An incredibly beautiful and expressively eloquent performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and dancer Lil Buck has recently gone viral. But it’s not the first time The Dying Swan has inspired a collaboration of classical and modern, music and motion, simplicity and complexity.
The Dying Swan was first choreographed in 1905 by Mikhail Fokine for legendary prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. It was inspired by three loves: nature, poetry, and music. She was a bird watcher, fascinated by feathers and enchanted by the majestic swans. She even had a pet swan named “Jack”. (Funny, he doesn’t really look like a Jack to me, maybe more like a Mortimer.)
As a lover of all things Cygnus (nerdcore for ‘swan’), Pavlova introduced Fokine to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Dying Swan”.
The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear;
And floating about the under-sky,
Prevailing in weakness, the coronach stole
Sometimes afar, and sometimes anear;
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;
And Fokine suggested the obvious choice, the haunting cello solo Le cygne (The Swan) from The Carnival of the Animals by French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns, written in 1886.
Pavlova performed this dance about 4,000 times during the last 25 years of her career. About three weeks short of her 50th birthday, she died of pleurisy. Grasping her swan costume, her last words were, “Play the last measure very softly.”
The Dying Swan was never about a woman impersonating a bird, but the fragility of life and the passion with which we hold on to it. And almost 100 years later, it’s apparent through Lil Buck’s interpretation that this message still resonates through the music.
Even in this hilariously tragic parody by Maya Thickenthighya from Les Trockadero of Monte Carlo.
Thank you Serotonin Junkie for sending me the link to the video by Spike Jonze, which inspired the rest of this post. XO