When one thinks of ballets that define the art form, it is Swan Lake that likely comes to mind. The innocent beauty swathed in white who’s trapped in a cruel enchantment, the prince searching for true love, and the mesmerizing femme fatale dripping in black holding both us and the prince captive have captured ballet audiences for years. The story of Swan Lake has been endlessly reinterpreted and reimagined as each generation falls in love with a new swan. One of the most famous of these iterations is the brief and yet eternal solo of The Dying Swan, the defining role of the world-renowned Victorian Era ballet dancer Anna Pavlova.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1881, Anna struggled through her early ballet training years. She was precariously tall, thin to the point of flimsy, and so frail her instructors seemed to fear she might snap into tiny pieces while in motion. Her passion for dance was far from fragile, and with an aggressive determination, she transformed her delicacy into her most powerful strength by making it her defining style that enchanted audiences and set her apart from the standard ballerina of the era.

 After establishing herself as one of the greatest ballet dancers of a generation while performing with the Imperial Ballet and the Ballet Russes, Pavlova launched her own company and went on a world tour for an astonishing twenty years, visiting places such as Japan, Australia, India, China, and Mexico, often introducing the audience members to ballet for the very first time while she learned native dances from the community. 

 The most iconic role that she brought with her wherever she went was The Dying Swan, a brief solo choreographed for her in 1905 by the still deeply revered choreographer Michel Fokine, set to Saint-Saëns’s cello piece, Le Cygne from La Carnaval des Animaux

 The piece features delicate arms that flutter constantly like feathers in the wind, feet moving so swiftly and softly they seem to be floating across still water, and a heartwrenching collapse as the swan dies, shivering its wings one last time before the curtain falls. Pavlova identified with this work so deeply that she performed it approximately 4,000 times during her career. Every time the audience was swept away in the moment with her.

 The spirit of the swan defined Pavlova not just on the stage, but also in her personal life. When she settled into Ivy House by London’s Hampstead Heath, the place she would call home for the rest of her life, she spent hours with the swans that lived in the nearby lake. Each of them was dear to her, but one named Jack she held especially close to her heart.

 At the age of 49 as she lay on her deathbed, she had no dances left in her body, but there were plenty still folded within her heart. Her very last words were, “Get my Swan costume ready.” And just like Pavlova, the spirit of the swan flutters in the heart of every ballet lover today, reminding us that through dance our merely mortal feet can be taught to fly.

Alanna Love is a writer based out of Boise, Idaho. She revels in tracing the thread of beauty woven throughout daily life, especially when it is found in ballet, literature, or historical wardrobing.
Follow Us

Subscribe For Updates & Giveaways!

Stay up to date with exciting original content, upcoming performances, and giveaways unique to your community and beyond!