SUBJECTS — Dance/Performance; ELA: metaphor, symbol;



AGE: 10+; No MPAA Rating;

Drama; 2005; 113 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

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“Swan Lake” is one of the most beautiful and popular examples of ballet in the Romantic style. It explores the possibilities of the archetypical metaphor which identifies the swan with female beauty. The ballet presents some of the most expressive and beautiful movements ever seen on stage.


Selected Awards: None.

Featured Actors: Gillian Murphy, Angel Corella and Marcelo Gomes.

Director: Matthew Diamond

TWM recommends the American Ballet Theatre production featuring Gillian Murphy and Angel Corella. Ms. Murphy is transcendent as Odette, the White Swan. Mr. Corella gives an excellent supporting performance as Prince Siegfried. The corps de ballet and the soloists are excellent. The production is beautiful in all respects.

Versions on DVD we do not recommend:

“The Kirov Ballet: Swan Lake” with Galina Mezentseva and Konstantin Zaklinsky, 1986. This is a live performance with wonderful choreography, staging, and corps de ballet. The choreographer has created an excellent part for the jester which is superbly danced. However, the camera work is amateurish and at times out of focus. Ms. Mezentseva does not provide a performance that can compete with Ms. Murphy in the ABT version.

“Swan Lake: Tchaikovsky, with Evelyn Hart and Peter Schaufuss”, 1988. The choreography is by Natalia Makarova who also introduces the ballet. We found Ms. Hart to be an interesting dancer but she does not capture the essence of the swan like Ms. Murphy in the ABT version. Ms. Makarova’s choreography does interesting things with the corps de ballet but the staging effects are amateurish.


The experience of beauty cannot help but enrich the lives of children. This Learning Guide will show how to use “Swan Lake” to: (1) introduce ballet and Romantic ballet in particular, (2) provide an example of the Romantic movement in an art form other than literature, music, or visual arts; (3) discuss some themes of the Romantic movement; (4) provide an example of the use of metaphor and symbol in a work of art, as well as an opportunity to discuss their differences; and (5) provide an SEL lesson about romantic relations. Knowledge of this ballet and of its place in the tradition of Romantic ballet will enhance students’ understanding of history and of art.




See Setting the Scene. Then go over the Quick Discussion Question and Discussion Questions 6 – 14.



Prince Siegfried is being required by his mother to choose a wife. Hunting in the forest near a lake, he falls in love with a Odette, the queen of the swans. She is really a beautiful woman condemned to be a swan for life under the spell of the evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart. Only the true and faithful love of a man can break the spell. Prince Siegfried swears his love for Odette.

That night, Siegfried’s mother, the queen, is holding a ball to introduce Siegfried to eligible princesses. He dances with them but will not choose one to be his wife. Then Von Rothbart enters with his glamorous daughter, Odile. He has told Odile to convince Siegfried to pledge his love for her. Odile does her work and Siegfried is entranced. Von Rothbart demands that Siegfried declare his love and fidelity for his daughter. Immediately after Siegfried complies, Von Rothbart discloses the deception.

Horrified, Siegfried rushes to the lake to find Odette. She forgives him. Together they are able to break Von Rothbart’s spell but only by drowning themselves in the lake. They are united in the afterlife. In “Swan Lake”, Odette, the White Swan, is the embodiment of both feminine beauty and animal grace. She is contrasted with Odile, the Black Swan, the essence of glamour, trickery and artifice.


Here is a description of one of the passages in “Swan Lake”:

“In the heart of the ballet, the Act II love duet, Odette [the White Swan] enters on a shower of harp notes and bows down to Siegfried like a bird landing on a lake, closing its wings. Then he takes her arms and ‘opens’ her up. In their dance, Ivanov [the choreographer] alternates fainting, melting images of sadness with images of flying. Near the beginning Odette tries to fly away; the Prince lifts her for the effect, but then it’s as if he brings her down out of the air. A little later, he lifts her in a circle around his head in a kind of triumphant flight. The whole duet is about giving up one kind of flying and learning another; internal flying, we might call it. In one of the last movement phrases, the Prince folds the Swan Queen’s ‘wings’ over her chest, and she tries to nestle her head, as if relinquishing being a swan, but it’s hard. At the very end of the dance, the final ‘finger turns’ (he supports her by a finger; she turns in front of him), we see her beat her foot lightly against her ankle, like the quivering of the last birdness in her as she stops being a wild thing and agrees to be a loved thing.” The Mysteries of Swan Lake by Elizabeth Kendall at PBS Great Performances.


The primary Romantic ballets in the modern ballet repertoire include: “La Sylphide” (France,1832); “Giselle” (France, 1841); “Coppelia” (France, 1870); “The Sleeping Beauty” (Russia, 1890), “The Nutcracker” (Russia, 1892) and “Swan Lake” (Russia, 1895).

The Romantic movement started in Europe in the late 18th century and died out in the second half of the 19th century. (Ballet declined in Western Europe at roughly the same time.) By the end of the 19th century, dance in Western Europe was something that accompanied operatic performances. Separate productions of the ballet classics were rare. (The two exceptions were Denmark and Russia which maintain their own balletic traditions to this day.)

Ballet was reintroduced to Western Europe in 1909 by Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes. The great Romantic ballets were revived or performed for the first time in Western Europe by Diaghilev’s company. Ballet in all of Western Europe (except for Denmark) and in North America can trace its origins to the Ballet Russes and from there back to the Russian ballet. See Learning Guide to “The Red Shoes”. Romantic ballets remain a strong component of the modern ballet repertoire.

Romanticism is difficult to define. It was different in each art form and there were variants in many countries. It went through certain stages in some art forms that were missing in others. It was affected by technical developments in some forms of art (for example, the life of Romantic ballet was extended due to the development of the toe shoe and en pointe technique, see note in the sidebar entitled “Toe Shoes”). There are, however, several unifying threads to Romanticism. It was a revolt against the formalism of Neoclassicism and the rationality of the Enlightenment. It emphasized “the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental”. The Romantics idealized the wild and natural over the constraints of society. Thus, Romantic ballets focus on themes appreciating the beauty and freedom of nature over the artificial restrictions of society. They value emotion over reason and the senses over the intellect. Britannica article on Ballet History.

The Romantic tradition in ballet includes an emphasis on the yearning for love, which is often frustrated. It is a world populated by merry peasants, evil sorcerers, fantastic ghosts and otherworldy creatures (such as willies, nymphs and warrior mice). In Romantic ballets, dolls can come to life and Christmas trees can grow to gigantic proportions. An important theme in Romantic ballet is the contrast between the world of spells and incantations and the world of everyday life. The untamed world of nature is preferred over the restrictions of society.

The plot of “Swan Lake” evokes universal themes that resonate in Romantic works of art. They include: (1) the search for a true love; (2) the conflict between the purity of nature vs. the artifice of society; (3) the conflict between good and evil; (4) the conflict between the freedom of nature and the strictures of society; and (5) the difficulty in understanding the difference between what is false/superficial/treacherous and what is true/real/nurturing. As exemplified in “Swan Lake”: (1) Siegfried searches for true love and finds it in the swan-woman. (2) The attractions of the swan-woman are based on her delicate but wild animal beauty, whereas the attraction of Odile, the woman of the court, is artificial and fake. (3) Odette and Siegfried and their love for each other are good while Odile and Von Rothbart are evil. (4) Society requires that Siegfried must marry a woman from the court, but he falls in love with the natural swan-woman. (5) Initially, Siegfried cannot see through Odile’s deceptive glamorousness but after he finds out that he has been tricked and Odette forgives him, he comes to understand the depth and meaning of love.


There are several different endings to Swan Lake. In Russian and Chinese versions, the power of the love between Siegfried and Odette defeats Von Rothbart. The White Swan is restored to human form. She lives happily ever after with the prince. In the ABT version, Siegfried and Odette commit suicide by jumping into the lake to be reunited in heaven. In the version choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev for Weiner Staatsopernballet, von Rothbart breaks a dike and Odette is forced to become a swan to survive while Siegfried drowns in the waters of the lake. In the 2006 New York City Ballet version, Siegfried’s declaration that he wants to marry Odile condemns Odette to remain a swan forever. She responds to von Rothbart’s call leaving Siegfried alone and in grief forever.


The migration of swans takes them to many places around the world. As a result, they have appeared in the myths and religious ceremonies of many cultures. The myths of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, all celebrated the swan. The wizard men of Lapland, the prehistoric inhabitants of Ireland, and the medicine men of Native American Indians, all told stories of the swan. Both eastern and western traditions recognize the swan as a symbol of female beauty.

The legend of the Swan-Maiden goes back for centuries, appearing in differing forms in both eastern and western literature. Women who turn into birds and vice versa were popular themes, and the swan was particularly favored due to its grace when swimming in the water. The ancient Greeks considered the swan to be the bird closest to the Muses. When Apollo was born at Delos, the event was celebrated by flights of circling swans. The Origins of Swan Lake from Ballet Met, Columbus, Ohio.

Stories of women changing into swans and swans changing into women can be found in many cultures, including, The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, The Rover (a Slav tale), and The Legend of the Children of Lir, from Ireland. There is a constellation named after the swan. In Hindu mythology, the divine swan-maiden, Saraswati, is depicted as young, fair, and beautiful.

“Swan Lake” is in the tradition of dances in which people mimic or take on the forms of animals. Other examples include the Tsi Wara dance of the Bamana peoples of Mali, West Africa, in which the dancers dress up as an antelope; the deer dance of the Yaqui Native Americans; the bear dance of the Ute, and the loon dance of the Inuit.


Tips on Using “Swan Lake” with a Class


Before showing the film, ask whether your students have seen real swans. If some have not, show the class a few minutes of footage of real swans. Swans are shown for about five minutes in scene #6 on Winged Migration. There are also two KLM commercials on YouTube that have some good footage. Turn the sound off if you use the commercials.

Tell the class that there are both symbols and metaphors in the ballet. If necessary, remind students of the definition of metaphor. (“A comparison which imaginatively identifies one thing with another dissimilar thing, and transfers or ascribes to the first thing (the tenor or idea) some of the qualities of the second (the vehicle or image). Unlike a simile or analogy, metaphor asserts that one thing is another thing, not just that one is like another.” Glossary of Literary Terms by Robert Harris.) Give examples of metaphors in works of literature that your class has studied. For example, The Odyssey uses “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn”. Note that metaphors in literature consist of words, but the language of dance is movement and, therefore, metaphors in ballet use that language.

Next, discuss the difference between symbol and metaphor. Here is a good explanation: “A symbol works two ways: It is something itself, and it also suggests something deeper. . . . Metaphors are comparisons between two seemingly dissimilar things; symbols associate two things, but their meaning is both literal and figurative.” In a story about the life of a young man (we’ll call him John), a metaphor might read “John’s life was a flower that had suddenly burst into bloom, colorful and vibrant.” In the story or poem, the flower might also serve as a symbol of John’s life. Flowers are generally colorful and vibrant. Therefore, this symbol works on both the symbolic and metaphorical levels: the flower symbolizes John’s life, beautiful and vibrant, and the attributes of the flower are suggestive of what John’s life is like. This symbol would work best if later in the story we see that John’s life is fragile, like a flower. The metaphor describing the change in John’s circumstances becomes, “John’s life was a delicate flower, its beauty easily destroyed”.

To put it another way, an appropriate symbol has an emotional connection with what is being represented so that the symbol is evocative of the thing for which it stands. This evocative connection can be turned into a metaphor. Thus, in the example of the flower, the fact that the flower itself is beautiful and vibrant evokes the times when John’s life is beautiful. Later, when we see that John’s life is fragile, the symbol of the flower evokes that concept as well. The flower is, therefore, an appropriate choice for a symbol of John’s life. A piece of wood could technically be used as a symbol for John’s life, but it would have nothing in common with what it symbolized and therefore it would be a pretty poor symbol.

Ask the class, as they watch “Swan Lake”, to think about what Odette and Odile symbolize, what about them is a metaphor, and whether there is any relation between the symbol and the metaphor.

Teachers can also enhance the value of the film by telling students about Romanticism and how romantic ballets partake of the Romantic movement. See the Helpful Background section below. This can also be done after the film.


Before watching “Swan Lake”, students should understand that dance combines art and athletics. While full-length ballets tell stories, they also give dancers a chance to display their stamina, strength, and technique. The audience will often applaud at the end of a specially difficult and beautiful dance. When Gillian Murphy dances the Black Swan, she performs 32 fouettés en tournant. This is extremely difficult and is considered evidence of a ballerina’s absolute mastery of technique. (Performing 32 fouettés is like pitching a perfect game or returning a kick-off for a touchdown.) Issuing a challenge to other ballerinas worldwide, Ms. Murphy adds several turns during her 32 fouettés.

In ballet, the dancers’ movements have been honed over centuries to be expressive and pleasing to the eye. The most difficult moves must look graceful and easy. When the men jump, they must seem to hang in the air and come back to earth gently, and in full control. When the ladies are on pointe they must appear as if born to turn on their toes, even though pointe work is very difficult and sometimes painful.

Ballet productions combine music, acting, dance, lighting, and set design. There is no spoken word in ballet. Performances are given to large audiences and the dancers must communicate their emotions to everyone in the theater, even to people sitting in the back row. When a ballet is filmed, the camera will show the dancers up close, much closer than anyone in the audience can see them. For this reason, in the film version of “Swan Lake”, there will be times when dancers’ facial expressions and movements may seem exaggerated.

Explain that ballet was originally seen only by the aristocracy and upper classes but now it’s enjoyed by people from all walks of life. Ballet began in Italy and France during the 1600s. “Swan Lake” was written and first performed in 1895 in the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. Show where St. Petersburg is on a map or a globe and explain that it was the capital of Imperial Russia. The emperors of Russia were called czars and ruled until the First World War when revolutions occurred which resulted in the creation of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War (1946 – 1991), the Soviet Union was the arch-enemy of the Western Democracies and of the U.S. in particular.

The Mariinsky Theatre served the czar and the Russian aristocracy. It was named after a czar’s daughter, Maria, and was the preeminent theatre in all of Russia. The Mariinsky is still in operation today and it is one of the most famous theaters in the world.

You may want to convey a sense of the premiere of “Swan Lake”. Try something like this:

The first performance of “Swan Lake” takes place at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 15, 1895. The winter in St. Petersburg is so cold that the ocean around the city freezes solid and you can drive carriages and sleighs onto the ice. The city is so far north that during the depths of the winter, the sun shines for only a few hours each day. Twilight comes and then darkness falls by 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. In 1895 there are no electric lights and the stage is lit by candles or by gas lamps. The audience arrives in sleighs drawn by horses with traditional bells on their harnesses.

The best ballet in the world is performed in Russia at the Mariinsky Theatre, and the audience is proud of this. Marius Petipa, probably the greatest choreographer of all time, and his talented assistant Lev Ivanov have choreographed the new ballet. The music is by Piotr Tchaikovsky, the best composer of ballet music the world has ever known. The audience expects a work of great beauty. It will not be disappointed.

The Russian aristocracy loves ballet and whoever can come to the performance attends. The theatre is filled with women wearing their best gowns and jewels. The men wear expensive suits or brightly colored uniforms with medals on their chests. . . . The expectation in the air is palpable . . and then the curtain rises.

Now, start the film.

After the movie discuss how the Romantic movement has affected ballet (see Helpful Background Section above) and review the points made in questions 6 – 14 of the Comprehension Test/Homework Assignment. Then give the comprehension test in class or assign it as homework. Click here for a version suitable to be printed and distributed to a class.



Which character grows and learns something in this story and what does he or she learn?

Suggested Response:

Siegfried learns that a woman who is very attractive and entrancing may, in fact, be false and lead him away from his true love.


See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.



1. How does Von Rothbart control Odette?

Suggested Response:

With a magic spell.

2. What is the relationship between Von Rothbart and Odile?

Suggested Response:

He is her father. She is his daughter.

3. What weapon does Siegfried try to use when he goes hunting in the forest?

Suggested Response:

A crossbow.

4. What is the purpose of the ball at which Siegfried meets Odile?

Suggested Response:

To find a suitable mate for the prince.

5. What happens at the end of the ballet?

Suggested Response:

Odette forgives Siegfried, they jump into the lake to break Von Rothbart’s spell, and they are reunited in the afterlife.



6. Which character grows and learns something in this story and what does he or she learn?

Suggested Response:

Siegfried learns that a woman who is very attractive and entrancing may, in fact, be false and lead him away from his true love.

7. What was the most beautiful thing about this ballet?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. Good answers will make reference to specific movements and scenes.

8. Many people believe that the dancing of Odette (the White Swan) describes some essential qualities of the feminine. Did you have that feeling? How would you describe it?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. A good answer will include concepts such as gracefulness, delicacy, vulnerability, and compassion.

9. Describe the movements that you thought were most swan-like.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response to this question. Possible answers include the arm movements in which the arms move like wings or when the ballerina sits down and bends forward with her arms in front of her.

10. What is the difference between a “symbol” and a “metaphor”?

Suggested Response:

A metaphor is a comparison of one thing with another by equating attributes of a dissimilar thing to the thing described. An example from the Odyssey is the term “rosy-fingered dawn” or “wine-dark sea”. A symbol stands for something else while keeping its own identity. In “Swan Lake”, Odette stands for true love and Odile is a symbol of the false love that a man can feel for a glamorous but heartless woman.

11. Odette is a symbol but there is also something about her which is metaphorical, what is it?

Suggested Response:

Odette’s movements as the White Swan are a metaphor attributing the beauty and grace of a swan to a woman.

12. Why does an effective symbol usually lead to an apt metaphor?

Suggested Response:

With a good symbol, there is a connection between the symbol and what is being represented so that the symbol is evocative of the thing for which it stands. This evocative connection can be turned into a metaphor. Thus, in the example of the flower discussed in the Helpful Background section, the fact that the flower itself is beautiful and vibrant evokes the happy times in the subject’s life. It is, therefore, an effective symbol.

13. Describe two themes of “Swan Lake” and how they are expressed in the ballet.

Suggested Response:

See the Helpful Background section.

14. What is it about “Swan Lake” that places it in the tradition of Romantic ballet? Name three things.

Suggested Response:

It idealizes the wild and natural over the constraints of society. It emphasizes the yearning for love. One character is a sorcerer who casts spells on women making them into swans.



1. At the ball, Siegfried becomes infatuated with Odile. Either he mistakenly thought she was Odette or he was just taken with the glamour of Odile. Either way, in the heat of the moment he didn’t check carefully enough or he abandoned his love for Odette. As a result, he swore his love for Odile and betrayed Odette. What does this tell you about infatuation and overwhelmingly strong feelings of attraction?

Suggested Response:

They can often mislead us and before we act on them, they should be tempered with time and reflection.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
See the Quick Discussion Question and the SEL question dealing with Romantic Relations.



In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Ballet 101 by Robert Greskovic, Hyperion, New York, 1998,
  • Four Centuries of Ballet – Fifty Masterworks by Lincoln Kirstein, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1970 & 1984.

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