The Dying Swan

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Mortality is a constant specter of ballet; for dancers in general, the body is both the center of their artistry and the means by which they make a living, and its fragility is terrifying. Ballet is even more restrictive in its bodily ideal than other dance forms, as a recent study of aging dancers at the Royal Ballet has emphasized. “The habitus of classical ballet produces dispositions (or tastes) toward the body that emphasize beauty, youthfulness, and athleticism, and hence aging, injury, and retirement are aspects of the ballet career that are deeply problematic within the field of classical ballet,” Steven Wainwright and Bryan Turner concluded darkly, after interviewing numerous dancers about their fears of injury and forced retirement.

For ballerinas, the situation is exacerbated because they must also project an ethereal and desirable affect, as dance scholar and performer Pirkko Markula shows: the “image of the female dancer emphasizes the characteristics connected to the ideal Western femininity such as ethereal beauty, lightness, youthfulness and/or sexual attractiveness” (“The Dancing Body without Organs: Deleuze, Femininity, and Performing Research.” Qualitative Inquiry 12.1 (2006): 3-27). Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have developed a novel approach to the problem of aging, gender, and ballet, and they present their findings in one seven-minute solo.

Paul Ghiselin (Ida Nevasayneva) is the oldest Trockadero ballerina, and his signature piece is The Dying Swan, originally choreographed by Fokine for Anna Pavlova in 1905. Pavlova performed this solo thousands of times; she kept a favorite swan in her garden in London, named Jack, with whom she had herself photographed; when she was on her deathbed, the legend goes, she demanded her swan costume. Maya Plisetskaya insisted on dancing The Dying Swan on her 70th birthday. The Dying Swan is perhaps as storied and freighted with delusion as a three-minute dance piece can be. When Ghiselin dances this solo, it is a moving picture of the descent of the body: genealogically, kinetically, corporeally, and aesthetically.

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