The Dying Swan
Premiered at The Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, 1907
Music by Camille Saint-Saens, Choreography by Michel Fokine
Costume design by Leon Bakst
The Dying Swan was Anna Pavlova’s signature role: it became synonymous with her name. She danced it over four thousand times in a career spanning three decades and six continents. It may be the best-known role in classical ballet, still interpreted by ballerinas today.
What was different about this short, four-and-a-half-minute piece? What made it unforgettable
to anyone who ever saw it, and how did Pavlova breathe new life into this solo over and over again?
The answer perhaps lies in one afternoon of perfect alignment between the young Pavlova and emerging choreographer Michel Fokine. Theirs was a collaboration of visionaries: they believed that ballet could be a combination of technique and expression so profound that the experience would elevate both dancer and audience to a spiritual plane.
In Fokine’s own words, “…dance could and should satisfy not only the eye, but…penetrate into the soul.” Their achievement of this goal would change ballet.
Fokine and Pavlova had been close friends growing up in the Imperial School of Ballet. As professional partners at the Mariinsky they danced many standard pas de deux, which were routinely injected into every ballet. The spins, lifts, turns and jumps, often irrelevant to the story line or even the music, were what audiences came to see.
While adhering to these conventions as a dancer, Fokine was also achieving a respectable reputation for his innovative choreography, where wholeness of expression, not “tricks,” was the intent. In the fragile, slender, unconventional Pavlova he found the perfect instrument for his archetype ballerina.
On a winter afternoon in St. Petersburg, Pavlova asked Fokine to create a short piece for her for a benefit concert. Fokine suggested Saint-Saens’ "the Swan" from Carnival of the Animals. He would later write: “The dance was composed in a few minutes. It was almost an improvisation. I danced in front of her, she directly behind me. Then she danced and I walked alongside of her, curving her arms and correcting details of poses.” His choreography had no tricks, no grand displays of virtuosity. Rather, to paraphrase Fokine himself, the dancer was asked to sacrifice her own identity for an artistic ideal: her movement perfectly integrated with the music, the costume, and the choreography. When Pavlova danced The Dying Swan, she became a swan. It was ballet as high art.
The Dying Swan premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in 1907. It not only created a sensation that night, but it transformed classical ballet forever. On the night that Anna Pavlova died, legend says her last words were “Bring me my swan costume.” The following evening, when her numbed ballet troupe performed as scheduled at the theater, in the finale of the program the orchestra played the tender strains of "the Swan" to a single spotlight on an empty stage. Pavlova the swan had died, but the Immortal Swan lives on.