It has been 115 years since Anna Pavlova first performed her famous swan solo. Now a celebrated part of ballet history, The Dying Swan was originally inspired by the ballerina’s visits with swans in public parks and Lord Tennyon’s poem of the same title. Pavlova had recently become a ballerina at the Mariinsky Theatre when she asked choreographer Mikhail Fokine to create a solo for her as a pièce d’occasion. At a Mariinsky ballet gala in 1905, their collaborative piece debuted and The Dying Swan was born.
Still regularly performed by dancers across the globe (Pavlova herself performed it more than 4,000 times!), The Dying Swan has surprisingly humble beginnings. When Pavlova approached Fokine with her request for a solo, the choreographer suggested they use Saint-Saëns’s cello piece, Le Cygne (from La Carnaval des Animaux), which he had been practicing in his home on a mandolin. Accompanied by his friend on piano, Fokine choreographed the short solo quickly and unpretentiously. Of the simple process, Fokine told Dance Magazine (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.”
The choreographer notes Dying Swan as a transition from old world to new. Fokine calls it a response to previous criticism that his creations often avoided pointe shoes, tending towards bare feet. Swan, instead, has the ballerina almost entirely en pointe for the duration of the brief solo. While not the most technically exhausting (it consists mostly of port de bras and pas de bourée suivi), the artistically demanding nature of The Dying Swan earns the piece its celebrity-status in the ballet world.
Case in point: originally titled “The Swan”, the solo became “The Dying Swan” after Pavlova’s dramatic portrayal as a swan in the final moments of life. The piece is ripe with dark beauty, certainly a reflection of the morose Tennyson poem which inspired it. It is this duality between the airy, feather-light movements of the dancer combined with the heart wrenching lament of the cello that gives Dying Swan its intoxicating quality. The solo is, like many ballet variations, highly customizable, meaning every rendition is slightly different. What differentiates this solo from most classical variations, however, is the reasoning behind each dancer’s distinct artistic choices; These small adjustments are not made to choose the steps that will best highlight the dancer’s technique, but rather to interpret the story exactly the way it is felt by that dancer. In that moment. On that stage. The spontaneity and freedom of performance! Oh, how I love living art.
The dark, emotive heartbeat of this macabre solo is what makes it so special. A cry for beauty in the most fragile moments, expressed with every inch of the body from toe to tip of finger. It is even rumored that on her deathbed, Anna Pavlova cried out, “Prepare my swan costume.”
In 1934, Mikhail Fokine told dance critic Arnold Haskell that the meaning of The Dying Swan was not to showcase technique, but to “create the symbol of the everlasting struggle in this life and all that is mortal.” In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak this May, ABT’s Misty Copeland and Joseph Phillips harnessed that message by (virtually) gathering 32 ballet dancers to record themselves performing the solo. The fundraising effort, aptly titled “Swans For Relief”, would benefit artists temporarily displaced by the coronavirus. Bringing together dancers isolating in 14 different countries, this Dying Swan compilation video is evidence that the historic piece continues to hold power and move its viewers, even if through a computer screen.
If you’ve made it this far, good on you! A little history lesson for your Monday evening. Clearly, I have had quite a bit of fun deep diving behind the wings (heh, double pun) of this brilliant solo…and I can’t wait to share why. ;) There is so much more I can (and will!) write about Dying Swan, but for now, please enjoy these photos of Anna Pavlova with her pet swan, Jack, taken in August of 1927 in her home, Ivy House, by London’s Hamstead Heath: