Swan Lake


Artists of the Ballet in Swan Lake (1999). Photo by Lydia Pawelak.


Our History

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The National Ballet of Canada first performed Act II of Swan Lake on November 17, 1953 at St. Peter’s Auditorium in Peterborough.  Husband and wife team Irene Apiné and Jury Gotshalks performed the roles of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried. 

Irene Apiné and Jury Gotshalks as Odette and Prince Siegfried (ca. 1954). 

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National Ballet Founder and Artistic Director Celia Franca created the National Ballet’s first full-length Le Lac des Cygnes (Swan Lake) after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, with set and costume designs by Artistic Advisor Kay Ambrose. The four-act production premiered at the Palace Theatre in Hamilton on January 19, 1955 featuring Lois Smith as Odette/Odile, David Adams as Prince Siegfried and James Ronaldson as Von Rothbart. 

CBC filmed this production and it aired on December 12, 1956. Following some variations to the choreography and set and costume designs, CBC filmed it again and aired it on December 18, 1961. 

Von Rothbart headpiece (1961). 

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Long-time collaborator Erik Bruhn was invited by Celia Franca to choreograph a new version of Swan Lake for the much larger O'Keefe Centre stage.  Premiering on March 27, 1967, it featured set and costume designs by Desmond Heeley. The lead roles were performed by Lois Smith and Earl Kraul and Celia Franca herself was cast in the role of the Black Queen. Erik Bruhn went on to become Artistic Director in 1983 until his untimely death in 1986. 

Dance Magazine review (May 1967). 

Read the review  

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Erik Bruhn shifted the thematic drive of his Swan Lake from the traditional battle between good and evil, to the power, both constructive and destructive, of women. The Prince is a young romantic confronted with conflicting emotions brought on by four women – his dominant mother, the pure Swan Queen, the evil Black Queen and the sensual Black Swan. One of the most controversial changes made by Bruhn was the addition of the Black Queen, a re-envisioned female version of the traditional Von Rothbart character. 

Bruhn also expanded the character of Prince Siegfried and created more dance and dramatic opportunities for male dancers. Some of the celebrated dancers who have performed this challenging role with the National Ballet include Rudolf Nureyev, Frank Augustyn, Peter Schaufuss and Rex Harrington

Prince Siegfried jacket from Act II (ca. 1977). 

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The new version of Swan Lake was also filmed by CBC television and aired on December 27, 1967. It featured Lois Smith as the Swan Queen, Erik Bruhn as the Prince, Celia Franca as the Black Queen, as well as a young Alex Trebek delivering the introduction and intermission narrations. 

Celia Franca on set of the CBC television taping of Swan Lake (1967). 

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In 1979, Erik Bruhn’s production was revived with new set and costume designs by Desmond Heeley. It premiered on the company’s first-ever tour to London England’s Royal Opera House on August 6, 1979 and featured Karen Kain, Frank Augustyn and Ann Ditchburn in the lead roles. 

Vanessa Harwood with Costume Executor Angela Arana and Designer Desmond Heeley creating the costumes (1979). 


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In 1999, Artistic Director James Kudelka choreographed a new version of Swan Lake that premiered on May 5 at the Hummingbird Centre. Greta Hodgkinson and Aleksandar Antonijevic danced the principal roles of Odette/Odile and Siegfried, joined by Rex Harrington as Rothbart. The sets and costumes were designed by frequent National Ballet collaborator Santo Loquasto.

Kudelka's version departed from the traditional interpretation by making Odette a swan, rather than a maiden trapped in a swan's body. The character of Siegfried is challenged to make a truly altruistic declaration of love in which he swears to protect and care for a completely innocent being, to the exclusion of a relationship that would reward him in conventional terms. The tragedy is therefore based in Siegfried’s, and humanity's, fundamental flaw: the satisfaction of particular desires will always trump any commitment to abstract ideals.

Ballet slippers worn by Aleksandar Antonijevic in the world premiere of James Kudelka’s Swan Lake (1999). 

Your Stories

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"My first memory of the ballet was from when I was in Grade 5. My teacher, Miss Swithenbank treated the class to an afternoon at the ballet. I remember going all the way downtown and went up to our seats and the rest is, pardon the cliché, magic. The ballet was Swan Lake and I was absolutely mesmerized. I remember it in great detail, maybe because it was my first. Years later, I have seen many ballets and will continue to do so. I wish I could just once contact that dear teacher and thank her again and let her know what a powerful impact that field trip had on one of her former students.

- Mrs. Susan Stead, Audience Member, 55+ years 

"In the fall of 1972, my college roommate and I were reading in our dorm room at the University of California, Santa Cruz one rainy Sunday afternoon. Susie was from the Bay Area, and was reading the San Francisco Chronicle. We'd talked about going to The City some weekend. She looked up from the paper and said, "Oh, here's an ad for a ballet performance in February - maybe we could go up that weekend." I said that sounded good. She said it was the Canadian Ballet doing Swan Lake, and then hesitated and said, "It says there's this guy dancing with them, but I can't pronounce it - Nur-something." I said, "Rudolf Nureyev?" and Susie said, "Yeah.  Is that good?" I almost fell off my bunk. So we went to the San Francisco Opera House in February 1973 and watched Rudolph Nureyev and Karen Kain dance Swan Lake. Wow. I was especially impressed with Miss Kain because I thought that most people came to watch Nureyev - and he was certainly good - but Karen Kain was superb. I'll never ever forget that performance, and am delighted to have the opportunity to thank Miss Kain for the joy of watching her performance."

Lannae, Audience Member, 35+ years 

"In the early 1990s, my mom and I travelled to Toronto for my first National Ballet of Canada show which was one of Karen Kain's final Swan Lake performances ever. (Even more nostalgic: I was named Karen after Karen Kain, who had won a major International Award just before I was born.) My mom, my grandmother and I enjoyed an amazing night at the ballet and my pre-teen self spent a year's allowance on dance related goodness at the on-site gift shop. As a dance crazed pre-teen, this was the experience of a lifetime. Although I no longer dance and haven't for over a decade, this performance and the enthusiasm of the arts community cemented my adult support for Canadian arts.

Although I've never met Karen (but have had the chance to meet other dancers from the National Ballet through work) that night always stands out as pure magic. For young ballet students, for families and for young women everywhere, Karen Kain is an icon and a hero. As an adult, my admiration for her continued to grow as she steadily grew knowledge of the need for an active, supported ballet community. 

Now, with my mom having passed from Pancreatic Cancer last year, the National Ballet holds an even greater place in my heart as so many memories equate to great ballet nights with her. Thanks for so many years of amazing performances but especially for that incredible Swan Lake

Ms. Karen Moores, Audience Member, 20+ years 

"Back in the 1960's when I was in public school in London, Ontario, I always looked forward to the presentations by the volunteers of the National Ballet Guild. It was because of them that I attended my first ballet, Swan Lake, danced by the National Ballet in London. Do I ever remember Celia Franca! She had the most mesmerizing and scary presence for a young kid like me."

Ms. Elizabeth Ladich, Audience Member, 40+ years 

"Back in the days when the National Ballet performed at the Ontario Place Forum, there was a performance of Swan Lake featuring Karen Kain and Frank Augustyn who had recently returned from winning medals in the Soviet Union. In the scene in which the Prince gestures towards the sky to indicate that he sees the swans, a flock of geese flew by in formation, much to the amusement of the audience! Their timing was impeccable!!"

- Jacky Finch, Subscriber & Donor, Over 30 years 

"I remember attending the National Ballet's Swan Lake when I was in 3rd grade and Karen Kain was there. I remember meeting her was absolutely magical and she really inspired me to become the dancer I am today!"

- Nika Amft, Audience Member, 5+ years 

"My favourite childhood memories with my granny evolved around The National Ballet of Canada. Growing up in Barrie, we would trek up highway 400 for a fun day out to watch the both beautiful and fascinating performances. Meeting Karen Kain after watching her flawless performance of some of Swan Lake during a mixed program at Ontario Place was an unforgettable experience for me. I continue to be amazed by the talent and beauty of the dancers each year I return to watch more new and exciting performances, and I look forward to introducing future generations to ballet culture."

- Miss Robyn McArthur, Ticket Buyer, 20+ Years 

"My Memory: Sharing the joy of the ballet with my daughter Amy. The ballet has become our true love of the arts. Our favorite production so far has been Swan Lake. I am looking forward to the new Romeo and Juliet and am coming to the performance on November 18th, this time with a friend. I have to travel from my new home in Elliot Lake, Ontario and wouldn't miss it for the world. Thank you once again for your performances - they have become a regular part of my life."

- Maureen Cameron, Audience Member, Less than 5 years 

"My favourite memory of The National Ballet of Canada is Karen Kain's last Swan Lake. I think of her Odette as the definitive version and I always enjoyed a good cry at the end. But knowing this was the last time I would be seeing her dance this part I found the end absolutely heartrending. My son looked on anxiously as I sobbed my heart out watching Odette being torn away from her love, every inch of her body radiating grief and loss."

- Gillian Watts, Audience Member, 30+ Years 

"My favourite memory of The National Ballet of Canada is Frank Augustyn's last performance of Swan Lake with Karen Kain before he left the company. Besides the superb dancing there was such expressiveness. Most of us were in tears by the time the White Swan was doomed to her fate as a bird and utterly alone, remained abandoned to her fate."

- Elizabeth Ersmine, Audience Member, 30+ Years 

"My husband would not be dragged to the ballet. Then we were invited to Karen Kain's farewell performance of Swan Lake. He was not thrilled but agreed to go. It was a wonderful performance, a magical evening! He was enthralled and we now go to every ballet together."

- Anonymous Audience Member, 50+ Years 

"My favourite memory of The National Ballet of Canada is the curtain opening on the scene where all the little swans in white gathered around the lake - a magical sight indeed - and a little boy's voice above all our "aahs" was clearly heard to call out in wonderment "WOW!" He said it for all of us."

- Mary Davidson, Audience Member, 30+ Years 

"I had been dancing seriously for a few years when one of my dance teachers took me to see The National Ballet of Canada's Swan Lake. It was probably the most inspiring thing throughout my years of dancing. The lead roles were danced by Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté who were oh so perfect together. The Corps de Ballet was also amazing with their beautiful lines and extensions."

- Chrisianna Shui Man Yan, Audience Member