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Fairy Tale Backgrounds: Swan Lake

Introduction

Swan Lake is a pretty iconic story in the breadth of fairy tales. It’s tricky, multi-faceted, and often adapted in strange ways. Most notably, Swan Lake is a famous ballet with well known musical scores and featured in almost any ballet scene or movie in some capacity. The costumes are easily recognizable, and the story is compelling to many people.

Swan Lake’s Origins

The origins of the story are actually quite mysterious, as nobody knows exactly where the story for the ballet emerged. It’s thought to be influenced by German and Russian fairy tales. A variety of men associated with the development of the ballet are theorized as having written the original story, but nothing has been confirmed. The original ballet was written, composed, and produced in the late nineteenth century and apparently featured separate dancers for Odette and Odile, who are now often portrayed by a single dancer. The ballet was not received well initially, but has since become an incredibly successful and iconic ballet.

There are some variations to the story in the ballet productions, including happy endings where the prince and Odette end up together, and variations on the dances included. In general, though, the ballet follows the story of Prince Siegfried who discovers a maiden named Odette, cursed to be a swan until evening where she and other swan maidens turn into humans again. The curse is put on them by Rothbart, whom Siegfried attempts to defeat by swearing his love to Odette. Rothbart then tricks Siegfried into swearing his love to Rothbart’s daughter Odile, transformed to look like Odette (and typically danced by the same ballerina). With this betrayal, Odette is forced to choose between death and living as a swan forever. The usual ending of the ballet is that Siegfried and Odette choose to die together and leap into the enchanted lake.

Major Adaptations and Core Canon

The music and story of Swan Lake appear in a variety of films and TV series. The song pieces are well known, and often used to great effect in storytelling. Swan Lake is often utilized as a major performance in dance themed television and movies, as well as a fairy tale retold in a variety of popular YA fairy tale retelling series. The most well known adaptation of the ballet is that in Black Swan, the movie starring Natalie Portman and MIla Kunis. In this movie, the performance of Odette and Odile being undertaken by a single ballerina is used as a point of conflict in which Portman’s character must prove her artistic ability in order to retain both parts in competition with Kunis’s character, who is better suited to the part of Odile.

The Swan Princess is an animated film from the 1990’s in which Odette, a princess at birth who knows her prince before her curse, competes instead with a magical double of her made by the sorcerer Rothbart, whose motives are given in this story unlike in the original ballet. The Barbie franchise also adapted Swan Lake into a ballet themed movie with magical elements such as faeries and unicorns. Swan Lake’s music is also featured in a variety of tense scenes from media such as the early versions of Dracula and The Mummy to the new musical Anastasia (loosely based on the movie of the same name from the 90’s) in which a scene utilizes dance and music from the ballet to emphasize the tension between four prominent characters attending a performance of Swan Lake.

In utilizing the Swan Lake music and story, most adaptations and portrayals include the major facts of Odette being cursed to take swan form, a double of her (usually Odile but not always) being deployed by Rothbart to prevent her breaking her curse, and some climactic event that either ends in death for Odette and possibly her prince, or breaking the curse with a happy ending. The dynamic between Odette and Odile is often more a focus than the prince’s role outside of reimagining the tale to have a happy ending.

Conclusion

Swan Lake is a haunting and beautiful ballet. With its tragic ending and beautiful performances, it’s one of the most well known ballets. It embodies a lot of emotion, as well, including having strange connections to history. Performances of Swan Lake were broadcast on Soviet television during major events to prevent news from spreading, and the use of the musical score in horror movies is impactful. It’s not unusual for YA fantasy fairy tale stories to adapt Swan Lake to give it a happier ending, and to explore some of the more interesting aspects of the story. Many focus on the Odette and Odile dynamic, perhaps due to the interesting choice of having a single ballerina perform both roles in most shows. More than anything, I think Swan Lake’s strange story sticks in our minds because it shows a hopeless young maiden fighting for the last chance at life she has.

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By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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