The Dying Swan
|The Dying Swan|
|Music||Camille Saint-Saëns, (Le cygne from Le Carnaval des animaux)|
St. Petersburg, Russia
|Created for||Anna Pavlova|
The Dying Swan (originally The Swan) is a solo choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1905 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 and various adaptations.
Inspired by swans that she had seen in public parks and Alfred, 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 for her for a 1905 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 completed very 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 Arnold Haskell, author of Balletomania:
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.
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The ballet was originally entitled The Swan but acquired its now familiar title following Pavlova's tremulous interpretation of the work's dramatic arc as the expiration of life. The dance is composed principally of supple upper body and arm movements and tiny, nibbling steps called pas de bourrée suivi.
The 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 commentary
The Dying Swan was first performed by Pavlova at a gala in the Noblemen's Hall, St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday, 22 December 1905, and first performed in the United States at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on 18 March 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 role some 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 solo today is often made to appear to be a variation of Swan Lake—"Odette at death's door." The ballet is not about a ballerina being able to transform herself into a swan, she states, but about death, with the swan simply being a metaphor for that.
Pavlova was recorded dancing The Dying Swan in a 1925 silent, nearly complete film, to which sound is often post-applied. The short ballet has influenced interpretations of Odette in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, particularly in the parting of the lovers in the first lakeside scene.
The dance was almost immediately adapted following its premiere by various ballerinas across the globe to suit their techniques and temperaments. 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, for example, tells the story of an artist who strangles a ballerina. Maya Plisetskaya re-interpreted the swan simply 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 perform a parody version that emphasizes every excess dormant in the choreography, and, in 2000, street theatre artist Judith Lanigan created a hula hoop act based on the Fokine/Pavlova ballet divertissement that has been performed at international street theatre festivals, comedy and burlesque events, and in traditional and contemporary-style circuses.
Several figure skaters have performed The Dying Swan with skate-choreography inspired by the original ballet. Maribel Vinson (1936 Olympic bronze medallist from the US) reviewed Sonja Henie's 1936 professional debut for The New York Times and noted:
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).
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