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The Swan / No More Dying

Meindert Peters

The Dying Swan (1905) is a strange breed. The ballet, Anna Pavlova’s signature piece, is a little too kitsch in its staging of the lone, frail ballerina in the most iconic of ballet costumes as a white swan. A little too ironic too, when dancers enact the dwindling animal with the full use of their strength, souplesse, and extensions: a dying animal with feet above their ears. Ironic it feels too, when we see a video of Maya Plisetskaya performing the piece in 1992 in her late 60s at the Red Square. Her frail interpretation of the dying animal is exactly strengthened by her dawning abilities. Yet, the dramatic music by Saint-Saëns and the simplicity of Michel Fokine’s choreography, adapted over time by numerous different dancers, together merge into an effective pièce d’occasion: short, pretty, yet dramatic and expressive. No wonder then, its enduring success as a staple of ballet galas, nor that the piece became so synonymous with Pavlova’s achievements that it is said she asked for its costume on her deathbed in a hotel room in The Hague in 1931. However, it was the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s recent re-staging of it in lockdown, known as The Swan (no dying here), that showed it afresh. I have seen many online dance performances in the last year, but in its urgency and felt spontaneity, this one seemed most relevant to the moment.

Last April, Céline Gittens performed The Swan, choreographed by artistic director Carlos Acosta, from her living room. Pianist Jonathan Higgins and cellist António Novais played the music from theirs. But Gittens could barely move. The usually ephemeral, untouchable effect of a single ballerina on a large stage is replaced by one confined by stuff. The walls get in her way, as do a plant and a piano. It shows a dancer who cannot move as she and we are used to, and this is exactly its strength. Other iterations of the work often feel overly dramatic because no reason for the animal’s suffering is evident – unmotivated awkward jerks punctuate an otherwise technical elegance. In this iteration the reason is obvious: lack of space. Like the effective Greenpeace commercial of the 1990s, in which the white, dying swan besmirched itself further and further with the black oil that covered the floor, The Swan is motivated. And like Plisetskaya’s famous performance, in which she struggled with her own body’s demise, Gittens’ swan fights against that which restricts her, against the piano, the plant, and the tiny square footage of a modern city apartment. Thus, ballet technique is no longer an ironic presence here but a mode of resistance. There is something pressing, too, about the sped-up music played in under four minutes. Part of the BBC’s ‘Culture in Quarantaine’ series to support the arts, this performance felt acute exactly because its staging seemed rushed from the moment artistic director Carlos Acosta pressed his face into his webcam to introduce it. Something was at stake here.

Of course, the piece mimics our own situations. We are all animated beings currently confined. We are watching from our quarters the small square of our computer where a dancer negotiates the tiny space of her home. All the actions we want to undertake that are restricted by space, rules, and health, are reflected at us through the swan’s resisted movements. But this new version, staged in this tiny apartment, also made me re-think the piece itself. Often it seemed, especially in its technically bravura performances, that The Dying Swan was the last stance of the classical and romantic ballet periods and their obsession with women’s ephemerality (cf. Swan Lake, Giselle, La Bayadère). But the BRB’s performance allows for a different reading, namely that The Dying Swan marks instead the end of this era. That in 1905 the otherworldly elegance was – almost literally –being put to rest by new, modern circumstances. There is no place for the banning of women to a metaphysical realm when modern, urban reality becomes too pressing. No afterlife; just struggle in the here and now.

The best performances – dance or otherwise – make us re-think a piece of art. And COVID, with the multiple limitations that it puts on stage performances, could offer such re-imaginings. Yet, most dance performances I have seen of late were either too self-reflectively occupied with this new reality or tried to re-create the pre-COVID stage for a digital audience. But a large history of repertoire exists that could speak to the moment – if only because the virus and its attending need for social distancing have made us aware of our movements and the social choreographies that play out in daily life, be it at the grocery store or on the sidewalk. The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s performance of The Swan was an exception. Here lockdown was not a restriction to its performance but its reference. In its under-four-minute offering, The Swan understood and spoke to our situations: confined and restless.

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Meindert Peters lectures at Amsterdam University College. He recently completed a DPhil in Modern Languages at New College, Oxford.