Ballerinas with Wings: Swan Roles

Anna Pavlova Edit 1
Created with Wikimedia Commons Pubic Domain Image of Anna Pavlova in “The Dying Swan.”

From the irresistible pull of swan arms to the allure of feathered tutus, swan-inspired characters outrank other bird roles in the realm of ballet. Here’s a throwback to three of the most famous swan roles as interpreted by past generations…

White Swan

Distilled through black and white, foregoing scenery, and emphasizing movement as the medium of storytelling, this 1970s Kirov film brings the emotional core of Swan Lake‘s pas de deux into focus with sophisticated simplicity. Odette’s enigmatic, love-him-or-love-him-not relationship with Siegfried is told through the power of musical motion with little aid or accent of acting–flowing through reserve, release, tension, ease, energy projecting outward, and drawing inward…

Black Swan

Odile actually didn’t acquire her avian identity until the 1940s…Before then she was simply a femme fatale who could be costumed in a variety of colors including red and green. But, safe to say, the little black dress makeover certainly stuck. It’s hard not to imagine that this was her signature look all along. Here’s a clip, also from the 70s, of Kirov soloist Elena Yeteyeva performing the variation and coda fouettés.

Dying Swan

“Often imitated, never duplicated”… For something seemingly simple in design–mostly bourrées and upper body movements–Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan, created for Anna Pavlova, has eluded so many of its subsequent performers. Pavlova’s watermark on the work, as seen in this 1925 film, is the translucent abandon and leaf-in-the-wind quality of her arms and upper body: ballerina grace, but with a sense of unsettled drifting.

She Loves Him…Not?

Swan Corps KCBalletMedia
KCB Dancers in Swan Lake. Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.” by KCBalletMedia. Licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Interesting analysis on Odette from Alastair Macaulay:

“Today the traditional “Swan Lake” is usually played like a sentimental “women’s” movie: the swan-queen Odette gives her heart to Prince Siegfried even though he promptly proves himself Prince Wrong by plighting his troth to her wicked lookalike Odile, and of course the martyred Odette then goes on loving him. But both scenario and choreography are more interesting than that: they leave it wholly ambiguous about whether she ever returns his love. She merely needs him to love her so that she may find release from swan form; and the choreography, which focuses on her indecision, shows just how mixed her feelings are about committing herself to accepting his support.

In her constant need to keep withdrawing from him, and her muted response to his ardor, the real suggestion that used to emerge was that she felt unable ever fully to respond to him, as if sensing a reluctant frigidity within herself that she could not eradicate. That’s a far more interesting psychodrama that the one we usually see onstage today.”

– Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times, “For Ballet, Plots Thicken, or Just Stick?” Aug. 4, 2010

Osipova’s Odette

Natalia Osipova’s Odette variation from Swan Lake is probably my favorite among the versions I’ve seen so far. What a difference the extra holds in her balances make! I also admire the wholehearted abandon with which she fills this character, it’s a fascinating contrast to the reserve and elusiveness in many interpretations of Odette.

Quote on Swan Lake

“The poetic core of Swan Lake is the act two pas de deux, that perfect lost-in-the-forest encounter in which Odette and Siegfried unfold the secrets of their hearts to the exquisite dialogue of Tchaikovsky’s cello and violin. It’s this duet that defines the tone of the entire stage, and establishes the audience’s relationship with it.”

– Judith Mackrell, English National Ballet: Swan Lake – review, The Guardian, June 13, 2013

Odile’s Makeover

“Odile was not very swan-like at first. In 1895, she was just an enchantress in a colorful costume. Dancers started to wear black and be referred to as the Black Swan only in the 1940s.”

What Happened to Our Ballets?, Pointe Magazine, May 17, 2012

Created with Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.