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'Swan Song': Documentary breaks inside the regimented world of ballet

Director Chelsea McMullan provides intimate access to the National Ballet of Canada's "Swan Lake," directed by Karen Kain

For anyone who ever thought ballet is boring, filmmakers Chelsea McMullan and Sean O'Neill will absolutely prove you wrong with Swan Song, featuring famed Canadian dancer Karen Kain, and executive produced by Scream star Neve Campbell.

Swan Song, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), takes the audience inside the National Ballet of Canada's production of "Swan Lake," directed by Kain, who retired as artistic director for the company.

Amid concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, putting on a performance directed by one of the most famous dancers in the world, a piece that Kain herself performed, the stakes have probably never been higher for something to succeed.

For McMullan and O'Neill, they knew they wanted to follow a story with a verité-driven approach. O'Neill was actually the person who brought up Kain directing a version of "Swan Lake," but as McMullan stressed the intention was never to make a documentary on Kain specifically.

They settled on having Kain at the centre of the story, but really highlighting the ensemble working on her interpretation of "Swan Lake."

Choreographer Robert Binet and Karen Kain in Swan Song
Choreographer Robert Binet and Karen Kain in Swan Song

Most Canadians have some understand of who Kain is, or are at least familiar with the name in some capacity, but McMullan wanted to ensure that this was still a very global project.

"We wanted this to appeal to a mass audience, globally, and that was our intention from the beginning," McMullan told Yahoo Canada. "So it was sort of a balance too, figuring out how much do we need to really set her up? Because it's relevant and important to know who she is in the ballet world, especially the power that she has."

"Just generally with this project, everything we did we wanted it to be motivated from the perspective of our characters, including Karen."

Dancer Shaelynn Estrada in Swan Song
Dancer Shaelynn Estrada in Swan Song

'Trying to find people that maybe didn't fit the ideal'

The way each of the "Swan Lake" dancers, and Kain herself, open up really draws the audience into the story.

"The whole project sort of lived or died on whether or not we had great characters, whether or not we were going to be able to get the intimacy with them that we required," McMullan stressed.

They interviewed all 70 dancers in the company via Zoom, and there were a number of things that were considered in terms of who to highlight for Swan Song. That included what their role would likely be in the ballet and wanting to represent people at different points in the hierarchy of dancers.

"I think the other thing is, what is their story? What have they had to overcome?" McMullan said. "In relation to Karen, who works as a bit of an ideal of the ballet world, we were trying to find people that maybe didn't fit the ideal, or were sort of pushing against the ideal."

What McMullan is able to really effectively achieve in Swan Song, is balancing Kain's current work directing "Swan Lake," the perspectives from the dancers, and looking back at Kain's history as a dancer herself, eventually transitioning to director.

One example of finding that connective tissue between different points in time is Kain talking about her anxiety, which is also discussed by "Swan Lake" dancer Shaelynn Estrada.

"We have interviews from [Kain] talking about her mental health in the '70s, this is ... not a new thing. It's very high pressure," McMullan said. "I liked how those things were connected organically, and also kind of tied into her anxiety around 'Swan Lake.'"

Tene Ward and other members of the Corps de Ballet in Swan Song
Tene Ward and other members of the Corps de Ballet in Swan Song

While some things may seem like mundane changes outside of the ballet world, what we learn in Swan Song is that even small shifts can make massive waves in this particularly regimented environment.

It starts with Kain's entire perspective on "Swan Lake," described as a "feminist take" on the story, leaning into the terror of women being captured by a man who forces a particular behaviour.

Another moment that stands out in Swan Song is when Kain is discussing the possibility of the dancers not wearing tights, performing in bare legs. Through the story, the audience gets an understanding of how much that change means to the dancers, to celebrate all skin colours in a system that made seeing dancers with white legs the norm.

McMullan is really able to find those key moments that open up larger conversations about racism and discrimination in ballet.

"I also learned in making this that what maybe seems like not so risky outside the world of ballet, is huge," McMullan said. "I felt like what [Kain] was doing was just so connected to ballet itself, it was sort of like, looking in on itself, and in a really smart way, and then we were able to use that thematically to draw that out in terms of the company."

"In terms of these elements of the ballet that are more problematic, ... trying to sort of figure out how to move forward, it all had to be through the eyes of our characters, and happening to our characters. ... We had no idea the kind of effect that [the tights] would have and this kind of ripple effect across the company. Seeing it through [dancer Tene Ward's] eyes really gives it meaning and gives it a certain weight. It allows us as an audience to really connect and understand it, and how much it means to her and the dancers of colour."

Producer Sean O'Neil and Director Chelsea McMullan arrive at the world premiere of Swan Song at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada September 9, 2023. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Producer Sean O'Neil and Director Chelsea McMullan arrive at the world premiere of Swan Song at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada September 9, 2023. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

The 'nightmare' that turned into cinematic wonder

Something to specifically highlight, and will take your breath away in Swan Song, is how McMullan was able to execute filming the dance scenes, specifically the moments when the dancers are in rehearsal.

Kain and choreographer Robert Binet are still trying to figure out exactly what the dancers should be doing and where they need to be standing, but somehow McMullan is able to slip in and film those complicated moments. But the filmmaker did admit that it was incredibly difficult.

"It took so long to even just figure out what was happening," McMullan said. "I don't know what they're rehearsing, I can't tell any of the interpersonal dynamics, there's just so many people, so many voices, so many things happening."

"That first three weeks was a true nightmare. ... They're not used to [us being there], we had these giant cameras ... and they don't like wearing microphones. ... Eventually the cinematographer learned the choreography, so they could sort of know where to be, and not be in the way. Eventually, I started to understand what was happening, and the rehearsal space, and understood the little interpersonal dynamics, and could sort of start to anticipate what's going to happen."

Swan Song is an impressive, intimate look at a world that is largely seen as off limits to the general public, executed in a way that is absolutely gripping.

Swan Song is now in theatres in Toronto and will continue to be released in theatres across Canada in October. An expanded four-part limited series will premiere on CBC Gem and CBC TV Nov. 22