A hearty, focused behind-the-scenes documentary, Swan Song looks at a unique point in a ballet company where retirement and rejuvenation meet. While some of this won’t be a huge surprise to anyone who has watched, read, participated in, or observed anything regarding the production of a massive stage show, Swan Song still holds value in its sense of specificity and timeliness. Free from the need to constantly and unsubtly hammer how how difficult it is to make it in the world of high level professional dance, director Chelsea McMullan instead takes a more observational, granular, and candid approach to this story behind the National Ballet of Canada’s latest attempt to adapt an old classic to the stage with a mixture of veterans and up-and-coming talent.
McMullan (and credited co-director Sean O’Neill) embed themselves with the National Ballet as they attempt to put on a new staging of the classic Swan Lake, one of the most performed ballets of all time. For Artistic Director and legendary dancer in her own right, Karen Kain, it truly is a swan song, with this production serving as her final one before retirement. After the pandemic derailed plans for performances that were set to begin in 2020, Swan Song picks up roughly three months before performances are finally set to begin, as preparations and rehearsals are firmly under way.
There’s nothing particularly surprising that happens during this production of Swan Lake, but there’s plenty of human drama to be found and stories worth telling within the margins. Anyone who has been involved with a stage production or has seen a documentary about what happens can tell going into Swan Song that they’re usually a stressful shit show right up until the moment the curtains finally go up. None of that is particularly new, so McMullan wisely hones in on the aspects that make the behind the scenes goings on so special and different.
Kain’s version of Swan Lake isn’t just a chance to add another chapter to her already outstanding legacy, but to update the famed ballet to modern, more inclusive times, eschewing the pancake make-up and all white tights to allow dancers of various skin tones and ethnicities to simply be themselves on stage. Still rather young choreographer Robert Binet has the chance to break out and establish himself with a bit more freedom this time out. Principal dancer and ballet veteran Jurgita Dronina has lived for the stage, performing through a persistent nerve injury. Up and coming dancer Shaelynn Estrada has come from humble, troubled beginnings to reach the level she has, and she’s keen to continue that trajectory towards being a major player, even if her own feelings of inadequacy keep getting in the way.
Swan Song hits all the beats it has to along the way. There are fears up until the last second that the show isn’t living up to expectations. The Corps de Ballet – the workhorses of the show – are quickly growing exhausted and confused by the rehearsal process, something that isn’t helped by a relentless fourth act movement that’s the physical equivalent of running a 5K for just that one portion every night. Stereotypes and racist tendencies within the world of ballet are discussed and parsed in thoughtful ways, but sometimes the progressive solutions lead to other unforeseen problems that no one predicted. There’s plenty of stress, insecurity, and injuries that need to be pushed through before Swan Lake reaches an audience chomping at the bit to see live performances again after years spent in lockdown.
Outside of the focus on unique perspectives and people, what sets Swan Song apart the most is McMullan’s brisk sense of urgency. Even though Swan Song takes place over the course of a few months (technically years, if one wants to include the aborted 2020 attempt to capture the same story), McMullan never slows things down, appropriately approximating the feeling of being caught in a whirlwind production that can’s slow down or else it will risk complete failure. Swan Song feels like being aboard a bullet train, and getting to know the fellow passengers that are along for the journey. It’s not groundbreaking in terms of performance documentary, but it still gets everything about the actual experience spot on.
Swan Song is now playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox. It opens in Sudbury on October 12, 2023, in London, ON on October 13, in Amherst, NS on October 26, and in Vancouver, Victoria, and Saskatoon on October 30, with openings in additional Canadian cities yet to be confirmed. A special, expanded, four part limited series version of Swan Song will premiere on CBC and CBC Gem starting November 22.
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