A Deep Dive Into Swan Lake
Updated: May 7
Boston Ballet recently cancelled its spring season, including Swan Lake, which was set to open on May 1. First seen in 2014, the production features choreography by Mikko Nissinen after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, with magnificent sets and costumes by Robert Perdziola. One hopes it will be rescheduled soon. Before the cancellation was announced, the imminent arrival of one of the most beloved ballets in the classical repertoire prompted a searching look at its Act 2 grand pas de deux (pdd), perhaps the most beloved dance duet ever staged.
What is not generally known about the pdd is that the finale, as it is presented by most companies, was not written by Tchaikovsky, and it diverges significantly from his original plan. Before considering how the pdd ends, however, it would be wise to start at the beginning and examine the various sections through which the characters of Odette and Siegfried, as well as their relationship, are developed.
Most of the comments below are based on the American Ballet Theatre performance starring Natalia Makarova and Ivan Nagy, with choreography by Petipa and Ivanov, in a “Live from Lincoln Center” broadcast from June 30, 1976. Click on the arrow of each excerpt and hyperlink to see or hear the specific element of the ballet under discussion. (The cover photo stays the same, but the window will open to the correct excerpt.)
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1. In Act I Prince Siegfried celebrates his coming of age, and at that time he receives a crossbow as a gift. In Act 2 he goes to the shore of a lake, where he plans to try out his new weapon by hunting swans. Coming upon the swan queen, Odette, who is in the midst of transforming from a swan into a woman, he puts down his crossbow and tries to communicate with her, but she is terrified of him.
He immediately falls in love with her, and his goal in the pdd that follows is to overcome her fear and convince her that he and his love are trustworthy.
2. The pdd starts with what a ballerina has described to me as Siegfried’s “picking [Odette] up by the wings,” and so I’ve come to think of it as the “Kentucky Fried Chicken moment.” Once she arises, the music sounds like a narrative, the equivalent of “Once upon a time …” She is telling Siegfried the story of how she came to be enchanted by the evil Von Rothbart.
The choreography includes a variety of positions in which she bends backward (cambré) and forward (penché) and is accompanied by the “narrative theme,” which is reprised at the end of the pdd.
This sequence might be thought of as a less detailed and more abstract version of the mime that was done in early productions, which the Royal Ballet still includes, but many other companies do not.
3. Continuing her tale, Odette then does two backward falls that are the most dramatic expressions of her despair. Note that Makarova throws herself back with complete abandon and spends a relatively long time unsupported.
4. The music changes, and the corps begins its traveling arabesques. This signals the end of the first section; Odette has completed her narrative.
5. Next is a series of lifts that speaks of Odette's desire for freedom from Von Rothbart's spell; it is accompanied by what might be called the "fly-away theme."
6. After the lifts, Siegfried walks upstage, opens his arms to Odette, and she follows him. Note that Nagy does not turn his back to Makarova (although he checks behind him to make sure the coast is clear). This is not only a gallant gesture (which not all Siegfrieds do), it also underscores the importance of the moment later in the pdd when the prince does turn away from the swan queen because he has lost hope that he can win her trust.
7. Odette reprises the traveling arabesques of the corps, with the same music. For the first time she is doing steps that have forward momentum, and we see her reaching out -- perhaps toward some kind of hope. Her arabesques are interspersed with and followed by overhead lifts in which her backbends with outstretched arms make her look as if she's pleading with heaven to help her. The corps echoes her in reaching out and up.
8. The "fly-away" theme returns, and Odette restates her longing to escape from the spell, with several of her gestures indicating that perhaps she envisions a future for herself with Siegfried.
A short reprise of the traveling-arabesque music leads to one of many promenades penchés. In these promenades her back leg appears to wrap around him. Finally, she leans against him but then decides he's too close for comfort. Regretting that she has let her guard down, she walks away.
This is the only time Siegfried turns his back to the swan queen during the pdd (at least in this production). Having distanced herself, Odette does an agonized backbend, and one can almost hear her saying, with Violetta in La Traviata: “Follie!" Because of the spell, she knows it’s folly to commit herself to Siegfried. Her actions say, “I can’t,” then “I will.” (Tchaikovsky's familiarity with La Traviata is well documented.)
9. When Odette returns to Siegfried, it is truly the turning point (all puns intended) of the pdd because she does so of her own volition and because she has to make her presence known to him (since his back is turned). In other words, she takes the initiative.
Note Nagy’s shocked reaction to her return. He was one of Makarova’s favorite partners, and one can see why; he consistently finds interesting ways to inhabit the role he’s playing.
The music then begins a reprise of the “narrative theme," and Tchaikovsky makes sure we feel the momentousness of what has just transpired by having the melody shift from the violin to the cello. Like the music, the relationship has deepened.
10. Another promenade penché leads to Siegfried’s cradling Odette, the most intimate moment in the entire pdd. Note that in the promenades he holds her by the wrists so that her hand positions are visible. This also puts him in control her arms and enables him to invert the wrapping pattern as he envelops the swan queen. She would not have allowed this before because she did not trust him enough.
I’ve been told by a male dancer that it is not easy to get one’s head in perfect position during this cradling sequence. Here the placement could not be better. Odette indulges in a moment of surrender (from which she soon recovers), and Siegfried expresses his empathy, saying to her, in effect, “You no longer have to bear the burden of the spell alone.”
11. The music goes into the finale, written by conductor and composer Riccardo Drigo for the 1895 revival of Swan Lake, which took place two years after Tchaikovsky’s death. Two previous productions had not been particularly well received, and to honor Tchaikovsky's memory a new one was conceived by choreographers Petipa and Ivanov, along with Drigo, under the auspices of Ivan Vsevolozhsky, director of the Imperial Theatres. Drigo repositioned some parts of the music and deleted others in order to meet the demands of the choreographers and make the story line more comprehensible.
He moved the dance of the little swans (cygnets), the waltz, and Odette’s variation from before the pdd, where they had been placed by Tchaikovsky, to after it. He also wrote a new finale for the pdd and deleted the quick-paced danse générale that originally followed it. These changes all have an impact on how the arc of Odette’s consciousness is perceived.
For Drigo’s finale Ivanov created the famous petits battements serrés (foot flutters) that perhaps express her uncertainty about what the future will bring. These are followed by some finger turns, one more backward fall, and then another arabesque penché, reaching forward in what one assumes is hope. Robert Greskovic says in Ballet 101 that when she hits her final position, it means she’s "at peace".*
Thanks to Drigo and Ivanov, this finale is, without doubt, a thing of beauty, but Roland John Wiley in Tchaikovsky's Ballets objects to it on the grounds that it “sacrificed musical coherence to choreographic expediency” and “damaged Tchaikovsky’s tonal plan” by changing his key structure.** A similar objection might be raised about its effect on a coherent presentation of Odette’s mental state.
12. In Drigo’s version, Odette seems to ally herself with Siegfried at the end of the pdd. Then the cygnets come in:
followed by the waltz:
13. When the swan queen returns for her variation (solo), she seems to be just as anguished as ever, with lots of backbends, attempts at flight, and turns on pointe, indicating her anxiety.
14. In the coda Odette announces that she has made a choice. The sequence begins with the corps dancing to music that, in its question-and-answer format (but not its tempo), is reminiscent of the "flower theme" that sounds when Giselle first meets Albrecht. (Considering that Tchaikovsky thought highly of Adam’s ballet, as Wiley notes, *** it may even have been a direct influence.) The corps asks the question -- what will Odette do? The answer is they do not know.
15. Tension builds as the swan maidens begin the traveling arabesques that foretell Odette's decision, accompanied by highly assertive music.
16. Entering to a reprise of the question-and-answer theme, Odette begins a series of frenzied relevés passés and entrechats to the traveling-arabesque music in which she proclaims that she will ally herself with Siegfried come what may. It is her declaration that from this moment on, as Cole Porter might have put it, her fate and Siegfried’s are inextricably intertwined.
Because of the camera angle, it’s difficult to see, but when she does the relevés passés and entrechats she is traveling upstage, so that even as she declares her love, the spell pushes her backward. In her, fierce determination meets implacable doom.
17. Tchaikovsky envisioned the end of the pdd very differently. He immediately followed the reprise of the "narrative theme" with a quick-paced danse générale, *** which seems to tell Odette that she must decide whether to accept Siegfried's love, and she doesn't have much time because the dawn is coming when she will return to her swan state.
Unlike Drigo, Tchaikovsky does not allow Odette a sustained pause in which she appears to make a decision in Siegfried’s favor. Moreover, without the intervening cygnets and waltz, he maintains a tight focus on Odette’s emotional state, which remains unsettled until she throws caution to the winds in the coda. In Drigo's finale and the repositioned variation, Odette seems to vacillate. In the pdd as Tchaikovsky wrote it, she does not.
My guess is that Tchaikovsky would not have allowed Drigo's finale to be interpolated into his ballet, considering that he did not permit a pdd by Ludwig Minkus (commissioned by Petipa at the request of a renowned ballerina) to remain in Swan Lake. In that case Tchaikovsky wrote his own pdd to the choreographer's specifications and substituted it for the one Minkus had written. The former pdd did not remain in Swan Lake so it was not published with the score and was lost until 1953. After George Balanchine choreographed it, the piece became known as the "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux."
It's possible that if Petipa or Ivanov had asked for it, Tchaikovsky might have written a finale for the Act 2 pdd that was more choreographically expedient (to paraphrase Wiley) or he might have insisted on his original conception. What's indisputable is that in one instance he did not let another composer poach on his territory.
18. The music ending the coda reaches its climax with Siegfried lifting Odette over his head, and her position in the air shows her confronting her fate with immense courage. This can justifiably be considered the true ending of the pdd.
19. Soon after, Odette’s theme is reprised as Von Rothbart appears and asserts his power over her. Once again the swan queen is enslaved, and Siegfried, left alone onstage, traces her flight across the sky.
Postscript: Since there is no record of the choreography for Tchaikovsky's original ending of the pdd, one cannot know how it looked onstage or what effect it would have had on the ballet as a whole. Like Siegfried scanning the sky at the end of Act 2, one can only attempt to follow what its trajectory might have been.
This is the second in a series called "Take Me Out To the Ballet," which analyzes crucial aspects of classical ballets, the first being "The Madness of Giselle," published on August 30, 2019.
*Greskovic, Robert. Ballet 101 (New York, Hyperion, 1998), p. 240.
**Wiley, Robert John. Tchaikovsky's Ballets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 34.
***Wiley, Tchaikovsky's Ballets, pp. 256-257.
****This recording, by Charles Dutoit and Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Decca, 1992), contains all the music Tchaikovsky wrote for Swan Lake in its original order.