How to Get the Most Out of Swan Lake—Again

By Jennifer Fisher

A former swan and snowflake, Jennifer Fisher, from University of California, Irvine, has conducted inquests into the death of Giselle for SF Ballet, and has written widely on dance, gender, race, and politics, as well as ballet as ritual in her book, Nutcracker Nation.

There’s a reason we flock back to Swan Lake, and it’s not only to see the flock of swans, which, for starters, is always worth the trip. The real draw is to experience once again a grand passion that goes wrong, yet seems so right when played out to Tchaikovsky’s violins. Maybe you know how it ends (spoiler alert—magic curses are really strong), but for me, earthly love is fleeting, so that’s not the main point. The real message is about an afterlife you can imagine in this life, right? And why not? Swan Lake is very zen that way. Why not see this life—or the one where princes and swans mate—as an earthly stop on the way to a more enlightened place?

Maybe you think you’ve seen it all before. Certainly, Swan Lake has become iconic. But if you believe the same ballet unfurls each time, you’re just not paying attention. Dancers change, you change, and each time, it speaks anew. Just as no one questions why we see Hamlet over and over, no one should ask why ballet’s masterworks come alive in each performance. Despite it being the realm of exotic birds and royalty, we can relate to Swan Lake. Who hasn’t felt unsettled or depressed, as the Prince does in the first act? You may have felt pressure to find the right mate, to take up a job you’re not sure you want. Then one night, you try to clear your head with fresh air and hunting and there it is, the thing you thought you would never find—true love so rare, it appears to be a different species. But…it’s always something—a misunderstanding, an evil spell, whatever. It’s not always such a beautiful something, but that’s what ballet is for.

SF Ballet in Tomasson’s Swan Lake. (©Erik Tomasson)

These days, the meaning I find amid the swans feels more spiritual than romantic. I still see dancers deliciously carving space and impressing me with wrenchingly emotional performances. I still hear one of the most thrilling scores for ballet. But I now know it’s not about perfect love or heartache. When we chase dreams, we really want to find a kind of peace, a oneness that Tchaikovsky’s violins manage to suggest. One day, we’ll go over a cliff like the main characters do—maybe many times in the course of a lifetime—or at least that’s what some days feel like. But in the end, life just plods on, except that your life can be richer for having shared it with the swans, shimmering in moonlight, ready to make their entrance again when called upon.

“Maybe you think you’ve seen it all before. Certainly, Swan Lake has become iconic. But if you believe the same ballet unfurls each time, you’re just not paying attention. Dancers change, you change, and each time, it speaks anew.”

Jennifer Fisher

By the end of Swan Lake, the dancers and Tchaikovsky have laid it all out for you—bad things happen to good people and perfectly fine swans, yet the spirit prevails. Swans die, but dancers live to inhabit them again and rehearse our longings and certainties, just as long as we return to the theatre to see them. When you bring your heart and attention to the swans at the lake, it will give you something to think about and cherish—again.

Explore: The Rich History of Swan Lake

The first full-length production of Swan Lake in the United States was premiered by SF Ballet at the centennial celebration of Tchaikovsky’s birth on September 27, 1940.

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Swan Lake
Program 06  |  Mar 31–April 15, 2017

Stunning visual effects, crisp storytelling, and virtuosic dance combine in a work that is as magnificent as it is moving.

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Explore: Who Is Tchaikovsky?

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote the music for the three most famous ballets of all time: NutcrackerSwan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty

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