"Swan Lake" For Dummies
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"Swan Lake" For Dummies

Everything you ever needed to know, even if you think you already know it.

"Swan Lake" For Dummies
4 dancers

Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" is the epitome of classical ballet, a fact that about 95 percent of people do not care about. While it's true that most people say ballet is boring (gasp), it's probably because they don't understand what's happening on the stage. No need to worry! Whether you know nothing or you think you know it all, here's "Swan Lake," the simple version.

Act I

The ballet opens at a big party scene in a castle (as many ballets do). We're not sure about the time period or place, but the costumes have a renaissance/medieval feel to them. We can also tell that this kingdom must only have one clothing store, since everyone is wearing the same thing.

It's Prince Siegfried's birthday party, the event of the year. Groups of ladies and a few scattered men stand around the outskirts of the stage in a semi-circle shape, curtsying to each other or giving hand-clasps and doing a lot of big, hand-sweeping motions at each other, the rest of the stage, or anything that moves.

A guy in a much fancier outfit walks on. He's the Prince, and everyone gets very excited when he arrives. Almost as if they forgot the whole reason they came to this party was for the Prince. He goes around the semi-circle as everyone bows to him. More hand motioning commences.

The identically-dressed background people dance to a waltz for the Prince, and after the Queen enters the stage. More surprised looks to see the Queen went to her own son's birthday party. After everyone bows for the hundredth time, the Queen gives the Prince his birthday present: a crossbow. The Prince is ecstatic and dances around with his new gift, somehow avoiding shooting one of his guests.

But then, Mother dearest drops a huge surprise on her son. She tells him (in more hand motions) that now that he has come of age, he must marry. He looks off into the distance, confused and concerned. But before he can hand motion back, three new dancers appear on the stage, and begin dancing.

The two women and man perform for unknown reasons. As they dance, the people on the sides are constantly running up to others they already saw and greeting them again, point out that people are indeed dancing on stage and make completely silent conversation. After they finish, the Queen motions for everyone on stage to dance the last dance of the party.

Everyone joins in for the finale and begins to exit, except for the Prince. He stays behind as the music changes from cheerful and exciting to melancholy, and the lights begin to dim to their signature blueish glow. He dances around the stage and continues with his distant stares of confusion and concern mixed in with a couple of multiple turns and huge jumps. At the end one of his friends comes on stage with the crossbow, and asks if the Prince would like to go hunting right now, at night, on his birthday. The Prince says he would rather go by himself, and runs off to the woods, alone, in his tights and bejeweled puffy shirt.

Act II

Act II opens with the Prince running around in what's assumed to be a forest (every ballet has the classic "moonlit forest" scene, so know to expect it). He comes up to a lake and spots a creature that he attempts to shoot. On second glance, he notices it's a half-swan half-human woman creature, and his only thought and impulse at that moment was, "Damn that bird/lady is hot, I wanna dance with her."

Her name is Odette, and she tells him she is cursed to be swan by day and human by night. The only way for the curse to be broken is for a man to promise Odette to stay with her forever, and if he betrays her, she will be forced to stay a swan. They begin dancing together until a weird half-bird-half-human guy interrupts, Von Rothbart, the guy who cursed Odette. We can tell he's the bad guy from his dark, scary costume and menacing feathered head piece.

Rothbart calls the other swan/girls to the stage, and they all come out to dance as big flock. This is the part that most people are familiar with; picture the four girls in the white tutus with intertwined arms galloping back and fourth on stage.

And here we have some typical ballet fluff, where random dancers are dancing just for the sake of dancing that doesn't actually progress the plot. As the sun comes up, Odette and the rest of the girls begin transforming into swans again, and the Prince leaves the forest and returns back to the castle.


Back home, the Queen is holding another party. She invites five princesses of neighboring countries to introduce to the Prince, in hopes he will choose one as his wife. There is a Hungarian princess, Russian princess, a Spanish princess, a Neopolitan princess, and a Polish princess. They all perform for the Prince (insert more ballet fluff), but he's completely uninterested in all of them. More silent conversation and hand motioning from the people standing around in the back of the party.

Suddenly, Rothbart runs into the party, with a plus one. It's Odile, Rothbart's daughter, who was also turned into a swan. Rothbart put a spell on her to make her look just like Odette, but with black feathers. Think that scene from "Black Swan" where Natalie Portman comes out with crazy eyes and imagines growing huge black wings during her fouettes, but less insane.

The Prince doesn't notice the difference, although she completely changed personalities and is a completely different color, and dances with Odile. She dances super seductively with him (as seductive as ballet can be), and the Prince announces that he intends to marry her. Quick flash to Odette upstage, who's freaking out because her boyfriend thought this other swan was her, and now she's stuck as a swan forever. The Prince figures out that he messed up big time, and rushes off to the lake before sun rise.

Act IV

(The ending to "Swan Lake" varies, depending on what company is performing it. For our sake, let's stick with original.)

We open on the Prince running to the lake. He finds Odette with the rest of the swan/girls, and begs her for forgiveness. She forgives his stupidity, even though he proposed to a completely different bird/lady, but is worried about what will happen to them next. Commence drama queen dance sequence by Odette and the Prince.

Rothbart shows up and says the Prince still has to marry Odile. Then a dramatic dance sequence of the Prince and Rothbart playing reverse "monkey in the middle" with Odette ensues while the other swan/girls stand on the sides in their flock. The couple can't see this ending well, no matter what happens, so the two decide to die together, drowning in the lake. The beautifully tragic suicide removes the curse from the other swans and kills Rothbart. The ballet ends with the couple "ascending into the heavens", to be together forever in death.

I know how ridiculous that all sounds, but it's how the story has been for over a hundred years. Don't let the weird story line prevent you from enjoying the beautiful dancing and music in the performance. To test out your new understand of "Swan Lake," you can easily go and see Butler Ballet's performance this weekend!

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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