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The Dying Swan:
How Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo Solve the Problem of the Aging Ballerinas
by Selby Schwartz
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.
Becoming Ida Nevasayneva was Ghiselin’s second life, after he retired from the Ohio Ballet—from a Trockadero perspective, it makes sense that the afterlife of the dancer is to embody the ghost-life of bygone ballerinas. Ghiselin already had a keen sense of “aging, injury, and retirement,” those shadows that trail ballet dancers’ careers, when Tory Dobrin called him to say, presciently, that his name would be Ida Nevasayneva and that he would “be a great Dying Swan,” as he told me in a recent interview. Ida is very much a living persona; Ghiselin describes “Ida as someone who eats, sleeps and breathes DANCE… She can’t do what the younger girls do. Actually, she doesn’t care. She’s an artiste. She believes in herself. So she’s going to give it everything she’s got,” he said with great determination in an interview with Mary Brennan in Dance Consortium.
The Dying Swan begins with a spotlight shining on the wings upstage right. No one is there. The spotlight bounces to the wings upstage left, wavers, and then streaks back to the right. This is partly a joke about the perils of touring—a shaky local crew can wreak havoc if they get the spot cues wrong—and partly a tribute to Anna Pavlova, whose death was ceremonially marked by a spotlight shining on an empty stage while the Saint-Saens score played. This means that the Trockadero version of The Dying Swan begins with a body missing from the stage, with a gesture of mourning that is both individual (Anna Pavlova is gone) and hauntingly collective (all of the ballerinas who dance this piece will someday be gone). But the staging of this gesture is low camp, a vaudeville approach to pathos that winks at the melodrama of deathbed scenes. The roaming spotlight is both knowing and ironic: “Camp is a tender feeling,” Susan Sontag emphasized in her famous essay.
When Ida Nevasayneva finally does appear on stage, her back is to the audience, and she begins a series of tiny bourrées that give the impression she’s gliding sideways, while her arms gently rise and fall with an airy, wistful grace. Paul Ghiselin is tall and remarkably bony, with taut muscles in his arms and a very long nose. Ida’s port de bras, however, is delicately expressive, and her pointe-work seems to epitomize an idea of feminine lightness, of elevation without bodily effort. As she turns, it is impossible not to see that her tutu is shedding tufts of feathers. It seems to be disintegrating rapidly into a trail of sad white plumes. Ida turns, does an attitude, and—continuing to bourrée across the stage—begins to demolish the fourth wall with a wicked, preening smile that reaches up to her arched eyebrows.
Just as she finishes the ‘swan’ gesture—straight arms held out and down in front of the torso, crossed lightly at the wrists—everything falls apart. Her neck pumps out like a pecking chicken, her feathery derrière gives a little shake, and then, in the next series of bourrées, her knobbly knees wobble apart, so that she is nearly squatting on point in a second position demi-plié, instead of balancing lightly upright on her satin tip-toes. Ida pushes her bony knees back together with her hands and gives the audience a look that says: we all know what’s it like, these aging bodies, they don’t always do what they’re supposed to, but you understand, we’ve all got them.
Waving her arms more forcefully now, she turns as a flurry of feathers rapidly pool at her feet. Something goes wrong in the next attitude; Ida clutches her ribcage, her elbows poking out, and suddenly her elbows and her knees are flapping, flailing, wildly akimbo, like the wings of an alarmed chicken. In an instant she is bowled over backwards, as her legs fly up straight in the air: the ballerina has not only fallen off point, but come down to earth entirely, her body awkwardly real and openly failing to maintain the illusion of ethereality. The descent of the body as the costume falls apart is a kinetic and corporeal answer to the Platonic idea of ballet. If the ideal of the ballerina is a sylph-like swan, the Trockadero will take it too literally, and produce the material body of a bird. If the ideal of the ballerina is the suppression of any sign of aging, struggling, falling, or behaving in an unladylike way, the Trockadero will give you their oldest ballerina, falling on his ass.
The Trockadero Dying Swan is a wry, empathetic reminder that mortality is actually painful and awkward, not lightly borne away. It involves a whole process of achingly, creakingly falling out of the disciplines that have kept the body ‘up’: bodies that were supposed to represent lightness and grace have back spasms and need hip replacements. For ballerinas in particular, the injunction to remain desirable, without showing the sweaty efforts required to produce the temporary illusion of gliding effervescently across the stage. It is for this reason, perhaps, that when Ida Nevasayneva scrambles back up from the floor, she does it facing upstage, with her back to the audience. Dusting herself off, flinging stubborn bits of feathers from her fingers, she bends over: the audience is faced with her homely, bony ballerina butt.
When Ida has composed herself, she gets back up on point and good-naturedly goes on with the show, but we have already seen the worst. The body of the ballerina is just as material as animal bodies are, and subject to all kinds of embarrassing carnalities. She tries to enact the theatrical illusion, but her old bones just won’t comply; she falls out of the Platonic ideal and gets real bruises. From this point on, Ida’s relationship to the audience is different, because she has brought us into a shared experiential reality that is the ‘backstage’ of performance. An affectionate kinetic empathy connects us to her as she tries to sneak offstage early, but is shooed back on by someone in the wings—she jogs back across the stage on point, in a subtle mockery of her earlier bourrées—and makes a futile attempt to stuff the feathers back into her depleted tutu. At one point she looks at us and, hands pressed together in supplication, makes the expressive Italian gesture for “per carità!” [‘for heaven’s sake, enough already’].
Finally, she sinks to the floor, assuming Pavlova’s famous swan pose, but she can’t just expire gracefully. The spotlight narrows around her raised arm and bent wrist, which is supposed to be the swan’s farewell to the world, and feathers are still clinging to her fingers; she shakes them off irritably, these reminders that even costumes have messy corporeal realities of their own. The stage goes dark, but it is hardly over—Maya Plisetskaya was known to do three or four encores of her Dying Swan, and Ida soon appears again to take her bows before the curtain, nodding with a patronizing grace at the applause she clearly expects. Her air of regal aloofness is briefly disrupted when, in a moment straight from a dancer’s nightmare, she can’t find the opening in the curtain again, and pokes around in the red velvet folds for half a minute, frowning. Then she finds the right place, gives the audience another big fake queen-of-the-world smile, and waltzes offstage.
A brief pause, and the spotlight seizes on a toe-shoe that is poised to emerge from the curtain; the leg slides coyly into view, and Ida bounds back onstage, delighted to have another chance to flutter her fingers and bat her oversized eyelashes. She gets back into her final swan pose to remind us how fabulous it was—and promptly, in a nightmare moment specific to ballerinas, rolls right off her tucked-under foot and lands clumsily on her side, as her tutu flies up to show her crotch. But Ida knows us now, so she just purses her lips and gives us a little wave, and rearranges herself in the pose, where she stays, head bent over her outstretched leg and her wrists crossed at her ankle, until she determines that the applause is not as thunderous as her performance merits. Then, with her head still bowed, Ida makes the universal beckoning gesture for ‘more’ with her big hands, coaxing the audience to a roar. Only then does she look up, apparently satisfied by the reaction she has just theatrically produced, and, smiling broadly, gives us the A-OK sign. We’re complicit in the performance of illusion, and we’re doing a good job.
Three rounds of air-kisses later, Ida is kneeling in a deep ballerina bow when she is overcome by emotion. She fans herself with her hand; she looks at us like, really, we shouldn’t have showered her with all this adoration—she chokes back a little sob. As an audience continuing to applaud Ida’s bows, we’ve been coerced into giving our bodies over to the staging of an illusion. Ida Nevasayneva has simultaneously brought us into an empathetic relationality with the bodily problems of producing the ballerina ideal and given us a genuinely moving performance as a ballerina. Through camp, she has been able to break down the stage conventions of gender and ballet—we’ve seen her fall flat, we’ve seen her bend over, and we’ve seen her body splayed out in all its material fallibility.
Through drag, Paul Ghiselin has woven a genealogy of ballerinas from Pavlova to Plisetskaya into his own aging body. Everything that is lovable about their histories is given a place in his performance, but so is everything fractured, overblown, and unspeakable. As Clement Crisp wrote in his review of the Trockadero performances at the Peacock Theater in London in 2006, the Trockadero “know the real steps and the proper style far better than some soloists who today trip anonymously through those pieces. I love them. I love Ida Nevesayneva as her swan dies of galloping moult… as I once loved Markova and Danilova and Riabouchinska and Schanne and Fracci and Slavenska.” Because drag proposes the ‘wrong bodies’ for roles, it allows Paul Ghiselin and his fellow dancers to dismantle an ideal form by inhabiting it themselves, giving it their own weight and height and race and age until its metaphysics buckle under the strain of real bodies. Drag poetics recognize that there are no ‘pure lines,’ either in terms of lineage or of dancers’ bodies.
As Ghiselin grows older, he becomes an even more poignant ballerina, because he has found a rare way to express the immanent mortality that ballet excludes from its field. He gives the ghosts of ballerinas an afterlife and a freedom they never had, and demands that we recognize their bodies working through his own—that we, in fact, applaud them as imperfect, aging, fallible bodies. It is perhaps for this reason that in Ida’s performance of The Dying Swan, the bows are actually choreographed to last longer than the solo itself.
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