The greatest of ballets1, music of Tchaikovsky, and choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, first performed at full length in St Petersburg on 17 February 1895. Tchaikovsky was dead by then and it was based on an earlier, smaller-scale work, which premiered on 4 March 1877.

It concerns a prince, called Siegfried2, who falls in love with a swan. Or to be more precise, he 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 great many other swan-maidens to attend her. I forget what they used to be. Anyway, the prince sees her dancing in a moonlight glade by the lake and forgets to shoot her, falling in love instead. And she with him.

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. Alas, 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.

At that moment the real Odette appears outside at the window amid the most crashing, tragic, surging music of the ballet. 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.

A single dancer dances Odette/Odile, which is one of the most taxing of all roles because it requires acting two entirely contrasting characters, as well of course as the strenuous showpiece dancing itself, including thirty-two fouettés. The great Pierina Legnani, first prima ballerina assoluta of the Maryinsky Theatre, created the role. Pavel Gerdt was her Siegfried.

1. Sorry, objections will not be entered: you may call it Duck Soup if that makes you feel better.

2. Chorus of "Shtarker, zis is KAOS, ve do not fall in love viz svans!"

A children's book written by Mark Helprin and beautifully illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Set in an Austria-esqe country around the turn of the 20th century, it only loosely follows the story laid out in Tchaikovsky's ballet.

Within the frame story of an old man telling a young girl about the world outside their mountain home, the man describes his younger days as a scholar in the capital, serving as an advisor to the emperor. The villain, Von Rothbart, is first encountered when he orders the assassination of Prince Esterhazy of Damavand and his wife. Their infant daughter, Odette, is spirited away into the woods. After the death of the emperor the narrator becomes the tutor of the infant crown prince. He trains him secretly to become a good monarch, hiding this from Von Rothbart who, as regent, has seized power in the empire.

Later, while hunting in the forest, the prince has a vision of swans and encounters Odette, falling in love with her. Unfortunately, at the prince's coming-of-age celebration Von Rothbart tricks the prince by unveiling an astoundingly beautiful woman, Odile, whom the prince later marries. The tale finishes with the rebellion of the prince against Von Rothbart and the duel suicide of the prince and Odette, allowing their infant daughter to be spirited away, escaping death at the hands of Von Rothbart's men. The narrator then takes charge of the baby girl and so ends the story.

This book is the perfect example everything a children's book should be: an enveloping mix of fairy tale and historical fiction, subtle illustrations that seem to glow, showing the world as a vivid and beautiful place -- a place where even the tragedies of life can be beautiful.

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