The Dying Swan: 5 Unique Performances

The Dying Swan: 5 Unique Performances

The Dying Swan is a choreographic miniature, which many ballerinas undertake to perform. But only the greats were able to convey its genius.

The dance was born at the turn of the eras: the emphasis in ballet shifted from technique to expressiveness and meaningfulness, opening up an opportunity for dancers to show the lyrical character but requiring impeccable skill.

The immortal Dying Swan has been delighting the audience for over a century now, all thanks to the talent of ballerinas, whose emotional existence on stage matches their professional training. We’d like to tell you about the five most brilliant performers of the dance.

Anna Pavlova

Ballerina Anna Pavlova was the owner and the first performer of The Swan, as the miniature was originally called. At her request, the dance was choreographed by Mikhail Fokine to the music of Camille Saint-Saens from The Carnival of the Animals suite. The choreographer embodied visually what the composer had already laid down in the melody — the smooth movement of a swan on the water surface and the flapping of its wings. Fokine intentionally abandoned complex pirouettes and jumps in favor of realistic plastique. Neither the composer nor the choreographer implied a sad ending - in the first performances Pavlova simply folded her wings. Later, the ballerina herself added drama to the finale, and as a tragic symbol she began to pin a red spinel brooch on white feathers.

The solo dance premiered in 1907 at the Nobility Assembly Hall in St. Petersburg. The choreography with only liaison movements was unexpected for the ballet audience, but Pavlova's abilities for plastique and dramatic reincarnation were highly appreciated.  One of the earliest reviews read, “If it is possible for a ballerina to imitate the movements of the noblest bird on stage, then this has been achieved: there is a swan in front of you.” The dance soon became the calling card of the touring ballerina - she made the whole world fall in love with her Dying Swan. Pavlova on stage was slowly "slipping into nothing" and suddenly died so simply and artlessly that the ending became especially dramatic.

Galina Ulanova

Galina Ulanova, prima ballerina of the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theater named after S.M. Kirov, and later of the Bolshoi Theater, danced The Dying Swan for decades. But her most famous performance took place on the first tour of the Bolshoi Theater in London in 1956, when the ballerina was already 46 years old. Her Swan turned out to be lyrical and life-loving, there was no fear and premonition of death in it. The foreign audience was happy to see the same highest level as that of Pavlova, but in a new reading. Ballet critic Arnold Haskell wrote, “Wonderful Ulanova managed to show depth and drama. Her Dying Swan differs from Pavlova's Swan in the very concept. Hers is a heroic swan triumphant even in death.” Ulanova didn’t seem to be dying, she was rather falling asleep, tired of the dance that had just proclaimed life.

Maya Plisetskaya

The Bolshoi Theater prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya began dancing The Dying Swan in the 1940’s. The number was staged for her by Shulamith Messerer, the ballerina’s aunt, also a dancer of the Bolshoi Theater. This time, the choreography was different from the original - Plisetskaya emerged onto the stage with her back to the audience. By nature, the ballerina had agile emotionality, was a character heroine - so was her swan. There was neither naivety nor helplessness in her image, before death the bird even became a real fighter - it realized its own tragedy, but didn’t accept it. The struggle was desperate - the one last look of Plisetskaya, painfully directed to the sky, was worth a lot.

Ulyana Lopatkina

The dance of the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater Ulyana Lopatkina blurs the boundaries between a ballerina and a bird - as if she managed to transform into a swan. Her image is close to what Saint-Saens originally intended in his work - the quivering bird was devoid of human vices, unlike other animals in the suite. The swan dies suddenly, not realizing to the last moment, why the wings fail and the head gets heavy. And Lopatkina conveys this difficult borderline state in detail with her original plastique. This is what the ballerina herself said about the dance, “The main thing that this brilliant piece gives is a diverse experience of the transition from life to death. And there can be as many meanings as this eternal question might have from the beginning of the existence of mankind.”

Svetlana Zakharova

The prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater, Svetlana Zakharova, performed The Dying Swan for the first time at the age of 17, immediately after graduating from the Vaganova Academy, on stage of the Hermitage Theater in 1996. Today, the audience is especially looking forward to this solo dance in the concert program created by the ballerina together with her husband, the violinist Vadim Repin. Zakharova, like Plisetskaya, begins the dance with her back to the audience, demonstrating her perfect ballet arms-wings. Its performance is technically flawless and emotionally piercing - the quivering bird feels that it is losing strength, but can’t defy death. The ballerina takes the preliminary emotional immersion into the role very seriously, “To be a success, you need to get so exasperated before that you may wanna cry. Then people will believe you. I very rarely dance this number because it is very difficult to perform. The agonizing state that you experience in these four minutes is very hard."