By Jon Teeuwissen, MOT Artistic Advisor for Dance
In 1905, legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova asked choreographer Michel Fokine (of Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes ballet company) to create a solo dance piece for her to perform at a gala concert by artists from the Imperial Mariinsky Opera. It was Fokine who suggested "The Swan" from Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals musical suite. Pavlova was quick to agree, as she was inspired by swans she had seen in the public parks, as well as Lord Tennyson’s poem "The Dying Swan."
Fokine described the creative process in an interview with Dance Magazine in 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 (pointe work) 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.
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 technique but to create the symbol of the everlasting struggle in 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.”
Originally titled "The Swan" (not to be confused with Tchaikovsky’s 1877 ballet Swan Lake), the dance became known as "The Dying Swan" following Pavlova's interpretation of the work’s dramatic arc as the end of life. A signature of the piece is the fluidity of the arms, as the dance is composed mostly of upper body and arm movements and small steps called bourrées. December, 1905 marked the world premiere at Nobleman’s Hall in St. Petersburg, Russia. March, 1920 marked the United States premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
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 to her left knee – the aerial creature struggling against earthly bonds; and there, transfixed by pain, she dies.”
Dance critic Carl Van Vechten claimed the ballet was “the most exquisite specimen of Pavlova’s art which she has yet given to the public.” Pavlova would go on to perform "The Dying Swan" nearly 4,000 times, and on her deathbed, reportedly cried “Prepare my Swan costume.”
Following is a link to vintage footage of Pavlova dancing The Dying Swan in 1925, originally made as a silent film (sound was added later).
"The Dying Swan" was such a huge success that it was almost immediately adapted by various ballerinas internationally; Fokine published an official version of the choreography in 1925. His 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 gesture should signify a different experience,” which is “emerging from someone who is attempting to escape death.”
Maya Plisetskaya, a famous ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet, was at one time considered to be the greatest ballerina in the world. She, too, was famous for her interpretation of "The Dying Swan."
With all due respect to "The Dying Swan," I would be remiss not to mention the version danced by the famous all-male comic ballet troupe, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (who have performed at the Detroit Opera House). The “Trocks” parody the conventions of romantic and classical ballet, performing in drag, yet honoring dance history and performing with considerable technical proficiency. This performance of "The Dying Swan" – losing feathers from the first entrance on stage – is performed by Ida Nevasayneva (Paul Ghiselin).
Lastly, for those fans of ice dancing, it should be noted that (as far back as 1936) several figure skaters have performed "The Dying Swan." Oksana Baiul, the Ukrainian competitive skater who was the 1993 World champion and the 1994 Olympic champion, delivers a beautiful and stunning rendition on ice.