Swan Lake Ballet, the Most Iconic Ballet Ever

Without a doubt, Swan Lake is the most popular classical ballet. It premiered in Moscow in 1877. And since then, it has always been on stage around the world. I’m sure you have ever heard its music or have seen the dance of the four swans holding hands (the famous pas de quatre of the second act) in films, on television and even in cartoons. You probably know the story too; that’s how famous this ballet is.

Right from the beginning, Swan Lake Ballet was always changing. Definitely, the most famous revision was the first, in 1895. The mythical Russian dancer Pierina Legnani introduced her speciality: the awesome 32 fouettes that the black swan would dance in the third act. Another of the most celebrated revisions was the one made by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet.

We can also say that this ballet is part of popular culture. Do you remember for example Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan? This 2010 controversial film centres its story around the production of Swan Lake by the New York City Ballet Company. All in all, Swan Lake is the most performed work in the history of classical dance. And is the highest expression of the Russian ballet school.

Swan lake ballet story

Who wrote the musical score of Swan Lake Ballet?

The author of this masterpiece is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a Russian composer of symphonic music. In 1875, Vladimir Bergichev (director of the Moscow Imperial Theaters) asked Tchaikovsky to compose the score for this ballet. Despite being his first creation in this musical style, Tchaikovsky created a magnificent work for which he has been universally recognized. Later he created other ballets that were also very successful such as “Sleeping Beauty” or “The Nutcracker”. These works achieved great popularity and have reached the most important theatres worldwide.

The orchestration of Swan Lake is typical of the late 19th century. Among the stringed instruments, the violins, violas, cellos, double basses and harp stand out. Flutes, oboes, bassoons, clarinets, piccolo, horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba are used in wind. Percussion is achieved with timpani, snare, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, tambourine, castanets, and glockenspiel.

Do you want to know the story of Swan Lake ballet?

Swan Lake is a love story that blends romance and magic. It links in its scenes the eternal good and evil struggle. It tells the story of Odette, a young woman turned into a swan by an evil wizard called Rothbart. Generally, this ballet is presented in four acts and a prologue.

Act I – White Adagio – Roberto Bolle and Svetlana Zakharova


Odette meets the evil warlock Rothbart, who turns her into a swan.

Act I: At the garden palace

The young prince Siegfried celebrates his birthday in the palace gardens. The Queen, his mother, gifts him a hunting bow. And she reminds him that she is of marriageable age. That is why she has invited five princesses who will be presented to him the next day, at the dance arranged in his honour. He should choose one of them as his wife. But Siegfried gets upset because he dreamed about marrying for love. As night falls, a flock of swans flies over the gardens. Siegfried and his friend Benno take their bows and go into the forest in pursuit of the swans.

Act II: Near the lake, in the woods

As chasing the swans, the prince reaches a lake, very close to the Rothbart castle. Suddenly, Sigfried sees a white swan emerge from the lake that transforms into a beautiful young woman. She is Odette, the haunted princess. During the day, Odette and the rest of the bewitched girls turn into swans, only reverting to human form at night. The spell can only be broken if someone who has never loved before vows to love Odette forever. Suddenly, Rothbart appears. The prince tries to attack him, but Odette gets in the way because if the warlock dies before the spell is broken, they won’t be able to undo it. Odette hands the prince a white feather as a symbol of her love for him. Finally, the swans disappear into the dawn light.

Act III: In the ballroom of the castle

The dance is about to begin. The heralds announce the five princesses’ arrival. The prince dances with each of them, but he keeps thinking about Odette. Suddenly, Rothbart appears in the guise of a gentleman, who introduces her daughter Odile, posing as Odette. Thinking that she’s Odette, Siegfried dances with her. So, he introduces her to the Queen as her chosen wife and swears allegiance to her. At that moment, the figure of Odette appears through the window. The wizard reveals the deceit, and the prince desperately leaves in search of Odette.

Act II – Corps the Ballet – The Royal Ballet

Act IV: On the lakeshore

The young swans sadly await Odette’s arrival. She arrives crying desperately about Siegfried’s betrayal and tells them about the sad events of the party at the palace. The swan maidens try to comfort her, but she resigns herself to death. Siegfried appears to implore her forgiveness. So, she forgives him, and the couple reaffirms her love. Suddenly, Rothbart appears and insists that Siegfried fulfil his promise to marry Odile, after which Odette will transform into a swan forever. Siegfried and Odette fight him, but they cannot undo the curse. Then, Siegfried chooses to die with Odette. So, the two lovers commit suicide by jumping into the lake. This love sacrifice breaks Rothbart’s spell on the swan maidens, causing him to lose his power over them and die. At dawn, the spirits of Odette and Siegfried are seen on the lake, ascending into the Heavens together.

Swan Lake Ballet alternative ending

Other versions replace the last part of the story with a happy ending, in which Siegfried fights with Rothbart and kills him. So, Odette recovers her human form and marries the prince.

For sure, Swan Lake is a ballet masterpiece, being the most performed ballet in the world ever. And despite the passage of time, it is a classic that never goes out of style.

Buy your tickets for Swan Lake Ballet 2024

San Francisco Ballet

FEB 23–MAR 3 2024

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Royal Opera House

6 MARCH–28 JUNE 2024

End of Act II – Marianela Nuñez as Odette
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Live in Cinemas

24–28 APRIL 2024

Live from Wednesday 24 April 2024 at 7.30pm (BST), with Encore screenings from Sunday 28 April 2024 at 2pm (BST)

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English National Ballet

Peacock Theatre, London

THU 04 – SUN 14 APR 2024

1 hour 30 minutes including one interval

Swan Lake Trailer
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Swan Lake in the Round

Royal Albert Hall, London

WED 12 – SUN 23 JUN 2024

Booking opens later in 2023

2 hours 50 minutes including a pause after Act I and two intervals of 20 minutes

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Scottish Ballet

GlasgowTheatre RoyalThu 4 April – Sat 6 April 2024Book
AberdeenHis Majesty’s TheatreFri 19 April – Sat 20 April 2024Book
InvernessEden CourtFri 26 April – Sat 27 April 2024Book
EdinburghFestival TheatreThu 2 May – Sat 4 May 2024Book
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