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Why is Rothbart turning maidens into swans?


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As things are very quiet these days, I thought I'd ask this burning question. Does Rothbart have a grudge against the fathers of all the swans - or only against Odette's? I know there was some discussion earlier about whether the other swans were Odette's companions who were with her when she was transfigured or whether they are other girls and Odette was just the most royal so got the title of queen. If they are companions, then we only have to worry about one grudge (companions' feelings don't count anyway), but if they were all changed separately, it opens a can of worms. Thirty-two seems an awful lot of companions for one girl to have! (Unless she went to public school in NYC!)

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Now, now, Mme. Hermine, I'm all for silly season, but this is a serious question :)

She's a princess and princesses have ladies in waiting -- at least, that's what I've always thought. Structurally, I think the "companion" idea must come from the old court ballets, when the Princess really did dance with her ladies-in-waiting. Giselle has her little gang of friends, as does Swanhilda. If it's Odette's Mother who turned her into a swan to keep her safe from Von R, then it would make sense that she'd thoughtfully turn all the ladies in waiting into swans, too, so that Odette would have someone to swim with.

Now, for the $64,000 question -- why swans?

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I wonder if anyone has encountered the story "The Stolen Veil" from Johann Musäus Popular German Legends? That's the root story from which the libretto is supposed to have sprung. What creatures are involved there?

>silly season again >Porcupines?<

  • Q. How do you make love?
  • A. VERY carefully!

Which would be a distinct improvement over some presentations I've seen.

[ 08-18-2001: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

[ 08-19-2001: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

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Before we get seriously off-track, could I ask that we keep silly season out of this forum generally? I'd like to build up an archive of material on these ballets and don't want to have to go through and read every post and cull out the jokes. If we want to have a silly season type post on swans and other ballet beasts, that might be a good topic for Anything Goes. (Thank you :) )

Estelle, I don't know if swans had been used in ballets before -- hard to imagine they wouldn't have been. I don't have time to check it, but anyone who has Wiley, Beaumont's book on Swan Lake, or Kirstein's Movement and Metaphor -- I'll bet there would be something in there.

[ 08-18-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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It's not Odette's mother who turns her into a swan, it's Rothbart - in revenge for???? or is he a fairy tale version of a child molester or serial rapist??

Would a royal princess have as many as 32 ladies-in-waiting? But if they aren't Odette's friends from before her transfiguration, then who are they/ :confused:

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I think the swan angle may have something to do with the geographical location of whereveritis in Germany the ballet is supposed to take place. The swan has been a heraldric charge in Bavaria, specifically of the Royal Family, the Wittelsbachs. Ludwig II took this aspect of his heritage to an extreme, as he did with so much of it. So maybe the ballet is supposed to be set in southern Germany in some principality or tributary state of Bavaria?

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Guest justDANCE

I've actually thought about this some. Perhaps Rothbart, being an overly grown beast-like creature (it varies from performance to performance) is captured by, and rather jealous of swans (them being one of the most graceful bird). So he picked out the prettiest, most petite girls he could find (feeding on his jealousy of pretty, petite things) and turned them into swans, so he could spend the day looking at them, wishing he were just as graceful, and beautiful. And maybe he choose one of the most graceful and prettiest BIRDS because he really wishes he could fly, and not just leap about the stage, although almost gracefully, still rather grotesquely. Hmm...maybe Rothbart really is a nice guy, he just has some psycological problems.

Hope this all makes sense!

Emily :)

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During the era of Louis XIV, court etiquette (the term dates from then) grew to be an extremely complex and convoluted matter, and attendants upon certain persons was rigidly codified under the authority of the King, who often preserved "ancient privileges and prerogatives" in his selection of appropriate retinues for his subordinates and himself. Under certain circumstances, the Duchess of Burgundy could have more attendants than a Princess of the Blood Royal!

But all this hearks back to Louis himself, and the concept of the rightness of the Absolute Divine Right Monarchy. Ludwig II may have been called "Mad King Ludwig", but his stand in favor of absolutism was much admired in late-19th-century Russia. I recently discovered a set of hunt silver made in Russia in 1876, according to the hallmarks on the pieces, and they were highly decorated with swans! I learned, from following up with some research, that the swan was very popular as a design motif in the 1875-1885 era in Russia, largely as a tribute to Ludwig's championship of absolutism!

[ 08-19-2001: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

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Thanks, Mel for that information. But anybody who knows swans will know that they aren't just pretty and graceful: they are really MEAN. I've been chased by one (he wanted a roll I had in my hand), and it was truly scary. He could run really fast on land as well! Someone should create a ballet on the subject of a helpless creature being hounded by a vengeful swan! (Have you ever heard one hiss?) :)

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Yeah, mute swans (the ones that hiss) are particularly nasty. Trumpeter swans (the ones that bark) are nicer. I've always wondered about von Rothbart's taste in ornithology. Why change somebody into a really big, bad-tempered animal with villainous table manners? And further, one that could possibly do you harm? Some productions have made use of the dark side of the swan personality, and have them nibbling various characters to death; a truly horrible way to go!

[ 08-20-2001: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

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Originally posted by felursus:

But if they aren't Odette's friends from before her transfiguration, then who are they

Maybe they're swans, magically transformed into maidens at night?

(More seriously) C W Beaumont's book quotes lots of antecedents for the woman/swan transformation story; and he also gives the libretto for the original Swan Lake, which I thought was fascinating. Odette tells Siegfried that the spell she's under was put on her by her grandfather, not out of spite but to protect her from her wicked stepmother. The lake is made up of his tears, and he keeps Odette there, just letting her out at night close to the lake where he can keep an eye on her. But during the day he turns her (and her friends, which may be a clue in this discussion) into swans - not as a punishment but so that they can fly away safely and have a good time!

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Does anybody know the date that Swan Lake premeired? It is a Petipa ballet correct? That would place it at the late 1800s. So Mel's earlier statement: "that the swan was very popular as a design motif in the 1875-1885 era in Russia, largely as a tribute to Ludwig's championship of absolutism!" Would probably explain why the princess and the maidens were turned into swans in the first place. It simply was a very trendy animal at that time period...

Any thoughts on this?


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The original production premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in 1877. The version we're used to was presented in 1895 as a complete version with musical edits and interpolations by Riccardo Drigo, and the choreography split between Marius Petipa and his assistant, Lev Ivanov. If you go to the Ballet Alert! homepage and click the link to "Ballets", and select 19th century ballets, there's a whole THING in there about Swan Lake.

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If I may just add a bit..I found this and thought it was quit einteresting and may answer the question as to why swans....

".. It is highly likely that Tchaikovsky had a good deal of influence over the story’s


Legends of swans were presumably familiar to Tchaikovsky and his artistic friends, who no doubt discussed the idea of the swan as a symbol of womanhood at its purest.

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 the bird closest to the Muses. When Apollo was born at Delos, the event was celebrated by flights of circling swans.

The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights tells the story of Hassan of Bassorah, who visits a place inhabited by bird-maidens. When they take off their feather garments, the bird-maidens are transformed into beautiful women. Hassan captures the clothes of one of the maidens in order to keep her in human form as his wife. She is able to regain her feathers and flies away from him. Hassan sets out on a quest to regain his wife and after many adventures succeeds in finding her.

Sweet Mikhail Ivanovich the Rover is a Slav tale that begins with Mikhail the Rover who is about to shoot a swan that warns him "Shoot not, else ill-fortune will doom thee for evermore!" On landing the swan turns into a beautiful maiden. When Mikhail tries to kiss her she warns that she is an infidel. However, if he takes her to the holy city of Kiev, then she might be received by the church and thus free to marry him. So they set out.

In a similar South German legend a swan speaks to a forester who is about to kill her. The beautiful maiden in this case says that she would be his if he could keep her existence a secret for one year. He fails and thus looses her.

Celtic folk-lore brings us The Legend of the Children of Lir. When King Lir’s first wife dies, he marries a wicked woman Arife. Jealous of Lir’s children from his first wife, Arife turns them all into swans.

The complete scenario of Swan Lake is not to be found in any of these legends, but many parallels do exist. Other possible sources of inspiration could have

been Johann Karl August Musäus’ Der geraubte Schleier, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans and Alexandre Pushkin’s Tzar Saltan, the story of a prince who saves the life of a wounded swan who later reappears as a woman to marry him. There are also elements of the story that are traditional in many ballets. One cannot discount the influence, at least on Tchaikovsky, of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, the story of an heroic Swan Prince, a man with a mysterious past who arrives on a magical swan-boat. ..."

Go to http://www.balletmet.org/balletnotes.html

for an extensive essay on Swan Lake! Happy reading.

[ 08-20-2001: Message edited by: Xena ]

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The Children of lir story is correct, except that King Lir married his first wife Eva's sister. Her name was Aoife (not Arife) and they were said to look exactly the same, but one was light of heart and the second dark of heart. Kind of like the black and white swans :)

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Emily's post has an interesting idea. It really reminded me of the movie "The Last Unicorn". There's an old man who keeps all the unicorns prisoners in the sea so that he can watch them all day. But I don't think that in the ballet, the idea of Rothbart being a nice guy ( or having a heart at all, for that matter) is supposed to ever cross our minds. He is most often portrayed as pure evil and darkness ( even though there is no such thing). I guess those psychological problems of his run pretty deep!

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FYI: when trying to sort through the characters and motivations of "Swan Lake" it might be useful to refer to the original, 1877 libretto as well as that for the revised scenario of ‘95. Note that originally the swan transformations were a form of self-protection. Also note how originally it was Odette's grandFATHER's tears that formed the lake of the swans, not her mother's, etc. etc. Unfortunately the ‘95 libretto does not spell out the particulars of Odette's mime. (Though I suppose it may be written in the Stepanov notation, which Doug Fullington might be able to provide.) But it would seem that in the re-written scenario, the evil stepmother becomes the genie (Rothbart) and that the grieving grandfather becomes, perhaps, Odette's mother, whose tears, Odette's pantomime now-traditionally tells us, created the lake of the swans. And in the revised version the bewitchment is no longer a means of self-protection but a sinister spell.

The following is from the 1877 libretto of ‘Swan Lake' i.e. "Lebedinoe ozero" with regard to the bewitchment of Odette into her swan form, from Roland John Wiley's "Tchaikovsky's Ballets" (p. 323 -324)

"[Odette's narrative.]

‘Yes Listen...My name is Odette, my mother is a good fairy; against her father's will she fell in love with a noble knight and married him, but he destroyed her, and she was no more. My father married another, forgot about me, but my wicked stepmother, who was a witch, hated me and nearly killed me. But my grandfather took me in. The old man loved my mother very much and cried so about her that from his tears this lake was formed. He himself went to a place there in the deepest part and concealed me from people. Now, not long ago he began to indulge me, and is giving me full freedom to make merry. Thus by day with my friends we transform ourselves into swans, and merrily fly through the air, high, almost to heaven itself; and by night we play and dance here near our dear little old man. But my stepmother even now leaves neither me nor my friends in piece.'

At this moment the sound of an owl rings out.

‘Did you hear?...This is her ominous voice,' says Odette, looking around alarmed. ‘Look, there she is!'

In the runs appears a huge owl with eyes lit-up. [The appearance of an owl.]

‘She would have destroyed me long ago,' Odette continues. ‘But grandfather follows her vigilantly, and keeps me from harm. With my marriage the witch loses her chance to injure me, but until then only this crown saves me from her wickedness. [Odette: ‘with my marriage, etc.] And that is all, my story is not long.'"

Of the revisions made by Modeste Tchaikovsky for the 1895 production Wiley states thus (p. 248):

"Modeste substantially recast Act II. Siegfried has been separated from the other hunters when the latter discover the swans. Benno sends the rest to find the Prince, and then is accosted by the swan maidens. Apart from this scene, which is incidental to the main story line, Modeste clarified and abbreviated. Odette no longer has to mime a complicated family history: she and her friends are enchanted by an evil genie who may appear either in the form of an owl or a human. But the conditions of her release are different and more complex: instead of marriage a pledge of eternal love is required, from someone who has never pledged it to another, plus the sacrifice ofhis life. Odette warns Siegfried of the dangers that await him at the Princess's ball, and this predictive element, thanks to the reduction in unnecessary detail in the act as a whole, emerges more clearly now than it had in the original."

The Third Tableau from the ‘95 scenario as published in Wiley, pp. 338 -39:

"Siegfried, struck by her beauty, forbids his comrades to shoot. She expresses her thanks to him and explains that she, Princess Odette, and the young girls subject to her are the unhappy victims of a wicked genie who bewitched them. By day they are condemned to take the form of swans and only at night, near these ruins, can they regain their human form. Their master, in the form of an owl, watches over them. His dreadful spell will continue until somebody falls truly in love with her, for life. Only a person who has not sworn his love to any other can be her deliverer and return her to her previous state. Siegfried, enchanted, listens to Odette. At this moment an owl flies in, and having transformed itself into an evil genie appears in the ruins, having listened to the conversation, it disappears. Horror strikes hold of Siegfreid at the thought that he could have killed Odette when she was in the form of a swan. He breaks his bow and throws it away in indignation. Odette consoles the young Prince."

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Thank you for taking the time and trouble to post that, rg -- and thank you for joining us :)

I'm still unclear on one point. You wrote: "And in the revised version the bewitchment is no longer a means of self-protection but a sinister spell."

But Odette does mime "mother's tears" formed the lake, doesn't she? I've always thought, as Mel implies, that "mother" was easier to do in mime than "grandfather," hence the switch.

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