In Swan Song, Karen Kain underlines her vision for her re-staging of Swan Lake in 2022, which is to be her final work—long delayed by COVID—before retirement after over 50 years as the face of ballet in Canada. Quite simply, Kain wants it to feel moving. Taking that lesson to heart, director Chelsea McMullan’s documentary captures this grand process, from the personalities to the banalities, animating Kain’s artistic statement as intended. This is a magnificent and moving film.
Shaped by the steady progress towards opening night, there is a relentless momentum to Swan Song as we watch the levels of craft that go into such a classic production and the decision-making that happens to push it somewhere new. In short, there is much pain and pleasure involved with the art of ballet. (One dancer notes that during Act IV alone, the company runs five kilometres.) There is also time for a few different figures, aside from Kain, to emerge—from the indomitable lead Jurgita Dronina to aspiring corps dancer Shaelynn Estrada. Much like the choreography on-screen, McMullan’s camera remains nimble, using interviews and verité-style tactics to illuminate all of the efforts involved.
While there’s no way to show it all (though it’ll soon be a longer TV series), Swan Song is also a film about performance. Yes, the film listens to many voices talk about their craft, and we see swirling behind-the-scenes action, but then finally, the curtain rises—even as we know it represents the closing of Kain’s celebrated career. In all: what a picture, and what a life.