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March 7, 2011

Behind the Performance: Swan Lake

For most, Swan Lake symbolizes a delicate ballet of white and black, good and evil. A trapped princess, a charming prince, an evil conspirator — it has all the makings of a perfect fairy tale, and has captured the hearts and imaginations of audiences for centuries.

Swan Lake was composed by the same groundbreaking artist who created such other incredible works as Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Eugene Onegin: Russia’s star, Tchaikovsky. The heartbreaking tale of eternal love premiered in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. It was later transformed in 1895 to the version most often staged today, a revision made by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa.

The story follows Odette, a beautiful young princess cursed to live her days as a swan. At night she returns to her human form, during which she meets Prince Siegfried, whose vow of eternal love is needed to break the curse. After learning of this vow, the sorcerer Rothbart tricks Siegfried into proclaiming his love to Odile, Rothbart’s daughter. This broken vow forces Odette into a lifetime as a swan, but such a fate is worse than death — Odette kills herself and Siegfried, learning of his mistake, follows suit. The two reunite in death.

The themes of this ballet — love, heartbreak, trickery, and malice — resonate in every heart, in every decade. The proof can be seen in the recent Academy Award winning movie, Black Swan. In this movie the lead ballerina struggles with her own darkness as she comes to terms dancing the role so many ballerinas long for. Even more than a hundred years later, the Swan Lake story can still affect audiences in a passionate, animalistic way.

Seeing Swan Lake isn’t merely seeing a ballet — it is seeing a reflection of our own struggles with identity, and paints a worldwide picture of humanity’s desire for a love stronger than darkness.

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