The first time I saw The Dying Swan performed I was mesmerized, it was breathtaking, powerful yet delicate. It evoked an uplifting emotion of experiencing the sublime, what we call beauty.
The Dying Swan is a four minute ballet solo dance performed by a ballerina. It is one of the most beautiful dances ever performed – an unforgettable experience. The Le Cygne (The Swan) music is composed by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). The dance is a display of a swan in its last few minutes of its life until it lays on the ground.
Mikhail Folkine (1880-1942) choreographed the dance for Anna Pavlova who first performed it in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905. Folkine said that “The Dying Swan satisfies not only the eye, but it appeals to the emotions and imagination, it penetrates the soul.”
Anyone who appreciates great art, dance, music, and theatre will be spellbound watching The Dying Swan. It is joyous, beautiful, and sad, often bringing a tear to the eye. It touches us where we are most vulnerable. Audiences watching it are known to burst into hysterics of joy demanding an encore performance.
Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) is an iconic legend in dance and is regarded as one of the best ballet dancers in history. She was a Russian prima ballerina of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was a principal artist of Mariinsky Ballet (Kirov Ballet) and the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev. Pavlova, with her own Russian Ballet Company, became the first ballerina to tour around the world, including performances in Europe, United States, South America, India, China, and Australia, and introduced the ballet to millions who had never seen any form of Western dancing.
She is most recognized for her creation of the role of The Dying Swan. Her breakthrough performance of The Dying Swan was in 1905 which became her signature role. Pavlova’s other major ballets were Giselle, The Pharoah’s Daughter, La Bayadere, Paquita, Le Peri, and Sleeping Beauty.
Pavlova was known for her daintiness, frailness, lightness, and both wittiness and pathos. In The Dying Swan, her delicate movements and intense facial expression managed to convey to the audience the play’s complex message about the fragility and preciousness of life.
After leaving Russia, Pavlova moved to London, England, settling in 1912. Pavlova was influential in the development of British ballet where she is still praised as a national heroine.
Between 1912 and 1926, Pavlova made annual tours of the United States, traveling from coast to coast. According to Agnes de Mille, “A generation of dancers turned to the art because of her. She roused the U.S… America became Pavlova-conscious and therefore ballet-conscious. Dance and passion, dance and drama were fused.”
Rare film of Pavlova dancing The Dying Swan, 1920s.
Russian Prima Ballerina Assoluta with the Bolshoi Ballet, Maya Plisetskaya (1925-2015) also made The Dying Swan her signature dance until her late sixties. She was considered one of the best dancers in the world. She was beloved worldwide and a heroine of the Russian people. She stepped onto the world stage in 1957 and dazzled audiences with her performances.
Notable was her performance of The Dying Swan. Critic Walter Terry described one performance: “What she did was to discard her own identity as a ballerina and even as a human and to assume the characteristics of a magical creature. The audience became hysterical, and she had to perform an encore.” She danced that particular ballet until her late 60s. Audiences worldwide would go into hysterics demanding an encore performance.
Novelist Truman Capote remembered her performance of The Dying Swan in Moscow, seeing “grown men crying in the aisles and worshiping girls holding crumpled bouquets for her.” He saw her as “a white spectre leaping in smooth rainbow arcs”, with “a royal head.”
Plisetskaya “developed an individual, iconoclastic style that capitalized on her electrifying stage presence”, wrote historian Tim Scholl. She had a “daring rarely seen on ballet stages today, and a jump of almost masculine power.”
Critic and dance historian Vadim Gaevsky said of her influence on ballet that “she began by creating her own style and ended up creating her own theater. Words cannot compare o the majesty and raw beauty of Plisetskaya’s performance. She created a mesmerizing effect that demonstrated an absolute control over every nuance of her body.”
“She was a remarkably fluid dancer but also a very powerful one”, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Dance. “The robust theatricality and passion she brought to her roles made her an ideal ballerina. She was known for the height of her jumps, her extremely flexible back, the technical strength of her dancing, and her charisma.”
Maya Plisetskaya dancing The Dying Swan at age 67 in Moscow in 1992.