Dancing Swans: ‘The Dying Swan’ Versus ‘Swan Lake’

Two works of ballet feature the swan as a character, but vary in amount of difficulty and choice of music.
Dancing Swans: ‘The Dying Swan’ Versus ‘Swan Lake’
A 2008 production at the Royal Swedish Opera of "Swan Lake." (Alexander Kenney/Kungliga/CC by 3.0)
Tiffany Brannan

The swan is perhaps the animal most frequently associated with ballet. In fluffy white tutus and pink pointe shoes, ballerinas glide across the stage like swans floating on a lake. Of course, the swan isn’t the only avian character in ballet. There is the dramatic red mythological bird of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” “Sleeping Beauty” features a bluebird couple and a canary fairy, both of whom usually wear feathery costumes and flap their arms like wings as part of their choreography. There even is a barnyard chicken dance in the 1789 ballet “La fille mal gardee.”

None of these are quite as graceful and lovely as the swan, and there are two terpsichorean (pertaining to dance) interpretations of this waterfowl—“Swan Lake” and “The Dying Swan.”

Swan Lake

“Swan Lake” is one of the most famous and most frequently performed ballets. The ballet features a celebrated score, written in 1877 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The main theme, played by an oboe, mimics a birdlike call.
Design of Swan Lake ballet by F. Gaanen for the décor of act 2, Moscow, 1877. (Public Domain)
Design of Swan Lake ballet by F. Gaanen for the décor of act 2, Moscow, 1877. (Public Domain)

The ballet features a gentle white swan, Odette, and her evil doppelganger, the black swan Odile. There also is a handsome prince, Siegfried, and a wicked sorcerer, Baron von Rothbart. Odette was turned into a swan by the evil Rothbart. She and her Swan Maidens transform back into women at night.

On the night of his 21st birthday, Prince Siegfried goes into the woods to hunt.  He meets Odette, falls in love with her, and invites her to his ball. Odette discloses that in order to be free of her curse, a pure-of-heart man must pledge his love to her.
Rothbart learns of this and sends his daughter, Odile instead, disguised as Odette. Siegfried is deceived by the ruse, and swears his love to Odile. Realizing his accidental betrayal, Siegfried returns to the lake and begs for Odette’s forgiveness. She forgives him, but must die to be released from Rothbart’s curse. Siegfried follows her lead and their love destroys Rothbart and frees the Swan Maidens.

The Dying Swan

“The Dying Swan” is an entire ballet comprised of only one dance by a single dancer. The music is “The Swan” from “Le Carnaval des animaux” or “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saëns, a French composer, who was a colleague and good friend of Tchaikovsky.

In “The Dying Swan,” the white tutu-clad ballerina enacts the last moments of a swan’s life before gently folding up on the floor in death. Smooth cello notes evoke the bird’s swan song, as a swan sings for the last time before dying. The piece is between three and four minutes long, depending on the tempo.

Anna Pavlova in the Fokine/Saint-Saëns The Dying Swan, Saint Petersburg, 1905. (Public Domain)
Anna Pavlova in the Fokine/Saint-Saëns The Dying Swan, Saint Petersburg, 1905. (Public Domain)

Anna Pavlova gained fame for performing this ballet, which was choreographed for Pavlova by Russian choreographer Michael Fokine. She first performed it in St. Petersburg in 1905 and would perform it around 4,000 times. Other ballerinas have also performed this unique one-person ballet. Mid-20th century British ballerina Alicia Markova has been most associated with the dance, which prompted Vladimir Tretchikoff to immortalize her in the 1949 painting “The Dying Swan.”

The ballets have similar endings. Traditional productions of “Swan Lake” do end with Odette’s death, yet she doesn’t gracefully fold her wings and collapse on the floor. Instead, she leaps off a ledge into a lake, sacrificing herself to break Rothbart’s spell.

Feathered Grace

“Swan Lake” and “The Dying Swan” have the common theme of a shared topic. In terms of technical difficulty, however, they are very different. “Swan Lake” is one of the hardest ballets for the prima ballerina, since it is four acts long and extremely intense in terms of acting and dancing.

The greatest challenge is playing the dual role of Odette and Odile. The ballerina must embody two separate characters and execute two very different styles of dancing. While Odette is sad and vulnerable with slow, controlled movements, Odile is sinister and enticing with flashy technique, including the impressive 32 turns, known as fouettés.

Pavlova in "La Fille mal gardée", 1912. (Public Domain)
Pavlova in "La Fille mal gardée", 1912. (Public Domain)

“The Dying Swan” is a simple solo routine with only a few dance moves, depicting the final moments of a swan’s life. In fact, most of it consists of graceful steps gliding across the floor, known as bourrées, and flapping arm movements. Many ballerinas have been inspired by the choreography of this dance to incorporate more swanlike movements into their interpretations of Odette. Appropriately, this has become the final piece many ballerinas perform in their careers, a true swan song.

It’s a popular misconception that the pieces are related, as many videos posted on the internet are titled “’The Dying Swan’” from “‘Swan Lake’.” Yet, although one is only four minutes and the other is four acts, both ballets are beautiful works of classical ballet, epitomizing grace, beauty, and tradition.

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Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.
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