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145 years since its premiere, Swan Lake is still the world’s most popular ballet. So much so that there is hardly a classical ballet company whose repertoire does not include a version of this renowned work.

Ahead of our spectacular in-the-round performances at the Royal Albert Hall this June, dive into the magical world of one of the most timeless of ballets.

The history

Often dismissed as a failure, the first production of Swan Lake premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow in 1877, by the little-remembered Vaclav Reisinger. However, the most influential version was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, and first performed on 15 January 1895. This became the source production of the most famous ballet of all time.

One of the most memorable features of the 1895 version was the interpretation of the dual role, Odette/Odile, by Pierina Legnani, who beautifully conveyed the lyricism and drama required and had a remarkable ballet technique. The demanding feat of 32 fouettés were introduced to the “Black Swan” coda in Act III specifically for her! This is one of the most famous moments in ballet, as the dancer pirouettes on pointe apparently endlessly in a bid not just  to impress the audience but to dazzle and seduce Prince Siegfried at the same time.

During the 20th century, Swan Lake gained international popularity as Russian artists included it in their touring repertoire, most notably the renowned dancer Anna Pavlova. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes London production in 1911 remained popular for decades. It provided the inspiration for English National Ballet’s very first performance of Swan Lake, which Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin performed at the Gaumont State Theatre, Kilburn in 1949 and which featured only Act II.

ENB first performed the complete four act ballet in Verona in 1964. This June we will share Derek Deane’s in-the-round production, which is the ninth Swan Lake to be created for the Company.

Swan Lake in-the-round © Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Derek Deane's Swan Lake in-the-round © Laurent Liotardo

The music

Swan Lake’s music, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is as much a star as the dancers themselves. From the sweeping romanticism of the “Swan Theme” to the celebratory waltzes and iconic national dances, the beautifully evocative score makes a powerful impact. Tchaikovsky’s genius lies in the musical embodiment of  the characters – the elegance of the swans, Odile’s allure, and Rothbart’s malice. The music perfectly complements the choreography and remains a beloved classic.

Details of Tchaikovsky’s commission to write the score of Swan Lake by the Bolshoi Theatre remain something of a mystery. He claimed he composed it “partly because I need the money, and partly because I have long cherished the desire to try my hand at this kind of music”. A project close to his heart, Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, and it was followed by other classics such as The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

Hurt by Swan Lake’s poor reception by critics and dancers (who considered his music challenging), Tchaikovsky turned his back on ballet music for 13 years. After the 1895 performances, Tchaikovsky never saw the complete ballet on stage again.

Swan Lake in-the-round in rehearsals © Laurent Liotardo
Swan Lake in-the-round in rehearsals © Laurent Liotardo

The story of Swan Lake in-the-round

Act I opens in the midst of a celebration; it is Prince Siegfried’s birthday and the party is in full swing. The Queen presents her son with a magnificent crossbow. Initially delighted with the gift, Siegfried becomes preoccupied when his mother reminds him that he must soon find a wife. His thoughts are interrupted by the spectacular sight of a flock of swans in the distance, and he hurries to hunt them.

In Act II, we move to the lakeside, where a dark and mysterious force is lurking – the sorcerer Rothbart. Prince Siegfried arrives at the lake to find that the swans he followed are actually young women bewitched by Rothbart. The swans are only able to return to human form at night. The flock fiercely protects their queen Odette, but slowly she begins to trust the prince who is utterly captivated by her beauty and elegance. When Rothbart appears, Prince Siegfried declares his undying love for Odette. Jealously Rothbart wrenches them apart, and takes Odette away.

Act III takes us back to the palace, where a celebration is held in Siegfried’s honour. Guests include princesses from all over the world selected by the Queen as potential brides for Prince Siegfried. He politely dances with them but remains aloof, knowing that his heart belongs to Odette. Rothbart arrives with his daughter, Odile, who he has transformed into the exact likeness of Odette. He plans to trick Prince Siegfried and force him into betraying Odette. Siegfried is so mesmerised by Odile that he fails to see Odette desperately beating her wings at the window, and he declares to the court that he intends to marry this mysterious guest. His cruel plan complete, Rothbart triumphally reveals Odette’s true identity. Realising he has betrayed Odette, Prince Siegfried returns for the lake, full of anguish.

In the final act, Siegfried begs  Odette for her  forgiveness, which she eventually grants. When Rothbart arrives, a fight of good over evil ensues. Rothbart’s spell is ultimately broken by the power of Siegfried and Odette’s love and Rothbart is destroyed by the swans who are finally freed. As the dawn rises, Siegfried and Odette are united in eternal love.

PRESS Dancers of English National Ballet in Swan Lake in-the-round (c) Laurent Liotardo (2)
Dancers of English National Ballet in Swan Lake in-the-round (c) Laurent Liotardo (2)

The characters

The Swan Queen, Odette embodies grace, innocence and elegance and wears an iconic white tutu. Despite the curse that binds her to a swan’s form by day, her spirit remains unbroken. She longs for a true love strong enough to break the curse that traps her and set her free.

Odile is cunning and manipulative. She uses her allure to deceive Prince Siegfried for Rothbart’s wicked purposes. Dressed in black, Odile is a diametrically opposite character to Odette, making it even more challenging for dancers to dramatically portray both roles within the same production.

Prince Siegfried
Carefree and impulsive, Siegfried is more interested in hunting than his royal duties. However, he shows his maturity through his love for Odette. Despite falling for Rothbart’s deception, his unwavering love for Odette and his remorse for his mistake ultimately lead him to a path of redemption.

The sorcerer Rothbart is a creature of malice, half-human, half-bird. He is often seen flapping his wings with a piercing glare. He imprisons Odette and her companions by turning them into swans and schemes to destroy Odette and Siegfried’s love.

This performance

Derek Deane’s Swan Lake in-the-round opened to critical and audience acclaim when it premiered in 1997, and has since been enjoyed by over 500,000 people worldwide.

The choreography is designed to be enjoyed from every angle (in-the-round), breaking the traditional straight on viewing experience. This means there’s virtually no visually restricted seat in the house.

With 60 swans spectacular choreography, and stunning costumes and lighting, this breath-taking production transforms the Royal Albert Hall into a magical lake.

Over the years, critics have praised it as “magnificent” (The Independent, 1997) “spine-tingling” (Evening Standard, 1999), “a thrilling production” (Sunday Times, 1999) with “real theatrical verve” (Financial Times, 2002) and “an endless succession of stunning geometrical formations” (Sunday Express, 2013).

Running across 4 acts, Swan Lake in-the-round lasts 2 hours 50 minutes including a pause after Act I and two intervals of 20 minutes – giving you plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and make the most of your experience at the Royal Albert Hall.

Book your tickets for the iconic Swan Lake in-the-round here.