BFI LFF 2023: Swan Song – Film Review

Swan Song is a documentary feature that follows the National Ballet of Canada’s artistic director and former dancer Karen Kain as she directs a production of Swan Lake for the company as her final project before retiring. 

The documentary starts as the Covid-19 pandemic begins, forcing a time jump and Canadian Ballet Royalty Karen Kain to stay on in her position at the National Ballet to bring Swan Lake to life when the world opens up again. Personally, I would’ve liked to have seen more of the damage that the lockdown caused on the first planned production of one of the most popular ballets of all time, but I understand that after living through the pandemic, most of the world doesn’t want to keep seeing stories about it. Even though the filmed production of the ballet featured masks during rehearsals, the focus was on the people and their personal stories as they came together to dance.

One of the most important story strands was something that the producers didn’t realise would be part of the film when beginning. Ballerinas have always worn white or pale pink tights when performing certain roles, especially as swans in the corps de ballet in Swan Lake. In this production, Karen and some of the dancers wanted to have the body of dancers represent women who have been captured and forced to be birds, rather than have them play birds. This allowed them to show more individuality in their performances, but bought up the question of skin colour and hiding that behind pale tights. I thought the way this discussion was showcased in the film was fair and progressive. It was interesting to hear from dancers who didn’t agree for certain reasons, as well as from those who had wanted to fight for this for a long time, to truly be themselves on stage.

Directed by Chelsea McMullan, their influences for the film have included Robert Altman’s The Company as well as the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Hearing them speak at a Q&A, they said that they watched everything they could about ballet in preparation and understanding of look and expectations. It was interesting to hear that they found cinematic inspiration from war scenes and unexpected places to bring the journey of the National Ballet to the big screen.

Gorgeous cinematography leads us through each rehearsal and performance. DoPs Tess Girard and Shady Hanna learnt each routine to be able to follow the dancers as they bought the show to life. This dedication to their craft, with heavy kit on their backs, allowed the story of both the National Ballet and Swan Lake to be told in such intimate ways, rivalling how I expected to see the dances from afar. The camera team became as much part of the performance as the ballerinas did, emphasising the journey that both the company and the audience were going on.

Swan Song is Karen Kain’s retirement farewell, so to see the archive of her performing in the roles of Odette and Odile emphasises the importance of her taking on this challenge and how her career, as well as ballet in general, has changed and followed traditions over the years. There are moments when her expectations and the lives of the young dancers clash heavily, but the filmmakers don’t shy away from showing us how times have changed and ballerinas are more than just the graceful characters they portray on stage.

From the outset, this documentary may not be a journey that everyone wants to follow if ballet isn’t something that interests you, but stay for the journey of Karen Kain’s final offering, the growth of dancing tradition, the discovery of new talent, and the beautiful cinematography that intricately details each movement and bead of sweat that goes into creating a show.

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