Created in 1905 by the young Michel Fokine as a solo for his dear friend Anna Pavlova, this was to become her signature piece, for which she would forever be remembered. Le Cygne (The Swan), composed by Camille Saint-Saens from his suite Le carnival des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals), is a poetic, poignant melody for cello and harp, lasting just three minutes, fifteen seconds. Pavlova danced its premier at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in 1907. When the music stopped, the audience fell silent for so long that Fokine, waiting in the wings, feared the worst. But when the crowd finally exploded into applause, and Pavlova returned for a curtain call, the ecstatic crowd would not sit down. They recognized that this was a new kind of ballet, where the very steps of the dance itself—not the dancer using mime—told the story of the last few moments of a dying swan. Viewers were held spellbound by every movement of the young, impossibly fragile dancer, whose lyricism, pain, and finally—redemptive grace—had crafted an unprecedented moment in ballet. Pavlova would dance The Swan at every performance from then on. She performed it over four thousand times on six continents spanning three decades. On the night Anna Pavlova died, the orchestra played the music to a single spotlight on an empty stage. The swan was dead, but the legend of the Immortal Swan had just begun.
The Swan, Re-Imagined
This is the penultimate piece in the entire Pavlova Project. I made this costume from photo reference before I had a chance to see the actual costume in 2016, when it was briefly displayed at the Denver Art Museum. I sat and drew from the original for three hours, as Saint-Saens’ music played over and over again. I felt that Anna Pavlova was sitting there with me.
I will make this costume again, more true to the original, but for now this is my Swan, my tribute to the enduring legacy of Anna Pavlova.
Pavlova’s love of animals was legendary, and she took her dogs, cats, and songbirds with her on her travels across the globe. But at home, none of her pets were more dear to her than her swans, and especially her favorite, Jack. I have heard only one brief recording of Pavlova’s voice: in her melodious and lilting voice, she is saying “Come Jack, here Jack,” as she kneels by the pond and opens her arms to him.
This photograph is one in a famous series of Pavlova and Jack by the Lafayette Portrait Studios, Ltd., taken in 1927, when she was 47 years old. They were taken at her home in Golders Green, Ivy House, where she loved spending time in the garden beside the pond she had built especially for her swans. In this series we sense the warmth of a summer’s day and an extraordinary connection between the dancer and her swan. We see not just Pavlova’s tender love for this creature, but her own very swan-like grace and beauty. That she identified with swans, not just in her signature ballet role but in life as well, is clear from these images.
With Jack Re-Imagined
I made this chic all-white outfit from tissue-weight wool and lightweight silk dupioni, using photo reference from the above-mentioned series. Pavlova wears her favorite strapped shoes and white hose, and around her neck is a long strand of pearls, one of the few pieces of jewelry she ever wore. I needle felted the swan with white Corriedale wool roving, and the bench was bought on Ebay. I love this scene of Anna Pavlova at ease in her garden at Ivy House, where she would spend so little time between her relentless world-wide tours.