Bedtime Stories: Swan Lake

by Henrik on May 16, 2010

Siegfried and Odette from the ballet Swan Lake, here performed by David Hallberg and Michele Wiles

Prince Siegfried (ABT's David Hallberg) and his swan, Odette (ABT's Michele Wiles). Photo Tristram Kenton. All rights reserved

The story of Swan Lake

You know the “Black Swan”-movie? It plays in a theatre staging the Swan Lake. But do you know the original story? Here`s our next bedtime story: The Swan Lake!

Our protagonist this time is the sensitive, fragile dreamer Siegfried, a young prince living with his mother. The performance starts at his 21st birthday party at the castle. His mother arrives, and presents him with a new crossbow as a gift. Siegfried is thrilled, but there’s a hitch to the deal. His mother expects him to choose a woman to marry at an upcoming royal ball. Siegfried, troubled with some serious father-complexes, does not find any of the royal girls interesting, and prefers spending his afternoons hunting with his friend Benno (Brokeback mountain, anyone). Still, his mother demands him to marry as it is expected of princes at a certain age. Depressed, he heads off hunting into the woods with Benno (it strikes me – if Siegfried was living today, I’m sure he would have been one of those Emo-kids, watching Twilight-vampires through their long, black hair cut in a straight line cross their faces. But I’m getting off-topic here – let’s get back to our bedtime story, alright!).

In the forest, Benno and Siegfried gets separated. Searching for his friend, Siegfried suddenly sees a beautiful swan swimming in a lake. He prepares to shoot it, but somehow can’t make himself – there’s just something about it. Getting closer, the swan transforms into a creature, more human than bird, a gorgeous young girl dressed in white feathers. She is Odette, queen of the cursed swans. The young prince cannot take his eyes off her. His little fling with Benno is instantly forgotten, he has never seen anything this gorgeous, and he falls in love immediately, deeply and strongly like only fragile princes can. Odette tells him she (and a whole bunch of other girls) has been turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer Rothbart, and can only attain her human form at night. Rothbart appears, in the shape of an owl, and Siegfried, full of passionate emotions, dramatically wants to shoot him dead with his new crossbow. Luckily, Odette stops him, and explains that if he kills the sorcerer, the curse on the young swan-maidens will never be broken. Only a vow of eternal love is strong enough to brake the evil spell.

The two royalties spends the night together, dancing and doing what princes and swan princesses usually do when they meet, falling deeper and deeper in love with each others. Siegfried vows to love her forever, and invites her to the upcoming ball in at his castle. There he will pronounce her as his bride, confirm his vow, and brake the curse on the young girls. What a hero! As morning brakes, Odette has to turn into a swan again and return to her lake. The last thing she tells him is that if the vow is broken, she will forever be lost to Rothbart, unable to turn to her human form ever again.

Back in the castle, it’s ball night. The queen presents her son with several potential brides, but Siegfried denies them all, thinking only of his Odette. The festivities continues, and suddenly, a stranger appears with a young woman. Siegfried sees them, and is thrilled: The girl is the creature from the woods, his beloved swan princess. He doesn’t realize that the stranger is Rothbart himself, in a human shape, with a plan to trick Siegfried to doom Odette to him forever. He has turned his own daughter Odile into Odette’s shape, in an attempt to make Siegfried swear his love to the wrong swan – or was it girl? Odile is danced by the same ballerina as Odette, although with a completely different, evil approach. Sometimes the roles are separated by the colour of their dress, Odette being white, while Odile wearing a black tutu. The idea is nevertheless that Rothbart has magically made Odile to look exactly like Odette. Siegfried falls for Rothbart’s deception and, after a passionate pas de deux (don’t know what it is? Find out here), declares that he will marry Odile, who he thinks is his true love. Triumphantly, Rothbart reveals himself, and Siegfried realizes his mistake, but too late – too late.. In despair, he flees back to the lake to his true girlfriend.

Corps de ballet from Swan Lake, set by the American Ballet Theatre

Siegfried has a lot of weight on his shoulders. His love alone can save all the poor swans. American Ballet theatre. Photo by Tristram Kenton. Through the All rights reserved

By the lake of the swans, Siegfried meets his Odette, in her human shape for the last time. He begs her to forgive his mistake, and she does. They stay together until the sun sets, and it’s time for Odette to become a swan under the sorcerers power for all eternity.

NOW, dear readers, you have to chose what path to go from here. If you are really telling the story as a bedtime story, hence to a child, you might want to stick with ending number 1. If you on the other hand prefers the original tales, and don’t fear a little tears and tragedy – go with number two. After all, it is the true ending.

Ending number 1: Rothbart appears, and there is a fight between Siegfried and the sorcerer. Siegfried, strengthened by the love of his princess, tears off one of Rothbart’s wings, a wound that evidentially kills him. The love between the two has defeated the evil magician, and Odette and her fellow swans are turned into their original, human form. Everyone is happy, but the people in the audience still paying attention is left thinking why it wouldn’t have been easier just shooting Rothbart in the first place.

Ending number 2: The two lovers are devastated, knowing that Odette will be left under Rothbarts power forever. The only way to avoid it is that Odette commits suicide by throwing herself into the lake to drown. Prince Siegfried, unable to live without his loved one, throws himself in the lake as well, and the loving couple dies together. This sacrifice is so strong it causes the evil Rothbart to lose his power, and die. The remaining swans are free from their curse, and can return home to their grieving families in human shape.

There are several other endings used out there, ranging from bitterly tragic to honey-sweet romantic ones. My second ending is nevertheless the original one, and will be the end of our little tale today.

Want to read more bedtime stories? Click here!!

Can’t get enough of Swan Lake? Check this out

Swan Lake facts:

Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Originally premiered in Moscow in 1877, with a choreography by Julius/Wenzel Reisinger. Not a big success.

In 1893, Tchaikovsky dies, and a renewal of some parts plus the whole the second act is made for his memory, choreographed by Lev Ivanov. This performance was a great success, and led to the 1895 premiere of the version known today. The two masters of the St. Petersburg theatre couldn’t agree on who would make the ballet, so they decided to split it. The house choreographer Marius Petipa choreographed the 1st and 3rd act, while Lev Ivanov made the 2nd and 4th act (the white acts), and the performance premiered in the great Marjinskij theatre.

Swan lake has been restaged a million times. It has been re-choreographed in several styles within the traditional genres, but has also been restaged for (amongst others) circus, ice-dancing and bachelorette-parties all over the globe.

It is one of the most challenging ballets for the members of the female corps de ballet, and has several solo parts and pas de deux’s often used in gala performances and competitions.

Original casting (Petipa/Ivanov version):
Odette/Odile(ia): Pierina Legnani.
Siegfried: Pavel Gerdt (a big star of the time. At the time of Swan lake, he was 55 years old. The role of Benno is actually originally choreographed into the piece to help Siegfried, old Gerdt, that is, to perform the heavier lifts).
Rothbart: Aleksey Bulgakov.

The photo’s used in this post are not mine. I am simply borrowing them for illustration, they are the property of their listed owners.

From Kirov Ballet's Swan Lake

Odette and Siegfried, madly in love

Warning: Too much Swan Lake leads to Swan Stress Disorder

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Catherine May 18, 2010 at 5:58 am

Nice one! Swan Lake is one of my faves…this series will make a great resource for people…the stories are much easier to read than in the books I have referenced them in…Nice work!


Henrik May 18, 2010 at 8:35 am

Thank you. I’m a writer on a mission, you know, teaching the “normies” some ballet alright! So this series, and the tools of the trade-series are my contribution to killing prejudices and reaching new audience. PLus a great way to make it all a little less serious – ballet is fun, not dead-down serious :) Glad you like them, now, you can refer people to my blog instead ;) H


Guntur December 30, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Hi, I am Indonesian. I just watched BLACK SWAN movie played by Natalie Portman. I just like to know if you have some movie reference based on SWAN LAKE story, I mean an adapted movie originated from the story. BLACK SWAN is not adapted movie, it used SWAN LAKE story as background.
Btw, I really admire what you do. You love your job as a ballet dancer and you share your experience on your blok. That makes a perfect match and so much in creative. I wish I could do what you do. Anyway, keep on moving and love your masterpiece ^^


Henrik December 30, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Hi Guntur!
You are right, the Black swan is not the story of Swan Lake. BUT – the swan lake plays an important role in the movies plot, and it also makes Portman’s transaction to a swan understandable – hence that is what the Swan Lake is all about…
BUT – As I point out in the beginning of the post, I wrote it without actually having seen the movie, and might have misunderstood.
As for if I know any movies based on the swan lake entirely, I have to disappoint you – never heard of such a thing (although that would be awesome!!)
Glad you like the blog, it’s a great feeling!
Thank you for your comment


Meg January 1, 2011 at 12:39 am

Hello, I just came across your blog as I was searching for more info on Swan Lake. Thanks for your very helpful post – it’s great how you simplified such a complicated story!

By the way, Guntir was asking if there were any movies that are based on Swan Lake. The Swan Princess, an animated film, is loosely based on Swan Lake. However, since we’re dealing with an animated film, there are singing animals and swordfights galore, and very little dancing. Oh, and Odille doesn’t make an appearance… just Odette. Cheers!


Henrik January 1, 2011 at 8:14 am

Hi Meg, glad you found my blog, and liked the Bedtime Story! :) There’s plenty more of them, if you’re interested!
Yeah, that’s right, isn’t that a barbie-movie? Or maybe it was disney? Vaguely remember seeing it, and thinking it was terrible ;)
Thanks for the input, and of course, for your comment!! :)


desirae June 22, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Hi Henrick, i was wondering if swan lake was a book before a pay. i found out its not, and felt sad. so i waned to hear the plays story instead. i found yours and absolutely love it. i feel happy now so thanks! i also want you to know, i love your story telling style, its beautiful! so thanks again, good job!


Henrik June 22, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Desirae – Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! You can check out some other Bedtime Stories right here on Tights and Tiaras if you will – theres more ballets in the column. I’m glad you enjoyed my post!


Alys Swan-Jackson January 24, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Hey Henrik,

Black Swan is worth a watch, despite the controversy. However ballet and Swan Lake are really the back story.


Giovanni March 18, 2012 at 5:31 pm

I just came across this when searching for a synopses for my girls before going to watch the swan lake in a few hours. I’ve never really made the effort to watch ballets before, but with 2 girls, ages 5 and 8, I gave in. We have seen The Nutcracker, and Midsummer Nights Dream. Today, we will see the swan lake performed by a Moscow dance company. Unfortunately they will dance to recorded music, but I hope the group will make it worth it. Thanks for the plot summary.


Henrik March 18, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Hi Giovanni,
Great, I’m glad you enjoyed my bedtime story, I hope you guys had fun! Did the girls like the performance? and did you? :)


braonnah October 24, 2012 at 12:06 am

you guys need to make sure yu tell your characters in every scene yu play.


rh November 30, 2012 at 2:50 am

I love it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Kim December 5, 2012 at 2:22 am

Hey! That was so awesome story. I wish it will be performed around the world.


Saskia Pandora February 14, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Hei Henrik!

Super awesome adaption of the story. Thank you for telling the true one! I’m totally impressed by all your knowledge and argumentation (also your comments, hilarious) . Maybe I can follow so well because I’m half-norwegian and a dancer myself … Whatever – I’m going to see “Swan Lake Reloaded” this weekend , do you want a report or have you already seen it? ;)

All the best

Ha det bra



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