In 1905 Mikhail Fokine, choreographer for the Ballets Russes, created the choreography for Le Cynge, composed by Camille Saint-Saens for cello and two pianos, specifically for the great Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, also of the Ballet Russes. It depicts a swan’s struggle with death, inspired by the Greek myth of the Mute Swan (an actual species) who could not utter a sound until just before it died (the myth, but like all myths tells an archetypal story; this one a parable about what is inside).
The work of Fokine, Pavlova, and the Ballets Russes marks historically and artistically one of the greatest turning points in dance (also for art and music), but that’s an interesting topic for another moment. What I want to write about today is how my appreciation for the art of dance has been tutored by watching how great dancers interpret a work.
Here are three dancers’ interpretations of The Dying Swan. As you’ll see, the dance vocabulary in this choreography is not very extensive. The focus is on the arms and expression of the upper body. Try waving your arms around for four minutes and see how interesting that is. Not much. It really depends on the dancer to make something out of it. How is it that the following three dancers mesmerize us for the duration of their performances?
First up is an archival performance by Anna Pavlova. The footage is incomplete and the music was added later, but we can get a glimpse of Pavlova’s “look” and movement.
Next we have a film of Maya Pilsetskaya of the Bolshoi, one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century, performing the work when she was 61(!). The floating undulations of her arms are amazing to me.
The beauty and musicality of the next performance, by Lil Buck with Yo-Yo Ma, are unexpectedly poignant.