Swan Lake - Synopsis and Program Notes

Dennis Nahat - Ballet San Jose   February 2008

PROLOGUE - A Meadow Near the Castle of Baron Von Rothbart (Early Morning)

Four maidens are gathering flowers in a meadow near Baron Von Rothbart’s castle. They are suddenly overcome by the powers of the Baron, an evil sorcerer, who has mysteriously appeared in their midst. Transforming them into cygnets, he will henceforth control their destiny. These cygnets are to join the flock of swans he has already assembled as companions for Odette, his Queen of the Swans. Previously, Baron Von Rothbart transformed Princess Odette into a swan, which is the symbol of beauty and purity. Because she refused his hand in marriage, he bewitched her so that she could not marry another. Von Rothbart’s expectation was that in captivity, she would eventually consent to marry him.

Act I - The Terrace of Prince Siegfried’s Castle (That Afternoon)

On the afternoon of Prince Siegfried’s birthday, a party is given to celebrate his coming of age. The festivities commence with the ladies and gentlemen of the court joining in a Grand Waltz. The Queen, his mother, arrives bringing with her four Princesses from distant lands. It is Prince Siegfried’s duty to choose one of these four ladies as his bride so that he may eventually assume the throne as a proper king. Each of the Princesses presents him with a gift, but the present that finds the most favor in his eyes is a beautiful crossbow from the Queen. The revelry is at its height and the Prince dances a Pas de Cinq (dance for five) with the visiting Princesses. Wolfgang, Prince Siegfried’s tutor, has had a bit too much to drink, and he invites the Queen to dance the Grand Polonaise with him, an invitation she surprisingly accepts. The afternoon’s dancing concludes with a lively garland dance, after which the women of the court retire to the castle and the men remain on the terrace for more drink and talk. Prince Siegfried sees a swan lying overhead and asks if the gentlemen would care to accompany him on a swan hunt. He is anxious to use his new crossbow. The courtiers go off to hunt while Wolfgang is left in an inebriated state on the terrace.

Act II - The Swan Lake (Later That Day)

Once again, Baron Von Rothbart demonstrates his dominance over the forest and the enchanted swan maidens. He commands the appearance of the swans, in the course of which the hunters arrive. Seeing the flock, they urge Prince Siegfried deeper into the forest for the hunt. Siegfried, preferring to remain behind to stalk a swan for himself, sends the others off into the forest. He again sees a swan lying overhead and, while preparing to shoot it, he realizes there is something different about this swan. It is Odette, Baron Von Rothbart’s Swan Queen. Unaware of Siegfried’s presence, she preens herself. Appearing from behind a tree, Siegfried marvels at the wondrous beauty of Odette. When she discovers him, she is frightened of his crossbow and attempts to flee. He captures her and assures her that he will do no harm to her. He asks her who she is and Odette explains that she is the Swan Queen, the victim of a spell cast by Von Rothbart. She explains that the Swan Lake has been created by her tears and those of all the maidens who have been captured and transformed into swans. Instantly enamored with Odette, Siegfried desires to protect her.

Baron Von Rothbart returns and tries to frighten Siegfried away. Failing in this effort, he stuns the Prince with his evil powers. Siegfried is strong and does not remain stunned for long. Taking his crossbow, he prepares to shoot the wicked sorcerer who appears to be half man, half beast. Odette prevents Siegfried from shooting Von Rothbart, for should he be killed, the spell she is under can never be broken. The huntsmen return and take aim at the swans. They are stopped by Siegfried who commands them to lay down their bows. Odette arrives and begs them not to shoot her companions. Siegfried promises that the swans will not be harmed. He commands the men to leave the forest, but they are somewhat uncertain about leaving him alone and ask that he reconsider and accompany them. Again he asks them to leave, assuring them that he is all right. He looks for Odette but she has led. Unable to find her, he stands hopeless and forlorn.

Odette returns, now unafraid, and finds Siegfried alone. They dance the celebrated White Swan Pas de Deux in which they express their love for each other. This is followed by the dance of the four cygnets. Von Rothbart then returns and reasserts his powers over the forest and the swan maidens. The Coda (finale) is danced and Von Rothbart commands the swans and Odette to follow him further into his domain. Siegfried is again left alone.

Act III - The Great Hall of the Castle (The Following Night)

The four foreign Princesses arrive in the Great Hall with their entourages. The Queen, entering alone, commands that the festivities begin. When Siegfried finally arrives, the Queen indicates that his absence has been quite embarrassing for her and she requests that he dance a waltz with all the Princesses, one of whom he is to choose as his bride. Prince Siegfried informs his mother that it is impossible for him to marry anyone at present. The Queen becomes upset and asks Wolfgang to tend to the Prince.

A fanfare is heard and flashes of light appear. Von Rothbart arrives with his wicked accomplice, Odile, who is disguised as a black swan to look exactly like Odette. Indeed, Siegfried believes she is Odette and is overjoyed. Carefully hiding her real identity, Odile lures and entices Siegfried, hoping he will swear his love for her. While dancing the Black Swan Pas de Deux, a vision of Odette appears in which she attempts to communicate with Siegfried and warn him of the deception. She remains unnoticed and Siegfried finally promises his eternal love for Odile. Odile then tells Siegfried and the assemblage that the Prince has given his heart and made a vow of love to her. Laughing at the gullible Prince, Odile and Von Rothbart vanish leaving the court astonished by these events. Siegfried, overwhelmed, flees to the forest in search of his true love, Odette, hoping that it is not too late to rescue her.

Act IV - The Lake Below Baron Von Rothbart’s Castle (That Same Night)

Once again, Baron Von Rothbart brings forth his captive swans. He commands his Swan Queen to love him alone. When she explains to him that her heart belongs to Prince Siegfried and she begs to be released, Von Rothbart furiously unleashes a storm. The swans cling together to protect themselves from the Baron’s wrath. As Siegfried runs frantically through the forest in search of Odette, the storm subsides and calm is restored. Finally inding Odette, Siegfried begs her forgiveness. She forgives him knowing he was unaware of Von Rothbart’s treacherous plot. They dance an Adagio in which she tells him that, having sworn his love for Odile, he can no longer save her.

Baron Von Rothbart once more engages in a struggle with Prince Siegfried, trying to win Odette’s love. In the fury of the fight, Odette exclaims that she must die. The only way she can be freed from the enchantment of the spell is through her death. Reaching for her beloved Siegfried, she flings herself from the cliff where Von Rothbart’s castle stands and onto the rocks below. Siegfried must follow her, for their love is bonded and he cannot live without her. Von Rothbart attempts to prevent Siegfried from accomplishing his end knowing that, with Siegfried and Odette’s uniication in death, his powers will vanish and he will die. Prince Siegfried climbs to the cliffs and plunges onto the rocks below, joining his beloved Odette.

It is Von Rothbart’s demise. His castle collapses, crushing him and falling into the lake. As the bewitched forest vanishes, the swan maidens are finally freed. Prince Siegfried and Odette are eternally united, and the maidens bow in homage to their love.

To top of page

Program Notes from Dennis Nahat

Swan Lake is, without question, one of the great Romantic ballets in the ballet repertoire. It has endured for more than 130 years, largely due to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score which I consider one of his greatest achievements. He composed it between August of 1875, and March of 1876, and produced it for Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater with choreography by Julius Reisinger on February 20, 1877. It was some of his first ballet music and was considered “too Wagnerian,” with many parts undanceable. It remained in the repertoire for two years. Then a new version was mounted by Olaf Hanson in 1880 with a reworking of the score and libretto. The result of these efforts played havoc with the production, causing its demise for the next 15 years. Sadly, Tchaikovsky died in 1893 believing the ballet was a failed score.

It is not known whether I. A. Vsevolozhsky, director of the Imperial Theaters in St. Petersburg, or Marius Petipa, choreographer/ballet master, or his assistant Lev Ivanov, conceived the idea to remount a portion of Swan Lake as a memorial to Tchaikovsky in 1894. It is certain that Petipa was credited with the choreography for Acts I and III and Ivanov with Acts II and IV, for the completely new version, which premiered at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, On January 27, 1895. For the first time, the greatness of Tchaikovsky’s score was realized and equaled by the choreographic genius of Petipa and Ivanov.

Originally, the roles of Odette and Odile were danced by two ballerinas. However, because of the virtuosity of Prima Ballerina Pierina Lagnani, the new version was created for her alone. This production was an immediate critical and popular success and has never since been absent from the classical ballet repertoire. Today, most productions of the full length Swan Lake are danced by one ballerina in the dual role of Odette and Odile.

Very little of the Petipa/Ivanov choreography survives today. However, portions of Act II, including the first entrance of the swans, the White Swan Pas de Deux, the Dance of the Four Cygnets. Frequently, the Black Swan Pas de Deux of Act III also survives in numerous versions. In fact, most current productions are more evocations of the style and mood of nineteenth century classicism than they are exact duplications of the original choreography.

Like The Nutcracker, there are countless productions of Swan Lake throughout the world. However, many are not presented in full-length versions. Act II is often excerpted and the variations from Act III can be found in different settings. When I started to choreograph and stage a new Swan Lake, I first thought about what makes an original setting of a ballet unique. (Otherwise, why not just duplicate another version?) My second thought was, could I make the ballet and its plot clearly understood by a first-time viewer, and would the staging be as memorable and beautiful as one might remember it to be?

The villain of the ballet, Baron Von Rothbart, is far more developed in our production. Indeed, he is the reason the ballet exists. I have added a prologue to introduce Von Rothbart, to depict how his evil sorcery transforms young maidens into cygnets in order to control their destiny. In addition, I have introduced the Princesses in Act I...usually not seen until Act III. Each of the Princesses is introduced to Prince Siegfried by his mother, the Queen, at the party celebrating his coming of age. After they each present a gift to him, the Prince and all four Princesses then dance a Pas de Cinq (a dance for five) usually a Pas de Trois (dance for three) performed by peasants known as the Peasant Pas de Trois. Since I chose not to have peasants in our production, this could hardly work! During the dance, he better acquaints himself with the Princesses, for he is to choose one for his bride in Act III.

Tchaikovsky originally wrote so much music for Swan Lake that much of it was not used at first. I utilized music that was in the original score for new dances that did not exist in the first production. As well, the place and time of the ballet had to be integrated into the scenery and costumes, brilliantly designed exclusively for this production by the late David Guthrie. My instinct in preserving great works is to strengthen that which is already visible and bring out that which is invisible. The choreography for this production of Swan Lake is original, except for portions of Acts II and III as previously mentioned, making it both classic and contemporary in its presentation.

To top of page

From the Ballet San Jose Swan Lake program - Copyright © 2008, Ballet San Jose
  Swan Lake Photos:     Act 1     Act 2     Act 3     Act 4  
    Dance Photos Home Page         Photo Gallery Home Page         Comments?