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The original ballet was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia on February 20, 1877 and remained in the repertoire until 1883. After the composer's death, the ballet was revised by the composer's brother Modest and the conductor Riccardo Drigo. This revised version received its premiere at the Maryinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg on January 15, 1895 with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov , and many later stagings have followed their work more or less closely.
A single dancer dances the twin roles of Odette and Odile, which is one of the most taxing of all roles because it requires acting two entirely contrasting characters, as well as the strenuous showpiece dancing itself, including thirty-two fouettés. This feat was put into the choreography because it was a party piece of Pierina Legnani, first prima ballerina assoluta of the Maryinsky ballet.
The ballet's premier in St. Petersburg was actually very poorly received, having been performed with lackluster costumes and scenery, unusual choreography, and a mediocre orchestra. It also departed from the traditional Russian format of ballet, using a story with just enough plot to sustain the virtuoso dancing; Tchaikovsky's ballet, on the other hand, included a well-unified storyline which lost much of the audience. A later revival in the year after Tchaikovsky's death was acclaimed as a masterpiece, having used phenomenal talent in all aspects.
It concerns a prince, called Siegfried, who falls in love with a princess called Odette, who is in human form at night, but has been turned into a swan by day by the evil magician Von Rothbart . She has a retinue of other swan-maidens to attend her. The prince while out hunting sees her dancing in a moonlight glade by the lake.
The Swan Lake was formed by the tears of Princess Odette's parents when Von Rothbart kidnapped her. When he appears and Siegfried threatens to kill him, Odette intercedes. Only when someone sacrifices their life for the Swan Queen will his power be destroyed.
The spell on her may be broken if a prince pledges eternal fidelity to her. Von Rothbart insinuates his own daughter Odile into the court, making her seem identical to Odette. The prince dances with her, and proclaims to the court that he wants to make her his wife.
There are several versions of the ending, here is just one: At that moment the real Odette appears outside at the window. Prince Siegfried realizing his mistake flees the castle to follow Odette. She disappears into the lake, and he pursues her there. Unable to be wed in life, they are united in death. Von Rothbart and his power and his castle fall; the Swan Maidens are free and human, and dance homage to the souls of the lovers.
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