Anna Pavlova as The Swan

“The Swan” (aka “The Dying Swan”) is a famous short ballet choreographed by Mikhail Fokine to the music of Saint-Saens in 1905 for the great Anna Pavlova.

Mme. Pavlova was inspired to ask Fokine to create this piece by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Dying Swan” and from swans seen in public parks. “The Swan” was premiered in St Petersburg on the 22nd December 1905 at the Nobleman’s Hall at a charity gala performance to raise money for widows and orphans. It later premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1907. Mme. Pavlova later went onto perform “The Swan” many times across the world on her global tours and the piece became her signature ballet; when one thinks of Anna Pavlova, the first thing that comes to mind is the image of the Swan.

The original concept of the piece is that the Swan has been wounded and is painfully fighting against death, but in the end, she loses her battle and dies. However, what is traditionally performed today as “The Swan” is miles away from what Fokine actually choreographed.

The great Maya Plisetskaya famously presented the Swan as elderly and stubborn and dying of old age, rather than dying from a wound when she danced the piece at the age of 61. In the words of Fokine’s granddaughter, Isabelle: “The Dying Swan does not make enormous technical demands, but rather 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.”

Today, what we have as “The Swan” is very a “Swan Lake” style piece that strongly resembles the Swan Queen Odette, which is not what Fokine intended. Isabelle Fokine said in today’s version “it looks like Odette at death’s door. The ballet in essence is not about the beauty of a ballerina being able to transform herself into a figure of a swan. It is not about a swan, it is about death and the swan is simply a metaphor.”

“The Swan” today has become too technical and does not in any way match Fokine’s original creation for one of the greatest ballerinas of all time. While the common version of “The Swan” danced today is the “Swan Lake” style version, only three other ballerinas besides Mme. Pavlova have danced the Fokine/Pavlova version – Dame Alicia Markova, who learned the piece from Fokine, himself, Marguerite Porter, who learned it from Dame Ninette DeValois (De Valois saw Mme. Pavlova performing “The Swan” and notated the piece) and Marianela Nunez, who learned it from Porter. According to legend, when Anna Pavlova was lying on her deathbed, her last words were, “Get my Swan costume ready”.

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