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    SUBJECTS — Dance/Performance; ELA: metaphor, symbol;
    SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING —Romantic Relations;
    Age: 10+; No MPAA Rating; Drama; 2005; 113 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.

    Description:     "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.  

    Benefits of the Movie:     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.

    Possible Problems:    None.

    Parenting Points:     See Setting the Scene. Then go over the Quick Discussion Question and Discussion Questions 6 - 14.


Benefits of the Movie
Possible Problems
Parenting Points
Selected Awards & Cast
Tips on Using "Swan Lake" in Class
      Movement as Metaphor       Setting the Scene
Helpful Background
      Beauty of "Swan Lake"
      Romantic Ballet
      The Swan in Mythology
Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)
Bridges to Reading
Links to the Internet
Assignments, Projects & Activities

WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students' minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Movies as Literature Homework Project.

    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." Elements of Poetry: Definition of Symbol from Bedford St. Martin's publishers. 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 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 world-wide, 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 exagerated.

    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. Click here for pictures of the Mariinsky Theatre.

    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 below) 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.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:   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.

For English Language Arts classes, distribute TWM's Film Study Worksheet. Teachers can modify the worksheet to fit the needs of each class. Ask students to fill out the worksheet as they watch the film or at the film's end.

For an extended scene by scene description of the ballet (the Royal Ballet 1980 version starring Natalia Makarova and Anthony McDowell), see Ballet 101 pp. 222 to 252.

Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.

Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

More Benefits of the Movie: "Swan Lake" is an exploration of two aspects of the feminine: the naturally graceful vulnerability of the White Swan which can only be released by a man's true love and the unattainable allure of the Black Swan which seduces a man away from his true love.

"A fouetté rond de jambe en tournant [often referred to as a 'fouetté' or a 'fouetté en tournant'] is an action where the dancer stands momentarily on flat foot with the supporting knee bent as the other 'working' leg is whipped around to the side, creating the impetus to spin one turn. The working leg is then pulled in to touch the supporting knee as the dancer rises up en pointe on the supporting foot. The ability to consecutively perform 32 of these turns is considered a bravura step by the ballerina, emphasizing her strength, stamina, and technique." From Wikipedia Article on "32 fouettés en tournant". This article also has a video of a dancer performing the a fouetté.

    Helpful Background:


    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 exception 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.

  The artists' description of the theme:    Kevin McKenzie (Artistic Director): "Certainly Odette has gone through a huge journey but I ultimately feel that the story happens to the Prince."

Gillian Murphy: "When he is tricked by Odile he doesn't yet understand . . . the difference between the superficial and the real. And when Odette forgives him in the end it then becomes very clear."

Angel Corella: "It is a story of humanity, of trying to control your mind and your heart at the same time."

"Romanticism shared a passion for the wild, savage, untamed; but there was something anomalous . . . in the Romantic ballerina typed as irrational, since every step she took depended on rigid analytical training and severe discipline." Kirstein, p. 146 & 147.

Two excellent documentaries about Ballet are Ballet Russes and Ballerina.

Toe Shoes:    Beginning in the late 1700s, ballet dancers started using blocked toe shoes to permit women to perform en pointe. These were used by a succession of stars to create effects never seen before. Technical expertise for women increased dramatically and ballet's characteristic female costume, the tutu was developed. The female dancer came to dominate the ballet so completely that in the late 1800s performances of one of the last great romantic ballets, Coppelia, the male roles were danced by women.

Sources on Romanticism include: In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 25, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-22129; Four Centuries of Ballet – Fifty Masterworks and Ballet 101.

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards:   None.

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

Director:   Matthew Diamond

    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. See Uliana Lopatkina in Swan Lake finale from mad about Mariinsky on YouTube. 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 take 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.
  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.


    Discussion Questions:

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

    Comprehension Test/Homework Assignment


    1.  How does Von Rothbart control Odette?

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

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

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

    5.  What happens at the end of the ballet?


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

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

    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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

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Other Romantic ballets on TeachWithMovies.com are The Nutcracker; and Coppelia.

To supplement a lesson plan on Jonathan Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God with the "Sinner Man" excerpt from Alvin Ailey's award-winning dance, Revelations, click here.

    Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:


    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?
    See also the Quick Discussion Question


    Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)

    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.

Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.

Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

    Bridges to Reading: None.


Dancing Good and Evil, a lesson plan from PBS for grades 5 - 8. "Students will watch the program as part of this lesson, as well as create a pantomime, work cooperatively to conduct and share research, identify and discuss how movement is used to depict the ethereal Odette and the sinister Odile, and creatively pay tribute to the lovers, Odette and Siegfried."

Third Grade Music Lesson Plan for "Swan Lake";

Lesson Plan on Tchaikovsky and "Swan Lake"

  PHOTOGRAPHS, DIAGRAMS AND OTHER VISUALS:   Many excerpts of this ballet are available on YouTube and similar sites.

    Bibliography: 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.

    This Learning Guide written by James Frieden and Deborah Elliott Last updated December 10, 2015.

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