In 1905, Anna Pavlova (1881–1931) had recently become the principal ballet dancer in the Mariinsky Theater. Inspired by real swans that she had seen in the parks and Lord Tennyson’s poem The Dying Swan (1830), she asked choreographer Michel Fokine (1880–1942) to create a solo for her. Fokine suggested using the solo cello from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Carnaval des Animaux and starting from Pavlova’s improvisation, he choreographed the dance solo The Swan that was presented a few months later in a private gala in Saint Petersburg. In 1907, Fokine renamed the piece as The Dying Swan, defining the choreography and its duration at about four minutes long, and staged it at the Mariinsky Theater.
Although the character of the swan was used extensively in Marius Petipa’s ballet Swan Lake (1895), The Dying Swan was appreciated for its originality that was based solely on a series of steps performed on pointe shoes and arm gestures that were made to evoke the movements of a swan. In the absence of a narrative plot, The Dying Swan focused on what had previously been excluded from representation, namely the death, while staying silent about the causes and the consequences. The solo highlighted the strength but also the fragility of the main instrument of the dancers, their body, and brought to the centre of attention the shortness and intensity of their career. Inspired by the recent performances of Isadora Duncan and her vision of free dance, Fokine, who had been accused by conservatives of wanting to get rid of pointe shoes, prioritised in this solo, the expressiveness of the performer over technical virtuosity although he formally remained faithful to classical dance. Through his choreography, Fokine was able to criticize the Russian academic tradition, the conventions established by Marius Petipa that were perceived by that time as obsolete, and last but not least, the leadership of the Mariinsky Theater. Due to these innovations, The Dying Swan inevitably became a strong point of reference for many dancers who, after this experience, transformed the way they interpreted the swan-princess Odette in Swan Lake.
The artistic process was the result of double authorship. On the one hand, that of Pavlova, who created the piece through improvisation and continued to keep it alive in all the numerous reiterations while looking for freedom within the choreographic structure. On the other, that of Fokine, who defined steps and positions in detail. A short silent film with Pavlova at age 44 was shot in 1925 in Hollywood in the studios of Douglas Fairbanks. This is the only trace remaining from approximately four thousand performances of Pavlova in her role as The Dying Swan. This recording was inserted in The Immortal Swan, a film made in 1935 by Edward Nakhimov on Pavlova’s career that was thought to be lost for a long time. Today these moving images are considered a precious document that testifies to a rare dance style, but also the complex and to some extent problematic relationship between improvisation and choreography, as much as to the importance of the performer’s expressivity and subjectivity. In turn, Fokine precisely in 1925, published Choreographic Compositions by Michel Fokine: The Dying Swan. This book contains the notated version of the choreography that he considered the final one and 36 photographs of the most famous poses of the piece portraying his wife Vera Fokina.
In addition to the 1925 short film, which is now widely available on the internet, The Dying Swan has earned an increased reputation and has reached us through the interpretations of the ballet icons of the 20th century —among others Maya Plisetskaya and Natalia Makarova— and through the numerous remakes proposed by artists with different backgrounds, geographical origins, political sensibilities and gender identities who have appropriated a work that has become canonical. Some of these remakes have become almost as famous as the “original” version, such as the parody made by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo with Paul Ghiselin (Ida Nevasayneva) in the role of Pavlova or the Dark Swan by and with Nora Chipaumire or the version by Lil Buck who also performed the solo in dialogue with the classical dancer Nina Ananiashvili.
Undoubtedly, this piece continues to bridge past, present, and future, to nurture artistic creativity and to stimulate new reflections on what we inherit through dance, who is granted access to the (digital and filmic) archive, and how dance travels in time through the embodied, visual, emotional, and kinaesthetic memory of dancers and spectators. During the lockdown, a period that profoundly marked the world of dance and theatre but also the lives of all of us, many artists have revisited The Dying Swan in search of hope and rebirth. The project Swans never die aims to disseminate the history of The Dying Swan and to stimulate a practical and theoretical reflection on this work in order to transmit its legacy to new generations of artists and spectators.