Swan Lake

Ballet fantastique in three acts and four scenes
Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Libretto by Vladimir Begichev, edited by Modeste Tchaikovsky
Décor by Ivan Andreyev (Act 1, scene 1), Mikhail Bocharov (Act 1, scene 2, Act 3, Apotheosis) and Heinrich Levogt (Act 2)
Costumes by Evgeni Ponomarev

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 Princess Regent
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.

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


Swan Lake was the first ballet by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Following his graduation from the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire in 1865, Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow where he was given his first employment as a teacher in Russia’s second conservatoire by Nikolai Rubenstein. At that time, however, and probably much to Tchaikovsky’s disappointment, the artistry in Moscow was not what it was in Saint Petersburg. Although it had its own theatre, the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, the city had no symphony orchestra of professional standards, only military bands and local dance orchestras, who would provide the musical accompaniment for the popular masquerade balls and could be added to the Bolshoi ensemble. The ballet company did not match the high level status of its Saint Petersburg counterpart, partly due to a lack of financial assistance, but overall because it lacked artistic directorship and had been without a resident Ballet Master for some years.

In the 1860s, however, things began to improve for the arts in Moscow. From 1861 to 1864, the great Italian Ballet Master Carlo Blasis served as Ballet Master at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, where he produced three ballets, several separate pas and wrote a book. Another reason for the ballet company’s unsatisfactory status was that the dancers, especially the corps de ballet, were undistinguished and although Blasis has been credited for bringing a higher level of execution among the dancers, in the end, he was unable to revitalise the company. There was also the fact that at the time, the contract of the Ballet Master of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Ballet made him responsible for both the Moscow and Saint Petersburg companies. The Ballet Master at the time was Arthur Saint-Léon and many of his works were produced and staged in both cities, but in Moscow, the stagings were done by Saint-Léon’s team rather than the choreographer himself. Many Saint Petersburg dancers continued a long practice of guest appearing in Moscow. The 1860s also saw the rivalry between Saint-Léon and Petipa and when the rivalry was at its peak, it was considered by the Directorate of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres to transfer Petipa to Moscow permanently. The Minister of the Imperial Court, however, rejected this idea, but nonetheless, Petipa was still sent to Moscow to stage several ballets between 1868 and 1870. By the time Tchaikovsky arrived in Moscow in 1866, the ballet company was on the verge of acceptable quality.

Another ray of hope for the Moscow arts came from an idea of Nikolai Rubenstein. On the 14th November 1865, Rubenstein founded a new club called “the Artistic Circle”, a social forum that brought together various people involved in different branches of the arts – dance, music, drama, stage designs, etc. Tchaikovsky joined this club and it paved the way for some of his biggest successes, for it was within this club that he met Alexander Ostrovsky, with whom he collaborated on his opera The Voyevoda and the play The Snow Maiden. Tchaikovsky also witnessed the creation of a new ballet by the ballet artists who were members of the club for the Imperial Bolshoi Ballet. The ballet in question was entitled The Fern, which was based on an old Russian folk tale and was adapted into a ballet libretto by Konstantin Shilovsky, who would later work with Tchaikovsky on the libretto for his opera Eugene Onegin. The composer of the music score was Yuli Gerber, a violinist and conductor of the Bolshoi Ballet orchestra and the choreography was by the Bolshoi dancer Sergei Sokolov, who had created other ballets for the company during its years without a leader in the 1860s. The Fern premièred on the 27th December 1867, but, although it presented to the Moscow audience a Russian ballet created by Russians, it was not successful, probably because its creators were too inexperienced in producing a ballet to overcome all the problems that stood in the way of success. Nevertheless, The Fern plays an important role in the history of the Moscow ballet. Although it has no direct connections to the origins of Swan Lake, many historians believe that it was within the Artistic Circle that the idea of what would be Tchaikovsky’s first ballet began, since some of those who collaborated on the original production were members of the club.

Julius Reisinger
Julius Reisinger


The first production
After the failure of The Fern, Tchaikovsky seems to have suggested composing a new ballet version of Cinderella, writing to his brother Modeste:

Among other things, think that I took it upon myself to write music the ballet Cinderella and that the huge four-act score must be ready in mid-December! – Tchaikovsky in a letter to his brother, Modeste, dated 5th October 1870

However, Tchaikovsky’s Cinderella never came into fruition, for he discontinued work on the project for unknown reasons. Nevertheless, the fairy tale would still be used for a ballet that would bring the Czech Ballet Master Julius Reisinger to Moscow that same year. The libretto for a Cinderella ballet was written by the machinist Karl Valts, another member of the Artistic Circle, and Valts presented it to the theatre’s directorate, who accepted it. A composer named Mühldorfer was commissioned to compose the score and in the search for a choreographer, Reisinger was chosen and invited to Moscow. It is unclear why Reisinger was chosen as choreographer for the new ballet; it is possible that perhaps Valts recommended him, but the true reason remains a mystery. The première of Cinderella took place on the 1st March 1872, but was not well received. Reisinger applied for the post of Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, but was rejected due to some disagreements regarding his conditions for accepting the post. However, after the Minister of Court A. V. Alderberg reviewed the Moscow theatres and was not happy with the condition of the company, Reisinger was appointed Ballet Master on the 6th October 1873, despite his previous rejection for the role. As Ballet Master, however, Reisinger’s tenure appears have to been an artistic failure. In 1873, he staged a new ballet Kashchei and in 1875, he staged another ballet entitled Stella, neither of which were met with success. A few months after the première of Stella, he began work on Swan Lake.

Design by F. Gaanen for the décor of Act 2 from the 1877 production (1877)
Design by F. Gaanen for the décor of Act 2 from the 1877 production (1877)


The libretto
Tchaikovsky was commissioned to compose Swan Lake in 1875 by a ranking theatre official and former artistic manager of the Bolshoi Theatre Vladimir Begichev, who determined the repertoire of the company. A fan of ballet, Tchaikovsky was very excited by the commission and quickly began work on the composition. There is some uncertainty as to who wrote the libretto, which was finished before the 19th October 1876. According to Modeste Tchaikovsky, it was written by Begichev and the Bolshoi dancer Vasily Geltser.

The libretto for the original 1877 production is very different from that of the 1895 production. The heroine Odette is the daughter of a good fairy and a knight. She and her friends are swan maidens who transform themselves into swans during the day and take up their human forms only at night. The main antagonist is Odette’s evil stepmother, a sorceress who is trying to kill her, but she is protected by a magical crown she wears that was given to her by her grandfather. If she marries, her stepmother’s evil intentions will be thwarted. Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette and swears to marry her, but is tricked into infidelity by the demon Von Rothbart, who is working with the evil stepmother, and his daughter Odile. Rushing back to the lake as a storm brews, Odette is powerless to forgive Siegfried for his betrayal, but Siegfried, determined for them never to be parted, rips the crown from Odette’s head and throws it into the stormy lake. Odette dies in Siegfried’s arms and the waters of the lake overflow and engulf them. As the sun rises, the swans appear on the lake.

The Three Swan Maidens from the Völundarkviða - these mythical maidens appear mostly in Germanic mythology and are known for shapeshifting from human form to swan form by use of their magic swan skins
The Three Swan Maidens from the Völundarkviða – swan maidens appear mostly in Germanic mythology and are known for shapeshifting from human form to swan form by use of their magic swan skins

The ballet was based on European legends about young maidens turning into birds, but it is not certain what served as the inspiration for the story, though historians have drafted three possible theories. According to Soviet historian Yuri Slonimsky, the ballet’s libretto was inspired by the fairy tale Der geraubte Schleier (The Stolen Veil) by German writer Johann Karl August Musäus, which tells of the hermit Benno and the Margrave Fridbert, who each fall in love with two princesses, Zoe and Callisto, both of whom turn into swans and live at a lake of swans on an island ruled by an evil ruler. A second possible source were the works of Richard Wagner, specifically Der Ring, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. The name for the Prince in Tchaikovsky’s new ballet may have been taken from Wagner’s hero Siegfried in Der Ring, just like the name Benno was probably taken from Musäus’s fairy tale. Both Siegfrieds share the common fate of death after inadvertently betraying their respective beloveds. Lohengrin uses the image of a swan as a symbol of purity and innocence and also uses an evil sorceress, Ortrud, who plots to use the heroine Elsa to be the undoing of the hero Lohengrin, a possible parallel to Odette’s evil stepmother. A third possible source is linked to Tchaikovsky himself – the libretto of Swan Lake could be an amalgamation of several of his earlier works. The Romantic story element of a supernatural woman falling in love with a mortal man that ended in tragedy was not something Tchaikovsky had strayed from using before. He had used this storyline in his operas Undine (1869) and Mandragora (1869-70) – both operas never premièred because Tchaikovsky destroyed the score for Undine and abandoned Mandragora – and Ostrovsky’s play The Snow Maiden (1873), for which he composed incidental music. Another early work that could have served as inspiration for Swan Lake was an impromptu house ballet called The Lake of Swans that he composed in 1871, especially for the children of his sister Alexandra. His nephew Yuri Davydov (Alexandra’s son) wrote the following account of this ballet, which he learned from his elders since he was born in 1876:

A celebrated event was the production by Peter Ilyich of a ballet, in which my older sisters and Uncle Modeste participated. The ballet was created by Peter Illyich, as was also the music, on the theme ‘The Lake of Swans’. Of course, this was not the ballet which is given on stages now, but a children’s one-act short ballet, although the principal theme – ‘The Song of the Swans’ – was then the same as now. Peter Ilich in his later, large composition used the theme of the children’s ballet of 1871 – Memoirs about P.I. Tchaikovsky (p. 26)

His sister Anna, who would have been seven years old in 1871 and performed in the little ballet, wrote this account:

He [Tchaikovsky] very much loved to produce all manner of house performances. The first production, barely in my memory, was ‘Swan Lake’. My sister participated; she was six. My Uncle Modeste Ilyich performed the role of the prince. I represented Cupid… The magnificent wood swans on which we rocked were in the house for a long time – Chaikovskii i baletnyi teatr (p. 89)

It is possible that all three of these hypothesises contributed to the story of Swan Lake, but whatever its origins, in the words of Professor Roland John Wiley, “the libretto of Swan Lake, as a piece of stagecraft, shows a controlling hand – in the interest of the story, in the evocation of atmosphere, and in the use of time.”

"Lohengrin" by Walter Crane (1895), Wagner's opera was a possible source of inspiration for the libretto of "Swan Lake"
“Lohengrin” by Walter Crane (1895), Wagner’s opera was a possible source of inspiration for the libretto of “Swan Lake”


Tchaikovsky began composing the score for Swan Lake in early 1875. His enthusiasm in the project is clear from the speed at which he wrote the score for by the summer of that same year, he had already composed two acts. He seems to have begun work on the orchestration between October and December and finally, the score was finished in April 1876. One vital requirement he needed for the composition was instructions from Reisinger for the requirements of each dance since he had to know what sort of dances were required, what tempo they were to be in, how long they were to be, etc. Unlike the instructions he received for the scores of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, however, no such written instructions for Swan Lake are known to have survived. In correspondence, Tchaikovsky mentions working from a scenario by Reisinger, but it seems that he worked with only a very basic outline without any detailed knowledge of Reisinger’s requirements. This led to Tchaikovsky visiting the theatre library and studying various ballet scores so he could understand what sort of details in relation to tempo, etc, were required for this kind of composition. It is known that Reisinger requested a Russian Dance, but any other details he have asked for remain unknown.

The only insight into collaboration between Tchaikovsky and Reisinger are the holograph score and a published poster that listed numbers from the ballet, but this only proves that the collaboration was very distant. The poster contained entries that had no counterpart in Tchaikovsky’s holograph score and the holograph often differs from the libretto. A plausible explanation is that Reisinger reordered the numbers Tchaikovsky composed, but no documents detailing any edits he made have survived. It seems this was a collaboration in which the two men decided on a scenario for their new ballet and then went their separate ways to prepare their material – Tchaikovsky composed the score, to which Reisinger set his choreography only after it was completed.

Anna Sobechshanskaya as Odette (1877)
Anna Sobechshanskaya as Odette (1877)


The world première
Rehearsals for the first act began on the 23rd March 1876 and Reisinger spent eleven months choreographing the ballet. Tchaikovsky attended rehearsals, but he would watch as a spectator rather than a collaborator. When the casting was decided, Olga Nikolayeva was cast as the Princess Regent; Nikolayeva had been Prima Ballerina of the Bolshoi Theatre in 1860s, but was restricted to mime roles after a serious fall when dancing Giselle in 1869. Sergei Sokolov, choreographer of The Fern, was cast as Von Rothbart and Wilhelm Verner was cast as Wolfgang. The principal roles of Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile were given to the Bolshoi Theatre’s Premier Danseur Victor Gillert and the ballerina Pelagaya Karpakova, the ballet’s first performance was held as a benefit for Karpakova. Originally, the Bolshoi Theatre’s Prima Ballerina Anna Sobeschanskaya was cast as Odette/Odile, but she was withdrawn from the première and was given the role in the ballet’s fourth performance instead, though the reason for this change in the casting is unclear. According to Karl Valts, it was due to a scandal involving Sobeschanskaya and a government official. Like many ballerinas, Sobechanskaya enjoyed the favour of many government officials, among whom was the Governor-General of Moscow, Vladimir Dolgorukov. Dolgorukov made a complaint against the ballerina, claiming he had presented her with gifts from his family jewel chest. Sobeschanskaya accepted the jewellery from him, but fell in love with Gillert, married him and sold the jewellery. This resulted in her period of service with the theatre being cut short and her deprivation from all future benefit performances, including the traditional farewell benefit. However, another theory says that Sobeschanskaya withdrew herself from the première because she found the new ballet very unsatisfactory and only wished to dance choreography by Petipa, but at the time, he was unable to provide anything for her.

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 also 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, the first production of Swan Lake was deemed 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.


The 1895 production
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 Modest Tchaikovsky, who now held the rights to his brother’s works. When work finally began on the new Swan Lake production, Petipa and Ivanov chose to collaborate on the ballet 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 libretto and the result was a very different story from the original, but retained its key elements. Odette and her friends were transformed from supernatural swan maidens into mortal women under an evil spell that forces them to turn into swans during the hours of the day, allowing them to resume their human forms only at night. The evil stepmother was omitted and Von Rothbart was upgraded to the story’s main antagonist and became the Evil Genie, who assumes the form of a gigantic owl. Odette’s backstory and references to her grandfather were omitted; the only insight into her backstory is that she was kidnapped by the Evil Genie and forced to live at an enchanted lake that was formed by her mother’s tears. The Evil Genie’s motive behind the kidnapping and the spell is now unknown, but the vow of eternal love and fidelity as the only weapon to break the spell was retained. The trickery against Prince Siegfried was also retained, except the purpose is not to condemn Odette to death, but to condemn her to forever remain a swan. The most significant change was the ending; rather than Siegfried and Odette simply drowning in the lake, Modest altered the ending so that the lovers commit suicide together rather than live without each other, which not only breaks the spell, but causes the downfall of the Evil Genie. An apotheosis shows Siegfried and Odette forever united in the afterlife; true love has won and evil has been defeated.

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. A famous change made by Gorsky was the addition of a court-jester to the first and second acts, which was later retained in Soviet productions of Swan Lake. Among the earliest presentations of the ballet in the west was 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. In 1910, at the beginning of her tours of Britain with her company, Pavlova added the neglected 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.

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. A year later, on the 30th November 1911, Sergei Diaghilev staged a two-act production of Swan Lake 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.


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. Contrary to popular belief, the decision by Ivanov to include Benno in the pas d’action had nothing to do with Pavel Gerdt’s age (he was 50 years old at the time), for even at 50, Gerdt was still a strong and popular partner, who could easily partner the women without assistance from younger dancers. It was when Nikolai Legat succeeded Pavel Gerdt in the role of Prince Siegfried between the late 1890s and early 1900s 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. Matilda Kschessinskaya would later become the first Russian ballerina to successfully perform the 32 fouettés after she succeeded Legnani in the role of Odette/Odile, but they were not accepted by every ballerina. Olga Preobrazhenskaya apparently detested the 32 fouettés because she considered them to be a “vulgar trick”. When she inherited the role of Odette/Odile, instead of the 32 fouettés, Preobrazhenskaya performed a manege of turns in the Grand Pas de deux coda.

The idea of replacing a sequence of fouettés with a manege 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 a tour of the United States 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.

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


Related pages



  • 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