TIFF 2023: Swan Song Review

Karen Kain’s unconventional production gets an all-too-conventional documentary.

Those outside the ballet world may not recognize it, but Karen Kain’s 2022 production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was monumental. Kain, a storied and accomplished ballerina for over two decades, had never before directed a ballet despite transitioning into the role of artistic director for the National Ballet of Canada in 2005.

Not only was she finally taking the helm, but she was doing it with a bang, tackling Tchaikovsky’s iconic, sacred masterwork, the one that made her a star in 1971. Oh, and she decided to make it her last hurrah before retiring altogether, ending a 50+ year career. There are few artistic culminations more deserving of an in-depth documentary, which is why it is unfortunate that Chelsea McMullan and Sean O’Neill’s take, Swan Song, feels so conventional.

The Canadian filmmakers have a clear admiration for Kain, her company, and the many facets that made this production extraordinary. However, it rarely translates on-screen in a way that feels gripping, or even uniquely insightful. The film’s unremarkable verité cinematography does little to provide substance to its images, and its unruly focus tackles too many aspects of the production to feel succinct.

Still, there are certainly parts to the whole that are fascinating, which may suggest that the four-part miniseries version of the film (airing in November) is the superior way of viewing it. One major element of the film explores Kain embracing her diverse corps de ballet, nixing the traditional light-colored tights in most Swan Lake productions so that each dancer will appear as their own skin color.

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Shedding light on the medium’s racist foundation is certainly a noble cause, one that could spur its own film entirely, but not enough history is divulged to fully understand the weight of this decision. It registers as a cliff note despite being portrayed as controversial.

Like most documentaries, Swan Song’s best elements are the subjects themselves, an array of characters who each add new dimensions to the production. Kain is very kind-hearted but forthright, speaking about the production with a likable ease and sincerity; she explains her Swan Lake’s unique feminist subtext in a way that feels both revelatory and as though it were always there to begin with. 

Jurgita, the production’s principal dancer and proud mother to two children, has a work ethic unlike any else in the company. However, her battle with an ongoing nerve injury makes every performance potentially her last.

The film’s most exciting inclusion is Shae, a member of the corps who proudly sports a “socialist anarchist libertarian slut” necklace. The dancer’s unique background – a queer Texan who escaped bible belt homeschooling to become a punk rock ballerina – makes her such a dynamic presence in the film that you have to wonder why we aren’t watching her documentary. 

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She’s a walking internal paradox, a woman who loves ballet yet feels as though it “doesn’t love her back,” making her question her role in the production. In one of the few sequences to expertly break form, we listen to Shae describing these struggles as she performs a more interpretive dance by herself off-stage.

All of these disparate elements coalesce into a production with several hurdles, most of which seem to resolve themselves within a matter of minutes and with little interest in the intricacies of what made them difficult. The film’s final act is especially rushed, whisking through the final week of arduous on-stage rehearsals where resentment reaches its peak. However, it’s all in service of getting to the film’s true showstopper, the performance itself.

The film’s thrilling final sequence swiftly cuts back and forth between the show and its backstage chaos, combining performance capture and run-and-gun camerawork to rousing effect. It’s another excellent, more observational moment of storytelling in a process documentary that, overall, rarely musters enough intrigue in its own process.

Swan Song had its World Premiere as part of TIFF 2023. Head here for more coverage from this year’s festival. 

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