The Dying Swan Crowned Anna
"Dancing is silent poetry." —Simonides
"Our arms start from the back because they were once wings." —Martha Graham
"The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul." —Alfred Lord Tennyson
a series of bourreés, which are the soft pitter-patter of raindrops against glass, glide Anna across the stage. She, as well as any ballerina who dares, beams white against the black backdrop. One spotlight follows her bourreé. A crown of white feathers, not flowers or diamonds, wraps around her bun. Her tutu, embroidered with crystal droplets and gossamer thread, frames her waist and legs. Her arms are ephemeral, as are wings. To get the sensation that arms are wings, move the shoulders in a circular motion toward the ear. Anna’s wrists and elbows undulate, and the circulating shoulders set off a rippling effect, imitating the graceful motion of a swan’s flapping. It turns out that joints, like words, lead to something else, perhaps an entire existence, when they are considered first as individual entities full of possibilities. The mechanics of the individual entity must first be considered in every way possible before considering its relationship with a second entity. Even if words and joints are meant to be attached to one another, each was created individually and has its own meaning. One might shake a word
intentionally and write a novel, but one can shake a word unintentionally and discover its body is carved and curved into the individual letters. Anna discovered swan arms were in her and connected them to the bourreé—the choreographer added them to his notes when he realized they were poetry. These are the main two steps in the four-minute piece. The technique for Anna’s swan-arms is never revealed until a ballerina is ready to perform this piece. Nowhere else in life or ballet are dying swan arms needed.
Anna Pavlova came across Tennyson’s poem, "The Dying Swan," and wanted to read it but found words only work when they are connected to the body. For Anna, the act of speaking the poem, even reading it in front of an audience, could not satisfy her desire for language. So she asked her teacher and choreographer, Michel Fokine, to create a solo for her about a dying swan. Commenting in 1931 on the experience of creating the dance, Fokine says, "It was almost an improvisation. She danced and I walked alongside her, curving her arms and correcting details of pose." Rarely does a poem or a ballet find the pieces of its soul as quickly and effortlessly as Anna found the dance of The Dying Swan. It must have been that thing we call inspiration—that moment in which life reveals a truth and an artist responds easily and without constraint, theory and convention forgotten. The Dying Swan was not an effort to break classical ballet ideals, nor did it intend to serve as an important turn in the evolution of ballet. The Dying Swan was not self-aware; Anna was not self-aware.
When preparing dancers to perform a classical ballet, teachers say it is vital to become the ballet’s lover. One eventually forms a spiritual relationship with dance, but it is first and foremost physical. The steps. The curvature of the back and arms into learned positions. The beating, the rhythm rapped into the back with a cane, the measure of the leg span from toe to toe. The experienced ballet, the lover who always seems to have something to teach, holds a title of unreachability because it has seen so many attempted relationships, many which have failed and still many more which hold an exalted place in history. How to become unique, how to beat Anna Pavlova out of her throne?
Anna’s contemporary, Isadora Duncan, challenged the notion that the body finds poetic expression in unnatural movements and was adamantly against the pointe shoe. To her, the core of dance comes from a central point in the body: the bellybutton. All motion radiates from this point outward, and the most untainted expression of movement comes from recognizing this vital fact about human anatomy. An important founder of Modern dance, Isadora revolutionized the ways in which thousands of dancers think about and perform their craft. Beyond that, she changed the ways in which these dancers view their bodies, and consequently, their relationship to the earth.
It is logical to think that if the body is an entity of the earth, it must remain grounded. Gravity unequivocally says so. Pointe shoes that elongate the legs and raise the ballerina slightly into the sky, crowns and tutus, the endless practice of forcing the body into shapes that defy the constraints of anatomy—these rituals are as useless as prayer. If ballet is a religion, Modern dance is a philosophy, a guiding consciousness which celebrates ties and death on earth rather than defy them. Isadora wore her hair long and loose, her costumes were often flowing dresses that covered her to her ankles. She danced in bare feet. The axis of the body, the bellybutton, rooted her limbs firmly into the earth. This allows torso, arms, legs, and head to explore the furthest reaches of space while still maintaining a point of contact. Down and sideways are the paths of exploration of the modern dancer; up is the only direction a ballet dancer wishes to go.
Anna was known for her strict adherence to classical ballet. She danced on pointe throughout her entire career, wore tutus, kept her hair neatly tied back in a bun for performances. George Balanchine, the Russian ballet dancer whose career was just coming to fruition as Anna was nearing retirement, incorporates elements of Modern dance into his ballets. In many creations, he strips his dancers of anything ornamental, such as glittering tutus and stage backdrops. His ballets require pointe shoes, but the upward reach becomes complicated when dancer’s arms and legs form 90-degree angles that break the smooth curves and lines. A struggle to reach the divine through a set of steps developed over centuries is lightly shaken. Deviance from tradition can be refreshing—ritual becomes stale if it is not approached consciously and with trust that predecessors have moved carefully and lovingly in a good direction. The evolution of ballet is a story centuries long, a classical ‘form’ not defined until the mid-19th century, when a canon of steps and costumes became wide-spread practice. "Master technique and then forget about it and be natural," Anna advised. While Isadora and Balanchine had theories enough to fill books about dance and the union of dance, music, poetry, and the body, Anna offered little comment on dance theory. She was, unrepentantly, a classical ballerina. Knowledge about ballet and technique was imparted to her by tradition and teachers, those wise priests who see the world’s experiences and offer universal lessons that can be interpreted and adapted to individual lives and aesthetics.
Perhaps Anna saw herself as one more link in the evolution of ballet; perhaps she never envied the innovations by her contemporaries, Isadora and Balanchine, who offered a new philosophy in dance. She maintained the ideal that dancing on pointe shoes brings a dancer closer to heaven because it extends the legs and elevates a dancer from the ground. A ballerina is always aiming up, in leaps and in turns. Every time the dancer moves from one location to another, it must be on the tips of the toes. The technique strives for an ideal. Yet Anna, the princess ballerina, the adherent to the most complex and technical of all dance forms, offers one essential piece of advice: "be natural." Says a woman who bloodied and arched her feet over plywood during each performance of The Dying Swan.
Anna was not particularly known for her technique in ballet. She did not have perfect turn-out of the feet; and, therefore, could not achieve that rotation of the hips that allows the legs to be aligned in an almost perfect 180-degree split. Ballet aims for lines and curves, not angles. It is another one of its tools to unite the body with music and poetry. In part, ballet dancers are born and cannot be made. One cannot alter the body to make it have long legs, slim chest and arms, pliable feet, hips that rotate naturally. One feels this most keenly when one has a ballerina’s heart, yet lacks a nature-given tool. Yet Anna, contemporary ballet experts note, was far from having the ideal physique of a ballerina in her time. Slim and frail-looking with overarched feet, she looked nothing like the muscular, compact bodies that were the ideal dancer type of her age. "Be natural," she said, as if it were the most uncomplicated thing, as if it were divine guidance. She couldn’t help her build.
So then, was Anna really meant to dance The Dying Swan? As she was dying of pleurisy in the Netherlands, on a ballet tour with her company and on the verge of turning fifty, she told her lover, "If I can’t dance then I’d rather be dead. So can you prepare my swan costume?"
Anna is remembered as a classical ballerina whose greatest moment was inventing swan arms—a motion never used in any other ballet. Her adherence to the classical form is noted because she infused it with her energy. Yet her most passionate performance, as the Dying Swan, is precisely when she breaks from tradition, invents a small motion of the arms, and pairs it with the bourreé, the most classical and conventional of all ballet steps. Anna would dance The Dying Swan more than 400 times and in more than 20 countries throughout her career as a ballerina.
Anna didn’t have her own wings, only her legs, which the swan envied because they said so much as they curved and bent, rotated and extended. The legs even had toes, the swan noted, which could support Anna’s entire frame on their very tips and elevate her slightly into the sky. It was better than flying, because try as she might, Anna’s toes would never, could never resist the gravity which destined her body to the ground, while the swan may depart and become part of the sky as easily as the earth. It was in the persistence of the impossible that Anna found a form which best fit the needs of her soul.
Victoria Scher is an MFA student in Creative Non-Fiction at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. She graduated from Northwestern University with a double degree in Creative Writing and History and is the recipient of a Fulbright grant to Mexico. Ballet has long been a love of hers, as have poetry and prose. She is from El Paso, Texas.
"The best time to sit on my front porch at my home in El Paso is at sunset. My home is at the base of a mountain; and, from my front porch, I have arguably the best seat in town to witness the Southwest’s finest show, playing each evening: purples, peaches, golds, and pinks swirling and blending for half an hour until the sun drops under the desert stage. My front porch has a wooden bench, and I like to sit by myself or with my family to watch the colors at that hour."