‘Swan Lake’: The Quintessential Classical Ballet

June 13, 2017 Updated: June 15, 2017

TORONTO—Swans often symbolize purity, grace, and perfection. They are linked to feminine beauty and strength. Few other art forms value these qualities as much as classical ballet where strength, purity of form, and the pursuit of perfection are what every dancer strives for. 

It is little wonder that the image of the swan has been so closely linked to the image of the ballerina, and “Swan Lake” is the ballet that brought this association most closely to our consciousness.

“Swan Lake” premiered in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow with music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, now recognized as one of the world’s foremost composers. His music lives on today in three of the most renowned classical ballets: “The Nutcracker,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Swan Lake.” Even those who have never seen “Swan Lake” have probably heard the music before, either on the radio, in a film, or in a TV commercial. It is some of the best music ever written. 

Artists of the Ballet in the National Ballet of Canada's production of James Kudelka's "Swan Lake"(Aleksandar Antonijevic)
Artists of the Ballet in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of James Kudelka’s “Swan Lake”(Aleksandar Antonijevic)

While the ballet experienced relatively modest success at its debut, it was the 1895 revival by choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg that served as the basis of countless adaptations by ballet companies around the world that are still continuing today.

“Swan Lake” possesses some of the key characteristics of classical ballet: mastery of technique, grandeur of movement, and perfect poses. It places incredible physical and artistic demands on the dancers, from the corps de ballet to the principals. Moreover, the opportunity to dance the lead roles of Odette and Odile has been an aspiration for young ballerinas for decades.

‘Swan Lake’ possesses some of the key characteristics of classical ballet: mastery of technique, grandeur of movement, and perfect poses.

For National Ballet of Canada second soloist Hannah Fischer, getting the chance to perform these roles is an honour, but she admits it is also nerve-wracking.

Dancer Hannah Fischer (Sian Richards)
Dancer Hannah Fischer (Sian Richards)

Born in New York City in a family of dancers, Fischer trained at Canada’s National Ballet School before joining the National Ballet in 2012.  In 2015, she performed the lead role of Hermione in Christopher Wheeldon’s “A Winter’s Tale,” for which she was acclaimed for her purity, beauty, and grace. 

“They’re both really difficult in their own way,” says Fischer of her “Swan Lake” roles. 

“Odette is about control and balance and really pure lines. Odile has a lot of turns and jumps and more tricks, so you have to be able to develop both those kinds of techniques if you really want to make the contrast between the two roles,” she explains.

“There is also the artistic level where Odette is super elegant and graceful, like a swan … and Odile is sexy and evil and cunning.  There’s both those aspects that you have to put into your work, so it’s not just about technique, but you give performances.”

The National Ballet is bringing back its production of “Swan Lake” this month, with choreography by Canadian James Kudelka. 

Universal themes

Evan McKie as Siegfried and Svetlana Lunkina as Odette. (Aleksandar Antonijevic)
Evan McKie as Siegfried and Svetlana Lunkina as Odette. (Aleksandar Antonijevic)

The story of “Swan Lake” has undergone several adaptations, but the basic premise is the same.  Siegfried, a prince, falls in love with Odette, the Queen of the Swans, who is trapped by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. When the prince’s mother organizes a ball where he is to choose a bride, Von Rothbart arrives with his attractive daughter Odile, determined to entrap Siegfried. 

Siegfried is enchanted by Odile—whom he believes to be Odette despite many character differences—and vows to marry her. Von Rothbart triumphs over the prince, who is heartbroken upon realizing he has betrayed his beloved Odette. He runs back to her and the Queen of the Swans forgives his betrayal, only to be confronted by Rothbart’s wrath.

The parts of Odette and Odile are usually played by the same dancer. 

“The two roles go hand in hand,” says Fischer. “They feel a little bit empty without one or the other. The development of the character is perfect when you have both of them, and it’s perfect for the audience too. You get to experience all those different emotions. It’s such a 180-degree shift. She’s still a swan, but she’s a different character completely.”

Good and evil, faithfulness and betrayal, purity and lust are important themes of the ballet and resonate deeply with audiences. Forgiveness is another dominant theme.

“In the pas de deux you can see [Odette’s] heart break, but also her love for [Siegfried]. It’s beautiful that she forgives him even after he’s betrayed her—granted, he didn’t realize it—but it’s hurtful to be betrayed,” Fischer says.

Classical ballet remains very relevant today, she adds.

“We live in an age where everything is at our fingertips and at our disposal, but that’s a great reason to go to the ballet to discover that slow and pure and classical is beautiful too,” says Fischer.

A scene from "Swan Lake" (Bruce Zinger)
A scene from “Swan Lake” (Bruce Zinger)

“[Classical ballet] doesn’t have to be uptight and stiff and only for certain audience members. So when they say, how do you bring it into the 21st century? Well, you just dance it and that brings it into the 21st century. Dance, whatever type it is, is never boring unless you dance it boring.”

The National Ballet of Canada’s production of “Swan Lake” runs June 15—25 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre of the Arts. For more information, visit: http://national.ballet.ca