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The Dying Swan - current version vs original version


Amy

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The Dying Swan is a famous short ballet choreographed by Mikhail Fokine to the music of Saint-Saens in 1905 for the great Anna Pavlova. Mlle. Pavlova was inspired to ask Fokine to create this piece by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem The Dying Swan and from the swans seen in the public parks.


The original concept of the piece is that the Swan has been wounded and is painfully fighting against death, but in the end, she loses her battle and dies. The great Maya Plisetskaya famously presented the Swan as elderly and stubborn and dying of old age, rather than dying of a wound when she danced the piece at the age of 61.


This variation became Mlle. Pavlova's signature ballet, but today, what it is performed as The Dying Swan is miles from what Fokine actually choreographed.


In the words of Fokine's granddaughter, Isabelle:


"The Dying Swan does not make enormous technical demands, but rather enormous artistic ones because every movement and every gesture should signify a different experience, which is emerging from someone who is attempting to escape death."


Today, what we have as The Dying Swan is very a Swan Lake style piece that strongly resembles the Swan Queen Odette, which is not what Fokine intended.


Isabelle Fokine said in today's version "it looks like Odette at death's door. The ballet in essence is not about the beauty of a ballerina being able to transform herself into a figure of a swan. It is not about a swan, it is about death and the swan is simply a metaphor."


Here we have a comparison between Ulyana Lopatkina's version and Anna Pavlova's version - look at how different these two versions are! As you can see, Pavlova is all about the artistry, while Lopatkina is all about the technique. The Dying Swan today has become too technical and does not in any way match Fokine's original creation for one of the greatest ballerinas of all time.


According to legend, when Anna Pavlova was lying on her deathbed, her last words were "Get my Swan costume ready".






And please everyone, can you try and watch this video properly? What I mean by that is, can you please put your personal preferences to the side so you can make a fair judgement?

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Thank you for posting. It's interesting and fun to have the two versions to compare side by side with the caveat (as with all film/video) that these represent just one particular performance by the artists in question and film/video is limited as a medium to capture dance.

That Pavlova is closest to Fokine's original conception and, presumably, choreography goes without saying. In that sense it is her ballet before and beyond it is anyone else's. In particular, I think one sees a lot more "Isadora Duncan" in her Swan than in Lopatkina's -- or other contemporary Russian Ballerinas. Perhaps that is what makes it seem more emotional and makes Lopatkina in particular seem more Odette like to some viewers. However I don't find it necessary to put down Lopatkina (or Plisetskaya) to recognize Pavlova's greatness, though it might be nice to see a contemporary ballerina give a more Pavlova-esque approach a try. ...

There are multiple versions of Lopatkina dancing Dying Swan out there on youtube (some I think more emotional than the one you posted). But I would not describe a single one, including the one you posted, as featuring 'technique" rather than artistry nor as boring, nor as emotionless. Of course, its beauty does come from a different place than Pavlova's version; it's less expressionistic in some ways--Lopatkina always takes a more formal approach. But ballet's formal beauties have never seemed a mere matter of technique to me, and she clearly shows a struggle against death towards the end of the second minute and beginning of third minute just to note an obvious example. One can't judge legato watching the old Pavlova film--it's too herky-jerky--but that is a quality that profoundly informs Lopatkina's version, with very striking images emerging from the steady fluttering flow and melting back into it. Boring? Not to me.

Your final plea to people to watch the video "properly" putting preferences aside suggests you are weary of Lopatkina admirers like myself (and perhaps others) leaping up to defend her against your criticisms. To say just a word about that: my liking of Lopatkina's version is not based on a "preference" that precedes my watching her dance; it emerges from watching her dance. In fact, I did not swoon the first time I saw her on stage (as the villainess in Fountain of Bakhchisarai)--that happened later!--and there are roles in which I think she is not as great as in other roles. But her dying swan is one post-Pavlova swan I respond to...even if its differences from Pavlova's are certainly of interest. In fact, I do consider Pavlova THE singularly great Dying Swan. From a ballet history point of view the film that exists of Pavlova is essential viewing. But I am not what American constitutional scholars call an "originalist" ... My ballet tastes--which admitedly are pretty eclectic--have room for both of them.

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I've watched both versions. I've also seen Lopatkina perform this live. First of all, they have very different physiques. The kind of nervous fluttery movements that seem to have come so naturally to Pavlova would probably be hard for someone as long-limbed as Lopatkina to master. But with that being said I thought Lopatkina's version was very beautiful and she made time stand still when I saw her. "Dying" swan to me can mean many things -- there can be a physically injured swan like Pavlova, or a swan peacefully accepting death. This is a classic cameo where I think personal interpretation is expected because the steps are so barebone.

I am quite puzzled by what you mean by Plisetskaya making the Dying Swan an "old" swan. I kind of thought Plisetskaya's version is very emotive.

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Years ago there was a documentary (I think called Fighting Over Fokine?) where Isabelle Fokine taught the Dying Swan to Yulia Makhalina. She was working from her grandfather's notes, not any passed down tradition. She seemed happy with Yulia's version (I couldn't figure out how to post it here but if you search YT for "Dying Swan Makhalina" you'll find it). Yulia's version is quite different from Lopatkina's. She enter the stage facing the audience ( most other current Mariinsky versions have the swan enter with her back to the audience and her arms rippling), arms kind of folded against her face. Yulia's version totally omits any of the ripply swan arms seen in all the above versions. That said, I still find Lopatkina's version quite emotive.

This past January I saw both Shapran and Kondaurova dance Dying Swan in DC. The choreography was probably the Lopatkina version. But I quite liked Kondaurova's interpretation - emotive without being too Swan Lakey. I simply can't remember how much she rippled her arms though. But she's a little less formal and classical than Lopatkina. That said it seems to be hard nowadays to put a Mariinsky ballerina into a white glittery costume and not have them dance a little like Odette (for example, IMO, neither one really does Balanchine's Diamonds PDD properly).

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Your final plea to people to watch the video "properly" putting preferences aside suggests you are weary of Lopatkina admirers like myself (and perhaps others) leaping up to defend her against your criticisms. To say just a word about that: my liking of Lopatkina's version is not based on a "preference" that precedes my watching her dance; it emerges from watching her dance. In fact, I did not swoon the first time I saw her on stage (as the villainess in Fountain of Bakhchisarai)--that happened later!--and there are roles in which I think she is not as great as in other roles. But her dying swan is one post-Pavlova swan I respond to...even if its differences from Pavlova's are certainly of interest. In fact, I do consider Pavlova THE singularly great Dying Swan. From a ballet history point of view the film that exists of Pavlova is essential viewing. But I am not what American constitutional scholars call an "originalist" ... My ballet tastes--which admitedly are pretty eclectic--have room for both of them.

Thank you Drew, my main reason for asking people to watch the video properly was because of what happened the last time I put a video up here - some people didn't watch it properly because they focused on the dancer instead of the choreography and music and therefore, they completely misunderstood the whole point of it...

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Well the whole point here is to compare the two versions and see how much the piece has changed over the years. As Isabelle Fokine pointed out, "The Dying Swan" is a piece that demands great artistry, not great technique, so Lopatkina (and all other ballerinas of today for that matter) does not master this piece due to the differences in physique between her and Pavlova, but rather because her version is so technical and has no emotion.

And to answer your question, Maya Plisetskaya introduced the concept of the Swan being elderly and dying of old age instead being wounded and dying in pain and I believe she first introduced the elderly concept when she danced the piece at a gala performance when she was 61 years old. Since then, that's the concept everybody's been dancing when they dance "The Dying Swan".

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Hmmm... yes this performance by Nina Ananiashvili looks very Swan Lake, which is the other issue with how The Dying Swan is performed today - it looks so much more like Odette than the Dying Swan, even though the two ballets are not even connected and never were. Fokine did not base The Dying Swan on Swan Lake and like his granddaughter explained, the piece is not about being able to transform into a swan nor is it about a swan; it's about death and the Swan is just a metaphor.

To her credit, Ananiashvili certainly has more artistry and emotion than Lopatkina in this clip and it does look like she's in pain rather than dying of old age and I think you're right, I don't think Plisetskaya danced the Swan as elderly and stubborn before she was 61.

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Mariinsky dancers always have a blood red brooch on the front of the white tutu (Kondaurova wears an almost black small circle stone) to symbolize the wound, so regardless of whether you like the specific choreography or not I think Mariinsky dancers are always dancing it like they are dying of a wound. Lopatkina even said the red brooch is the bleeding wound in an interview.

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Mariinsky dancers always have a blood red brooch on the front of the white tutu (Kondaurova wears an almost black small circle stone) to symbolize the wound, so regardless of whether you like the specific choreography or not I think Mariinsky dancers are always dancing it like they are dying of a wound. Lopatkina even said the red brooch is the bleeding wound in an interview.

Ah yes, just like Pavlova did - she had a brooch on her Swan costume. It does seem that ballerinas choose which concept to follow - dying of a wound or dying of old age - but I have to say that staying en pointe almost all the time and Swan Lake poses doesn't really make the painful struggle to live look very convincing.

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Thank you Drew, my main reason for asking people to watch the video properly was because of what happened the last time I put a video up here - some people didn't watch it properly because they focused on the dancer instead of the choreography and music and therefore, they completely misunderstood the whole point of it...

Let me be very clear about Ballet Alert!: we are a discussion board. The only thing you can do is to ask the rest to respond within your defined parameters, but other members have no obligation to understand or accommodate your "whole point of it." You can throw it out there, but you get what you get in response, like everyone else, whether or not you think the response is "proper." Or as Melanie Griffiths said to Alec Baldwin in "Working Girl," "If you want a different answer, ask a different girl."

And to answer your question, Maya Plisetskaya introduced the concept of the Swan being elderly and dying of old age instead being wounded and dying in pain and I believe she first introduced the elderly concept when she danced the piece at a gala performance when she was 61 years old. Since then, that's the concept everybody's been dancing when they dance "The Dying Swan".

I think this is a misinterpretation of the place of the work in Plisetskaya's career and the influence of one performance. I've seen the work performed many times since this, on film and live, and your description doesn't match my experience. It's far from a scholarly opinion to characterize what "everybody's been dancing," so narrowly, especially when one of the examples you've provided, Lopatkina's, doesn't support the premise, in my opinion.

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I think this is a misinterpretation of the place of the work in Plisetskaya's career and the influence of one performance. I've seen the work performed many times since this, on film and live, and your description doesn't match my experience. It's far from a scholarly opinion to characterize what "everybody's been dancing," so narrowly, especially when one of the examples you've provided, Lopatkina's, doesn't support the premise, in my opinion.

Yeah maybe I did misinterpret that, but Maya Plisetskaya did famously present the Swan as elderly and dying of old age when she danced the piece at 61. And I'm very sorry to hear that she's passed away. :(

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As you can see, Pavlova is all about the artistry, while Lopatkina is all about the technique.

As I can see, I certainly don't know much about the technique to dance Dying Swan, Lopatkina's swan bears the pain in the wound from her body's convulsion, which is shown on HD recordings. Obviously, Lopatkina's Dying Swan is different from Pavlova, and Ulanova. Plisetskaya's Dying Swan is also very different from Pavlova and Ulanova. I call that calm swans vs. scared swans.

I love Plisetskaya's Dying Swan very much. Her swan knows the time is closing, though still struggling, she faces the death calmly and bravely. Lopatkina's Dying Swan, also Somova's, follow Plisetskaya's calm swan. There are some differences: Lopatkina's swan wants dying beautifully as she is always a beautiful swan; Somova's swan wants dying quietly and peacefully. Plisetskaya's swan wants dying bravely, not showing any scaring, just as in her real live.

Maya, R.I.P.

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I think this is a misinterpretation of the place of the work in Plisetskaya's career and the influence of one performance. I've seen the work performed many times since this, on film and live, and your description doesn't match my experience. It's far from a scholarly opinion to characterize what "everybody's been dancing," so narrowly, especially when one of the examples you've provided, Lopatkina's, doesn't support the premise, in my opinion.

Helene, just for the record, I've made some corrections to my description of the video; thanks for your help. ;)

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I'm happy Amy introduced the subject and I hope to contribute more meaningfully next week when I'm on vacation and have more time but for now, here's a clip of Yvette Chauvire dancing "Dying Swan", which is, at a glance, very different than any others I've seen on video. I may change this opinion when I can focus on this topic more, however. Meanwhile, enjoy this version. I just love it.

https://youtu.be/NrKoTiMoOMY

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I'm happy Amy introduced the subject and I hope to contribute more meaningfully next week when I'm on vacation and have more time but for now, here's a clip of Yvette Chauvire dancing "Dying Swan", which is, at a glance, very different than any others I've seen on video. I may change this opinion when I can focus on this topic more, however. Meanwhile, enjoy this version. I just love it.

https://youtu.be/NrKoTiMoOMY

Oh wow, what a beautiful clip! Any idea what year this was in?

One thing I should say is that The Dying Swan is a piece that always seems to go through change when it's danced by a different ballerina. Fokine actually restaged it for Dame Alicia Markova in 1941-42 and the version she danced was different from Anna Pavlova's. In fact, Markova's version was the first version to be danced en pointe all the way through.

I can only assume that one of the reasons The Dying Swan has changed as much as it has is because nobody can dance it like Pavlova, but even so, ballerinas today could still dance Pavlova's version in their own way.

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Hi Amy,

I would use the quote function, but it does not work on my tablet

I do not know the year of this clip. Mme. Chauvire was born in 1917 and I would guess she's between 35 and 40(?) here. There's a film by Dominique Delouche entitled Yvette Chauvire: France's Prima Ballerina Assoluta which has this clip. The DVD's notes do not name the date, but later I can put it on and maybe it will be identified in the film credits. If you find out the date, please let me know! Glad you enjoyed the clip.

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