Swan Lake: A brief history of this famous ballet

Written by Robyn Jutsum

Swan Lake is arguably one of, if not the, most recognized Classical ballet (a nod to the Nutcracker is perhaps due. Don’t worry, it will have its turn in the spotlight come December!). And its history and evolution has spanned far and wide, from its traditional origins all the way to iterations such as Matthew Bourne’s contemporary interpretation and the pop culture buzzy “Black Swan” starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. 

Did you know that Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet? Or that its origins are said to have laid in a children’s fable he created for his young nephews and nieces? Or, did you know that even among professional companies, the ending of the ballet varies from production to production?

There are many reasons it’s a mainstay of the ballet world and even beyond, and we are so excited to bring our Cardio Ballet combos to life, inspired by this iconic ballet!

The Plot. What is the story of Swan Lake?

The ballet is broken up into 4 acts. Acts II and IV are considered “white acts” as they are dominated by the swans and supernatural. Acts I and III take place in the “real world.”

On the eve of his birthday, where he will be responsible for selecting his future bride, Prince Siegfried goes off on a hunting trip. He comes upon a mystic lake, where he is overcome by the beauty of a swan who suddenly transforms into Princess Odette. He learns that Odette and other maidens-turned-swans have been condemned to life as swans. They are only freed from their curse by the moonlight, imprisoned by the evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart.

Before parting, Siegfried pledges his love for Odette, and upon returning to the palace and his birthday celebration, is too distracted to give the eligible bachelorettes vying for his affections the time of day. Von Rothbart, plotting against the love between Siegfried and Odette, appears in disguise with his own daughter, Odile, who appears as Odette, deceiving the prince. Siegfried, believing that Odile is Odette, pledges his ultimate vow of love for her, breaking his pledge to Odette. Siegfried returns to the lake to salvage his relationship with Odette, who is heartbroken and destined to remain in her cursed fate.

At this point in the plot, the endings vary. One such ending is that Siegfried kills himself to demonstrate his undying love for Odette, freeing her and the rest of the maidens from their curse. Another is that Odette kills herself and Siegfried follows suit so that they may be together. Yet another alternate ending shows Odette and Siegfried defeating Von Rothbart, freeing the swans, and living happily ever after.

The music. Tchaikovsky’s score was not initially well-received though it is today recognizable and popular. It was his first ballet. Though at first seen as complicated, it ultimately raised the bar for ballet music.

The audience was underwhelmed by his composition, and dancers found the music difficult to dance to. But, over time and with revisions to the choreography, Swan Lake would become a celebrated classic in its own right.

The choreography. The original choreographer, Julius Reisinger, was considered unoriginal in his movement.

The ballet premiered in 1877 with the Bolshoi Ballet, but the version that we are most familiar with today was a revised version created in 1895 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, performed by the Mariinsky. Petipa was responsible for Acts I and III while Ivanov took on Acts II and IV.

Famous Scenes. There are many distinct moments throughout the ballet. For instance, the famous Black Swan pas de deux, complete with 32 fouettes. The grand pas between Odette and Siegfried is another. The princesses vying for the prince’s heart and marriage, all representing different countries including Russia, Poland, and Italy.

Needless to say, Swan Lake has a rich and detailed history and reputation that has stood the test of time. Below are just a few of the useful resources that will hopefully continue to shape your understanding of the ballet!

And, don’t miss THIS SUNDAY’S very special “Secrets of Swan Lake” virtual ballet class, taught by ABT Principal Dancer, Skylar Brandt. We are thrilled that Skylar is joining us to lead this weekend’s Stars of Ballet class. Note that Skylar’s class will be live stream only, so sign up now and tune in from 4:30 to 5:30 pm ET to dance with and learn from a true prima ballerina! Open to all levels! Learn more about Skylar here and about Stars of Ballet here. Sign up here.


  • https://www.rwb.org/news/article/swan-lake-through-history/
  • https://www.liveabout.com/history-of-tchaikovskys-swan-lake-724173
  • https://petipasociety.com/swan-lake/
  • https://blog.balletaz.org/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-swan-lake/
  • https://australianballet.com.au/education-resources/swan-lake-the-story
  • https://www.abt.org/ballet/swan-lake/
  • https://www.nycballet.com/season-and-tickets/winter-2022/swan-lake
  • https://www.pbt.org/blog/5-reasons-swan-lake-is-iconic/
  • https://www.vogue.fr/fashion-culture/article/swan-lake-the-secrets-behind-the-worlds-most-beautiful-ballet
  • https://michiganopera.org/the-story-of-swan-lake-in-black-and-white/

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