Watch the Celebrated Ballerina Anna Pavlova Perform “The Dying Swan” (1925)

Pre­pare my swan cos­tume.

— alleged last words of bal­le­ri­na Anna Pavlo­va, as report­ed by her hus­band

The Inter­net sug­gests that swans are fair­ly tough spec­i­mens, quick to hiss and flap at any YouTu­ber unwise enough to vio­late their per­son­al space with a video cam­era.

The cel­e­brat­ed bal­le­ri­na Anna Pavlo­va (1881–1931) paints a dif­fer­ent pic­ture in her sig­na­ture piece, The Dying Swan.

Chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Mikhail Fokine cre­at­ed the four minute solo in 1905 at Pavlova’s request, draw­ing on her admi­ra­tion for some res­i­dent swans in a Leningrad pub­lic park and Alfred, Lord Ten­nyson’s poem “The Dying Swan.”

It was per­haps a hap­py acci­dent that he had just learned how to play Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Cygne from Le Car­naval des Ani­maux on his man­dolin. Per­formed on cel­lo, as orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed, it sup­plies a mood of gor­geous melan­choly with which to observe the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter’s en pointe death throes.

Fokine’s descrip­tion of the work’s cre­ation in Dance Mag­a­zine’s August 1931 issue speaks to the rig­or of these prac­ti­tion­ers and their art form:

It was almost an impro­vi­sa­tion. I danced in front of her [Pavlo­va], 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…The dance is tech­ni­cal­ly more dif­fi­cult than it may appear. The dancer moves con­stant­ly using  dif­fer­ent bour­rees. The feet must be beau­ti­ful, express­ing a trem­bling. All paus­es in sus-sous must show legs brought to one point. The arms and the back work inde­pen­dent­ly of the feet which con­tin­ue to move reg­u­lar­ly.

The archival footage from 1925, above, con­veys what Fokine’s words cannot—the deep emo­tion for which this par­tic­u­lar inter­preter was known. It’s a vis­cer­al expe­ri­ence to watch this bro­ken ani­mal fight­ing for its sur­vival, quiv­er­ing and heav­ing, before crum­pling at last. (A pity that this ver­sion cuts off so abrupt­ly… that final note should linger.)

Pavlo­va per­formed The Dying Swan around 4000 times over the course of her career, nev­er sick­en­ing of it, or of the beasts who inspired it. Swans pop­u­lat­ed a small pond at her Eng­lish coun­try home. You can wit­ness her fond­ness for them, below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

Watch an Avant-Garde Bauhaus Bal­let in Bril­liant Col­or, the Tri­adic Bal­let First Staged by Oskar Schlem­mer in 1922

Bal­let Dancers Do Their Hard­est Moves in Slow Motion

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her play Zam­boni Godot is open­ing in New York City in March 2017. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Linda adamski says:

    I am try­ing to find a video of anna povlo­va danc­ing the dying swan. My mom was a bal­le­ri­na in ger­many and she wants to see it again. Thank you so much for your help in find­ing this for my mom, for Chrst­mas.
    Lin­da Adams­ki

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