The Dying Swan
The Dying Swan (originally The Swan) is a solo dance choreographed by Mikhail Fokine to Camille Saint-Saëns's Le Cygne from Le Carnaval des animaux as a pièce d'occasion for the ballerina Anna Pavlova, who performed it about 4,000 times. The short ballet (4 minutes) follows the last moments in the life of a swan, and was first presented in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905. The ballet has since influenced modern interpretations of Odette in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and has inspired non-traditional interpretations as well as various adaptations.
|The Dying Swan|
|Music||Camille Saint-Saëns, (Le cygne from Le Carnaval des animaux)|
St. Petersburg, Russia
|Created for||Anna Pavlova|
Inspired by swans that she had seen in public parks and by Lord Tennyson's poem "The Dying Swan", Anna Pavlova, who had just become a ballerina at the Mariinsky Theatre, asked Michel Fokine to create a solo dance for her for a 1905 gala concert being given by artists from the chorus of the Imperial Mariinsky Opera. Fokine suggested Saint-Saëns's cello solo, Le Cygne, which Fokine had been playing at home on a mandolin to a friend's piano accompaniment, and Pavlova agreed. A rehearsal was arranged and the short dance was completed quickly. Fokine remarked in Dance Magazine (August 1931):
It was almost an improvisation. I danced in front of her, she directly behind me. Then she danced and I walked alongside her, curving her arms and correcting details of poses. Prior to this composition, I was accused of barefooted tendencies and of rejecting toe dancing in general. The Dying Swan was my answer to such criticism. This dance became the symbol of the New Russian Ballet. It was a combination of masterful technique with expressiveness. It was like a proof that the dance could and should satisfy not only the eye, but through the medium of the eye should penetrate the soul.
In 1934, Fokine told dance critic Arnold Haskell:
Small work as it is, [...] it was 'revolutionary' then, and illustrated admirably the transition between the old and the new, for here I make use of the technique of the old dance and the traditional costume, and a highly developed technique is necessary, but the purpose of the dance is not to display that technique but to create the symbol of the everlasting struggle in this life and all that is mortal. It is a dance of the whole body and not of the limbs only; it appeals not merely to the eye but to the emotions and the imagination.
The ballet was first titled The Swan but then acquired its current title, following Pavlova's interpretation of the work's dramatic arc as the end of life. The dance is composed principally of upper body and arm movements and tiny steps called pas de bourrée suivi.
French critic André Levinson wrote:
Arms folded, on tiptoe, she dreamily and slowly circles the stage. By even, gliding motions of the hands, returning to the background from whence she emerged, she seems to strive toward the horizon, as though a moment more and she will fly—exploring the confines of space with her soul. The tension gradually relaxes and she sinks to earth, arms waving faintly as in pain. Then faltering with irregular steps toward the edge of the stage—leg bones quiver like the strings of a harp—by one swift forward-gliding motion of the right foot to earth, she sinks on the left knee—the aerial creature struggling against earthly bonds; and there, transfixed by pain, she dies.
Performances and critical commentaryEdit
The Dying Swan was first performed by Pavlova at a gala at the Noblemen's Hall in Saint Petersburg, Russia on Friday, December 22, 1905. It was first performed in the United States at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on March 18, 1910. American dance critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten noted that the ballet was "the most exquisite specimen of [Pavlova's] art which she has yet given to the public." Pavlova performed the piece approximately 4,000 times, and on her deathbed in The Hague, reportedly cried, "Prepare my swan costume."
Fokine's granddaughter, Isabelle, notes that the ballet does not make "enormous technical demands" on the dancer but it does make "enormous artistic ones because every movement and every gesture should signify a different experience," which is "emerging from someone who is attempting to escape death." She notes that modern performances are significantly different from her grandfather's original conception and that the dance today is often made to appear to be a variation of Swan Lake, which she describes as "Odette at death's door." Isabelle says that the ballet is not about a ballerina being able to transform herself into a swan, but about death, with the swan as a metaphor.
Pavlova was recorded dancing The Dying Swan in a 1925 silent film, to which sound is often added. The short ballet has influenced interpretations of Odette in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, particularly during the parting of the lovers in the first lakeside scene.
The dance was almost immediately adapted by various ballerinas internationally. As a result, Fokine published an official version of the choreography in 1925, highlighted with 36 photographs of his wife Vera Fokina demonstrating the ballet's sequential poses. At a later date, Kirov-trained Natalia Makarova commented:
Of Fokine's original choreography [...] only scattered fragments remain [...] he created only the bourrées [a walking or running ballet step usually executed on the points of the toes] for Pavlova. Subsequently, every performer [...] has used the piece at her own taste and at her own risk [...] In Russia I had danced Dudinskaya's version and [...] experienced a certain discomfort [...] from all the sentimental stuff—the rushing around the stage, the flailing of the arms [...] to the contemporary eye, its conventions look almost ludicrous [...] the dance needs total emotional abandon, conveying the image of a struggle with death or a surrender to it [...] As for the emotional content, I was helped by Pavlova, whose film of the work I saw. Even today, her Swan is striking—the flawless feeling for style, the animated face—although certain melodramatic details seem superfluous.
The ballet has been variously interpreted and adapted. The 1917 Russian film The Dying Swan by director Yevgeni Bauer is the story of an artist who strangles a ballerina. Maya Plisetskaya interpreted the swan as elderly and stubbornly resisting the effects of aging, much like herself. Eventually, the piece came to be considered one of Pavlova's trademarks. More recently, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has performed a parody version that emphasizes every excess dormant in the choreography. In 2000, street theatre artist Judith Lanigan created a hula hoop adaptation that has been performed at international street theatre festivals, comedy and burlesque events, and in traditional and contemporary circuses.
Several figure skaters have performed The Dying Swan with skate-choreography inspired by the ballet. 1936 Olympic bronze medallist Maribel Vinson reviewed Sonja Henie's 1936 professional debut for The New York Times, noting:
The crowd settled quickly into a receptive mood for Sonja's famous interpretation of the Dying Swan of Saint-Saëns. With spotlights giving the ice the effect of water at night, Miss Henie, outlined in a blue light, performed the dance made immortal by Pavlova. Whether one agrees that such posturing is suited to the medium of ice, there is no doubt that Miss Henie's rendition is a lovely thing. Too much toe work at the start leaves the feeling that this does not belong to skating, but when she glides effortlessly back and forth, she is free as a disembodied spirit and there is an ease of movement that ballet never can produce.
Some ballerinas, including Ashley Bouder of New York City Ballet and Nina Ananiashvili, formerly of American Ballet Theatre, have used Dying Swan arms in Swan Lake when making Odette's exit at the end of Act II (the first lakeside scene).
The swan can swim while sitting down, For pure conceit he takes the crown, He looks in the mirror over and over, And claims to have never heard of Pavlova.
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