Swan Lake

Ballet fantastique in three acts and four scenes
Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

World Première
4th March [O.S. 20th February] 1877
Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
Choreography by Julius Reisinger

Original 1877 Cast
Pelageya Karpakova

Prince Siegfried
Victor Gillert

Von Rothbart
Sergey Sokolov

Sergey Nikitin

Wilhelm Wanner

The Queen
Olga Nikolayeva

Première of Petipa and Ivanov’s revival
27th January [O.S. 15th January] 1895
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg

Original 1895 Cast
Pierina Legnani

Prince Siegfried
Pavel Gerdt

The Evil Genie/Von Rothbart
Alexei Bulgakov

Alexander Oblakov

Stanislav Gillert

The Queen
Giuseppina Cecchetti

Pas de trois
Georgy Kyaksht
Olga Preobrazhenskaya
Varvara Rykhliakova

Based on a German legend, the beautiful Princess Odette has been enchanted by an evil genie in a spell that leaves her a woman by night and a swan by day. When Prince Siegfried discovers the lake, he falls in love with Odette and there is at last hope that the spell will be broken. But all hope vanishes when Siegfried is tricked into pledging his love to the Evil Genie’s daughter, Odile, disguised by magic as Odette. With no other option, Siegfried and Odette throw themselves into the lake and are united for eternity in the afterlife.

Anna Sobechshanskaya as Odette (1877)
Anna Sobechshanskaya as Odette in Julius Reisinger’s original Moscow production (1877)

Swan Lake was the first ballet by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. A fan of ballet, Tchaikovsky was very excited when he was asked to compose his first by the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre and composed Swan Lake between 1875 and 1876. The ballet was to be based on European and Russian legends about young maidens turning into birds, legends that Tchaikovsky was very familiar with. He had shown keen interest in these legends when he composed a little ballet for his niece and nephew called The Lake of the Swans. The ballet’s first choreographer was the Czech Ballet Master of the Ballet of the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, Julius Reisinger, though Tchaikovsky did not experience a good collaboration with Reisinger as he later did with Petipa. It seems that Tchaikovsky worked with only the most basic outline from Reisinger for the requirements of each dance. He likely had some form of instruction in composing Swan Lake, as he had to know what sort of dances were required. But unlike the instructions he received for the scores of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, no such written instructions for Swan Lake are known to have survived.

The lead-up to the première was not without its problems. When the casting was decided, the Bolshoi Theatre’s Prima Ballerina Anna Sobeschanskaya was cast as Odette/Odile and the Premier Danseur Victor Gillert was cast as Prince Siegfried. However, Sobeschanskaya was pulled out of the performance when a Moscow governing official made a complaint against her, claiming that she had accepted several pieces of jewellery from him, only to then marry a fellow danseur and sell the jewellery. Subsequently, Sobeschanskaya was replaced with the ballerina Pelagaya Karpakova in the role of the Swan Queen.

Pierina Legnani as Odette (1895)
Pierina Legnani as Odette (1895)

Swan Lake made its world première at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre on the 4th March [O.S. 20th February] 1877. However, the reaction at the première was not what Tchaikovsky had hoped for – the ballet was not well received by the audience or critics, with many criticising the dancers, orchestra and décor. Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky’s score was lost in the debacle of the poor production and though there were few critics who recognised its virtues, most considered it too complicated for ballet. Critics considered Tchaikovsky’s music “too noisy”, “too Wagnerian” and “too symphonic” and they also found fault with Reisinger’s choreography, which they thought was “unimaginative” and “unmemorable”. Ultimately, this production of Swan Lake was deemed as a failure, which left Tchaikovsky distraught. Despite the negative reaction it received at its world première, Swan Lake remained in the Moscow repertoire for six years and subsequently went through several revivals. However, it was eventually dropped from the Bolshoi repertoire in 1883.

It would be twelve years before Swan Lake would become the masterpiece widely known today. Prior to Ivan Vsevolozhsky commissioning Tchaikovsky to compose The Sleeping Beauty, he had also expressed interest in reviving one act of Swan Lake for the 1886-87 season at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. Although this production was never materialised, Vsevolozhsky continued to show interest in Swan Lake and it was eventually agreed that Petipa would mount a recreation of the ballet.

Pavel Gerdt as Prince Siegfried and the Swan Maidens (1895)
Pavel Gerdt as Prince Siegfried and the Swan Maidens (1895)

Tchaikovsky was delighted at the prospect of his first ballet being restaged by Petipa, of whom he held the greatest respect, proclaiming that “never with anyone but Petipa would I produce ballets.” However, just when plans to recreate Swan Lake were beginning to come into fruition, Tchaikovsky died on the 6th November [O.S. 25th October] 1893. In the aftermath, Riccardo Drigo was tasked with revising the score, but not before receiving approval from Tchaikovsky’s younger brother, Modest, who now held the rights to Tchaikovsky’s works.

When work finally began on the Swan Lake recreation, Petipa and Ivanov chose to collaborate on the production with Petipa staging Act 1, scene 1 and Act 2 (originally Act 1 and Act 3) and Ivanov staging Act 1, scene 2 and Act 3 (originally Act 2 and Act 4). They also divided the divertissements of Act 2 between them – Petipa choreographed the Spanish Dance and the Mazurka and Ivanov choreographed the Neapolitan Dance and the Czardas. Modest Tchaikovsky was called upon to make the required changes to the ballet’s libretto, with the most prominent being the finale.

On the 17th and 22nd February 1894, Vsevolozhsky held a memorial concert for Tchaikovsky at the Mariinsky Theatre, in which the Imperial Ballet and Opera participated. The programme consisted of the first act of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Maid of Orleans, his Romeo and Juliet overture, the Coronation Cantana and the second scene of Swan Lake, as choreographed by Ivanov. This was the first presentation to the public of the new Swan Lake, with Pierina Legnani dancing the role of Odette.

Alexei Bulgakov as the Evil Genius (1895)
Alexei Bulgakov as the Evil Genie (1895)

The Petipa/Ivanov recreation of Swan Lake was premièred on the 27th January [O.S. 15th January] 1895 starring Pierina Legnani as Odette/Odile and Pavel Gerdt as Prince Siegfried. The ballet received a mixed, but better reception than the 1877 production with Legnani enchanting the audience in the dual role of Odette/Odile.

Petipa and Ivanov’s Swan Lake was notated between 1901 and 1907 in the Stepanov notation method and is part of the Sergeyev Collection.

The first revival of Petipa and Ivanov’s Swan Lake was staged by Alexander Gorsky for the Imperial Bolshoi Ballet in 1901. The ballet was first presented in the west when a troupe of dancers from the Imperial Ballet led by Anna Pavlova and Nikolai Legat performed in Swan Lake across Scandinavia and Germany in their 1908-1909 tour of the west. Swan Lake made its London première in 1910 when it was staged at the Hippodrome Theatre by another group of dancers from the Imperial Ballet led by Olga Preobrazhenskaya. The following year, on the 30th November 1911, Sergei Diaghilev staged a two-act version for the Ballets Russes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Matilda Kschessinskaya as Odette/Odile and Vaslav Nijinsky as Prince Siegfried. Another notable early 20th century production was Bronislava Nijinska’s 1919 production for the State Opera Theatre in Kiev. Diaghilev staged his two-act production again in Monte-Carlo in 1924, with Vera Trefilova, who was nearly 50 years old at the time, as Odette/Odile.

Throughout the 20th century, Petipa and Ivanov’s Swan Lake has been staged in countless revivals all over the world. The most famous of modern productions include Dame Ninette De Valois’s various productions and Sir Anthony’s Dowell’s 1987 production for the Royal Ballet, George Balanchine’s 1951 one-act staging for New York City Ballet, Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1950 production for the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet, Yuri Grigorovich’s production for the Bolshoi Ballet, which was revived in 2001, and Rudolf Nureyev’s production, staged for the Vienna Staatsoper Ballet in 1964 and for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1984. Perhaps the most distinguishable feature about various modern productions is the usage of different endings, with some productions using tragic endings where either Siegfried and Odette or one or the other die and others using happy endings, in which Rothbart is vanquished and Siegfried and Odette are reunited to live happily ever after.

In February 2016, Alexei Ratmansky mounted a reconstruction of Petipa and Ivanov’s Swan Lake for the Zürich National Ballet and the reconstruction had its world première at the Zürich Opera House on the 4th February 2016. On the 30th June 2016, Ratmansky staged his reconstruction at the Teatro alla Scala for the La Scala Ballet.

Alfred Bekefi and Marie Petipa in the Czardas (1895)
Alfred Bekefi and Marie Petipa in the Czardas (1895)


Did you know?

  • The feathered headband that is traditionally worn by Odette and the Swan Maidens in many modern productions was not used in the 1895 production or the original 1877 production (as shown in the photos above). The first ballerina to wear a feathered headband when performing the role of Odette was Vera Trefilova circa. 1903. Afterwards, the feathered headband became a standard costume feature for Odette and the Swan Maidens, as well as the costumes for other swan roles, such as Anna Pavlova’s costume for the Swan.
  • Olga Preobrazhenskaya greatly detested the 32 fouettés, which she considered to be a “vulgar trick”. Whenever she would dance the role of Odette/Odile, instead of the 32 fouettés, Preobrazhenskaya performed a ménage of turns in the Grand Pas de deux coda. The idea of replacing a sequence of fouettés with a ménage of turns was later used by other ballerinas. One prime example of a ballerina who followed Preobrazhenskaya’s example on this matter was the great Bolshoi Prima Ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. Although Plisetskaya performed fouettés in other ballets, she rarely performed the 32 fouettés in Swan Lake. During an American tour with the Bolshoi Ballet, she was slighted by the press when they suggested that she could not do them, so in her next performance of Swan Lake, Plisetskaya took revenge and executed a faultless 32 fouetté sequence.
  • For the original 1877 production, Tchaikovsky composed the famous Russian Dance for Pelageya Karpakova. However, in Petipa and Ivanov’s production, the Russian Dance was cut, but was eventually used elsewhere. In 1910, at the beginning of her tours of Britain with her company, Anna Pavlova added Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance to her repertoire as a duet choreographed by her dance partner, Mikhail Mordkin. Pavlova and Mordkin famously danced this duet around Britain, always dressed in traditional Russian-style costumes.


Grand Pas d’action

The Grand Pas d’action of Act 1, scene 2 was originally choreographed by Lev Ivanov as a pas de deux à trois, in which Odette was partnered by both Prince Siegfried and Benno. It was not until Nikolai Legat succeeded Pavel Gerdt in the role of Prince Siegfried in the late 1890s that the lakeside pas d’action became a pas de deux as Legat chose to partner Odette alone and other danseurs would follow his example. The group of hunters, who accompanied Siegfried and Benno to the lake, also took part in the pas d’action, standing at the sides of the stage with the Swan Maidens.

Ivanov’s original Pas de deux à trois scheme was used in early to mid 20th century productions, with one example being several of Dame Ninette De Valois’s productions for the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. In 1960, the second scene of this production was filmed with the pas de deux à trois performed by Dame Margot Fonteyn as Odette, Michael Somes as Prince Siegfried and Bryan Ashbridge as Benno. This was to be one of the final productions to stage Ivanov’s pas de deux à trois as it disappeared from Swan Lake thereafter and was replaced with the revived pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried. It was not until Alexei Ratmansky’s 2016 reconstruction that the pas de deux à trois reappeared on the ballet stage, circa. fifty years after its previous appearance.

Anna Pavlova as Odette and Nikolai Legat as Prince Siegfried
Anna Pavlova as Odette and Nikolai Legat as Prince Siegfried (1909)


Grand Pas de deux

The Grand Pas de deux of the second act has a very complex history. It is widely known today as the “Black Swan Pas de deux”, but it was never staged under any such title by Petipa.

One of the most interesting facts about the 1895 production of Swan Lake is that the character Odile was not a “Black Swan” – she was simply Von Rothbart’s daughter, an evil enchantress. Pierina Legnani did not wear a black costume as Odile, but a royal blue costume with striking, multi-coloured glittered designs with no feathers or swan designs. Other productions of Swan Lake in Russia used similar costume designs for Odile during the late 19th century and early 20th century. According to a 1901 review of the Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake production, Matilda Kschessinskaya, Legnani’s successor in the role of Odette/Odile, wore “an elegant black dress” in the second act, but there is no mention of the dress having any feathers or swan designs.

Like the fish-dives in the Grand Pas de deux of The Sleeping Beauty, the so-called “Black Swan tradition” began in the West and is believed to have started following a 1941 staging of the second act performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. This production was staged by Alexandra Fedorova-Fokine under the title, The Magic Swan, starring the great ballerina, Tamara Toumanova as Odette/Odile. At the time, the only part of Swan Lake that was known in the West was the famous second scene and in an effort to have the audience distinguish Odile from the well-known Odette, Fedorova-Fokine had Toumanova dance Odile in a black costume and almost by accident, Odile began to be referred to as “the Black Swan”. Although Toumanova was not the first ballerina to wear a black costume when dancing Odile, it was her performance in this 1941 production that set the tradition in motion. Odile became “the Black Swan” and the tradition quickly spread everywhere, including Russia. In Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Petipa and Ivanov’s Swan Lake, Odile wears a multi-coloured, glittered costume, based on the costume worn by Pierina Legnani in 1895, as designed by French designer Jérôme Kaplan.

Swan Lake - Tamara Karsavina as Odile and Pierre Vladimirov as Prince Siegfried - 1915
Tamara Karsavina as Odile and Pierre Vladimirov as Prince Siegfried (ca. 1914) – notice how Karsavina’s costume is not black and contains no feathers or swan designs

The Grand Pas de deux was originally composed by Tchaikovsky as a Pas de deux for Two Merry Makers in Act 1. It became the ballet’s Grand Pas de deux when Petipa transferred it to Act 2 and Drigo extensively revised the music, adding a new ending to the Grand Adagio and an interpolation from Tchaikovsky’s Opus 72 for Piano as the Variation of Odile. Petipa originally choreographed this pas as a Pas de deux à quatre demi d’action; it was performed by Pierina Legnani, who was partnered by both Pavel Gerdt and an additional cavalier, who was danced by Alexander Gorsky, and Alexei Bulgakov, who danced Von Rothbart, performed most of the mime. In Petipa’s original Grand Pas de deux, there are no swan movements for Odile. This is because rather than imitating Odette’s movements, Odile shows her skills as an enchantress by using her magic to enchant Siegfried. This is especially noticable when the vision of Odette appears at the window and Odile covers Siegfried’s eyes to prevent him from seeing the vision.

After the Grand Adagio, Pavel Gerdt did not dance a variation, but Alexander Gorsky did. The original Variation of Prince Siegfried was choreographed to the Tempo di valse piece that Tchaikovsky originally composed for this pas de deux. Alexander Gorsky notated the Variation of Prince Siegfried in 1899, though it is not known for sure if this is the same variation he danced in the 1895 première. However, it is very likely that he choreographed his own variation since, at the time, it was very common for the male dancers to choreograph their own variations. The famous traditional Variation of Prince Siegfried that is danced by nearly every ballet company today has been credited to Vakhtang Chabukiani. The music for this variation was fashioned from Tchaikovsky’s original allegro ending for solo violin for the Grand Adagio, which was cut from the score for the 1895 production. It has been said that Chabukiani was the first to perform this variation in the 1940s.

The biggest sensation of the Grand Pas de deux was, of course, the famous 32 fouettés en tournant, which Pierina Legnani was the first ballerina to perform on the Russian stage. Other ballerinas had performed fouettés in various works on the Russian stage before, for example, the ballerina, Emma Bessone had performed 14 fouettés in Ivanov’s three-act ballet The Haarlem Tulip. Legnani, however, set a new record when she introduced 32 of them in Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti’s 1893 production of Cinderella. According to Alexander Shiryaev, Legnani performed “arabesque fouettés”, as he called them, meaning she performed them en dedans, rather than en dehors as they are performed today.

Vera Trefilova as a Black Swan (1895)
Vera Trefilova as a Black Swan (1895)



  • Beaumont, Cyril (1952) The Ballet Called Swan Lake. London, UK: Dance Books Ltd
  • Garafola, Lynn (1989) Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. USA: 1998 ed. Da Capro Press, Inc.
  • Wiley, Roland John (1985) Tchaikovsky’s Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press
  • Wiley, Roland John (1997) The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press