is required to execute the choreography in perfect synchronisation—dancing with the grace of ballerinas and the precision of drill soldiers, while conveying the collective emotions of a flock of doomed swan maidens.
The choreography is not only technically demanding, but physically painful. The corps alternate between dancing and holding poses for a long time. This causes muscle spasms and cramps in many a dancer onstage, but they have to stay true to their roles, their faces serene and giving no hint of the pain. In scenes by the lake, the minimalist sets and clean white tutus leave no room for error, and a sloppy or out-of-line corps can be easily noticed. A corps de ballet that is well-rehearsed, evocative and precise is breathtaking to behold.
Many melodies and themes from Swan Lake’s score have been used in the mass media; even if you’ve never heard of the ballet, chances are you’ll find recognisable elements from the music. Once criticised as being "too Wagnerian", Tchaikovsky’s score is now celebrated for its dramatic heft.
A haunting F sharp in Odette’s theme conveys her yearning and sorrow, and minor arpeggios simulate the gentle rippling of waves on the lake. String instruments play a tremulous and quiet melody when Odette enters, and the orchestra swells when she transforms into a woman and encounters Siegfried.
Odile dances to a theme which is similar to Odette’s, but in a different key and with a quicker tempo, to suit her brazen, sinister personality. Exploring a gamut of emotions from sorrow to playfulness to joy, in Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky created an intensely evocative score that can carry a dancer through the taxing Odette/Odile role and harness the emotions of the characters.
American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Isabella Boylston cites dancing a series of entrechat-passé1, as Odette while the music crescendos and climaxes around her, as her favourite Swan Lake moment.
In reimagining Swan Lake, contemporary choreographers have used the ballet to comment on identity and gender.
In 1995, Matthew Bourne staged the ballet with an all-male cast, with Siegfried attracted to a male Odette/Odile. His Swan Lake is also an interesting study in gender norms. The original choreography is delicate, chaste and hyper-feminine. Bourne’s male swans are more conventionally masculine: athletic, powerful and sensual, and the relationship between Prince Siegfried and a male version of Odette strangely appropriate, given that Tchaikovsky wrestled with his closeted homosexuality.
Dada Masilo’s Swan Lake, created in 2010, deftly weaves African dance with Petipa and Ivanovs’ original classical choreography in a staging full of heart and humour. In Masilo’s telling, Siegfried, Odette and Odile are all victims of society—Odette is a young girl set to be wed to Siegfried, but the latter is attracted to a male Odile in a homophobic community.
Masilo doesn’t shy away from cherry-picking passages of the traditional score and choreography, interspersing these with new music and dance. She is similarly bold in her explorations of gender—both male and female dancers are in white tutus, and the only passage of pointework is a solo performed by the male Odile character.
1A combination in which the dancer jumps and crosses her feet repeatedly in midair, before landing and rising up with one foot to balance on the tip of her pointe shoe, the working leg bent with toes placed at her knee of the other leg.
Tan Li Min is the owner of Cloud & Victory, an ethical ballet clothing brand. She is an occasional writer and full-time short person.