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Swansong (1987)

Factual Information
Choreographed by: Christopher Bruce
Music: Philip Chambon
Costume and Set Design: Christopher Bruce
Lighting: David Mohr
The Prisoner/Victim: Koen Onzia
The Guards/Interrogators: Kevin Richmond (1
Matz Skoog (2
Performance History
Bruce originally created Swansong for London Festival Ballet (now known as English
National Ballet). Its world premiere took place at the Teatro Arriaga, Bilboa, Spain, on
25 November 1987. Swansong has gone on to be performed by a number of ballet
companies, including Housten Ballet (USA), Deutsche Oper (Berlin, Germany) and
Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve (Switzerland). Rambert performed Swansong for
the first time on 12 April 1995 at Theatre Royal, Norwich and it has remained in their
performance repertoire to this day.
Analysis and Interpretation
Dance style
Bruce uses a range of dance styles and techniques in his choreography, but rather
than aiming to reproduce these styles in an authentic way, he aims to reproduce their
Ballet and Contemporary
Swansong incorporates a number of dance styles, including contemporary, ballet,
jazz, tap and ballroom.
Bruce blends contemporary movement and actions (eg spiralling torso, low centre of
gravity, use of off-balance and flexed feet) with balletic moves (such as jetes,
arabesques, turnout and attitudes). Images of flight/birds are often abstracted and
used in a more symbolic manner, as opposed to a more literal interpretation, in, for
example, Matthew Bournes Swan Lake. There is a strong use of the back, which is
very contemporary in style.
Jazz, Tap and Vaudeville and Tango Dance
Various examples of social dance have been blended and combined into dance
sequences in Swansong.
Jazz moves are seen in isolation of body parts, reflecting the multiple rhythms in the
music, and also slides to the floor. Tap is used in the question and answer sections,
with references made to icons such as Fred Astaire (when the interrogators dance
using canes).
Bruce uses the light-hearted tradition of vaudeville to provide an entertaining quality
to the dance, which also offers a shocking impact when the scenario becomes violent
and confrontational.
Commedia delArte
Traditionally, this Italian theatrical form was used to explore serious political issues of
the day. Bruce draws on it in order to encourage the audience to find humour in what
is essentially a tragic situation.
Acrobatic moves such as cartwheels and handstands are also used, together with a
variety of lifts in the trio sections.
Number, gender and role of dancers
Swansong is a work for three dancers, consisting of two interrogators (or guards) and
one victim (or prisoner). The original cast (who appear on the video version) was all-
male but it has been performed by all-female casts, and with a mixed gender cast, eg
two females (one an interrogator and one the prisoner), with a man as the other
interrogator. Bruce will not, however, permit the two guards to be of one gender and
the prisoner another, as this suggests a gender issue rather than one of political
oppression. Lifts requiring great strength have often been adapted to enable women
to perform in the roles of interrogators. A female guard interrogating a female
prisoner also adds a different angle to the subject matter, as it removes the physical
brutality from the equation, whilst suggesting a different form of torture to the
audience, for example, one of psychological interrogation.
Dance idea/concept
Swansong is disturbing in that it shows the interrogation and torture of a prisoner by
two guards, incorporating brainwashing, humiliation and physical violence.
Bruce frequently uses a number of sources for his choreography. However, reading
about Amnesty International and wanting to say something about the prisoner of
conscience particularly inspired Bruce. The other impetus was Bruces desire to
personally say goodbye to dancing as a performer.
Other sources included the experiences of the Chilean poet Victor Jara under the
junta of the 1970s, and the novel by Oriana Fallici, entitled A Man, which describes
the torture of a man who spends 3 years in a cell with almost invisible windows.
The title, Swansong, is also appropriate, as the noun has two definitions/meanings:
A persons last work or act before death or retirement etc.
A dying swan sings only at the point of death.
Action, dynamic, spatial and relationship content (Paras 9.2-9.3)
Whilst all dance movement is set and notated, Bruce encourages dancers to
individually explore and express their roles, allowing for a more personal
interpretation. However, Bruce is clear in that the choreography is always more
important than the dramatic content. Because of this, dynamics and pathways can
vary, depending on the dancers own interpretation. A good example of this is seen in
the first solo, which was not choreographed to the music, and has no obvious pulse,
allowing for a certain amount of freedom of interpretation.
The victims solos contain technically demanding and difficult balances, which the
Dancer struggles to maintain. This highlights the mental struggle of the victim. Simple
moves, such as walking towards the light downstage left, or towards the imaginary
door stage right, can be expressed with determination, despair or anger, depending
on the individual dancer. Birdlike gestures/imagery are all suggestive of the victims
wish to escape, either physically or symbolically, through death.
The chair is used in a range of ways in order to express the state of mind of the
victim, or as a physical prop. Extended lines, including arabesques and leaps across
the stage, combined with slow, sustained, and lyrical movements all go towards
expressing the emotional state of the victim during the solos.
In contrast, the trio sections have a much more light-hearted dynamic quality, whilst
teasing and bullying the victim.
Movements of pushing, pulling, balancing and lifting dominate, demonstrating weight
transference and flow of energy. Tap dance and vaudeville routines, Jazz style
movements of the hips and legs and ballroom dance steps are all used to interrogate
the victim. Relationships are either solos for the victim, two versus one as the guards
interrogate the victim, or all three dance in unison when they force the victim to
cooperate with their questioning.
Structure and choreographic devices (Para 9.6)
Swansong is divided into seven sections, each of which is interlinked with tapped-out
questions and the entrances and exits of the interrogators. The victim starts on stage
and doesnt leave until the very end of the dance. To add to the imagery of a cell, the
guards only ever enter or leave via stage right, as if through the cells door.
The dance begins with an interrogation of the victim, with the questions and answers
being demonstrated through the medium of tap dancing in the silence proceeding the
music. Questioning has a game-like quality, lulling the victim/audience into a false
sense of security.
Section 1 (Questions and Answers)
Movements are now more forceful, consisting of pushing, pulling, balancing and
lifting. Repetition is used to suggest interrogation, and repeating of questions.
Tapped out questions are performed faster, to suggest a more aggressive style of
questioning. Motif development is seen, in the way the guards perform slight
variations on each others steps, as if re-phrasing their line of questioning.
Relationship changes from trios, to duets to solos, heighten the sensation of a cat
and mouse scenario being acted out. Use of unison amongst the interrogators
suggests power, whilst the victims solo phrases imply a defiance when answering
their questions. Birdlike images and wing arm gestures are introduced.
Section 2 (Tea for Two)
The title Tea for Two refers to the music, to which it was originally rehearsed.
Another interrogation session sees the victim responding initially with defiance, which
the interrogators soon knock out of him by humiliating him. This is seen in the way
they force him to don a red clowns nose, whilst they themselves don baseball caps,
and perform a camp, soft-shoe shuffle tango. They proceed to force the victim to join
in, with all three soon dancing in unison, with the prisoner looking increasingly
uncomfortable and unsure of the interrogators. The chair is constantly shifted out of
his reach, which increases his sense of insecurity, the chair being the only object
which he could use as a shield/weapon, should the need arise. The violence steadily
increases, culminating in repeated tapped out questions which increase in pace and
tension, until the victim snaps and responds by jumping to his feet and frantically
tapping out his answer. The red nose is finally removed and the interrogators leave.
However, one returns to light a cigarette and stare at the victim. This is the only time
we see just one guard on stage.
Section 3 (First solo)
This solo is like a cry of frustration and anger from the victim, with repeated birdlike
gestures, implying his increasing urgency and wish to escape. Gestures of reaching
towards the shaft of light are repeated, which might suggest his mulling over the
desperateness of his situation. Actions are either twisted, symbolising his anguished,
tortured spirit, or open and birdlike symbolising his wish to fly away and escape.
Section 4 (Slow trio)
Opening sequence of a slow trio is performed twice, as if they are quietly niggling
and harassing him, trying to wear him down. The chair is repeatedly pulled away
from him, or is used as a weapon against him. He is continuously pushed and pulled
around, with a suggestion that his head is held under water. The interrogators hold
him upside down, while he kicks his legs, helplessly. Strong use of slow lifts
Section 5 (Second solo)
This solo repeats motifs seen in the first solo, although the dynamics are heavier as if
he is mentally and physically exhausted. The chair is used to express a heavy
burden, prison bars, fetters, as a stool to be nearer to the light/window, and an
emotional and physical support.
Section 6 (Cane dance)
Interrogators perform an up-tempo soft-shoe shuffle with canes, which gradually
assume the identity of weapons. They proceed to threaten and beat the victim with
them, before casting them aside. All three dancers perform repetition of material from
Section 1, although the victims weight is heavier and his head lolls around, until
finally he collapses. He is placed back on the chair, whilst the interrogators look on
with annoyance and frustration.
Section 7 (Third solo)
Interrogators do not move from previous positions, as if they are looking at the limp
body of the victim, whose spirit is finally free from his body. His ensuing solo is lyrical,
repeating phrases and imagery from previous solos, but with a greater emphasis on
the birdlike gestures as opposed to the tortured and twisted shapes performed
before. He gradually dances nearer and nearer to the shaft of light, until finally he
smiles back at the guards, and with a gesture of flight he leaves via stage left,
symbolising the freedom of his soul, at last.
Design, set, costume and lighting (Para 9.7)
The design is minimal, leaving the audience to choose a possible location, era or
other additional details.
Props play an important part in Swansong. Baseball caps worn by the guards,
suggest a change of tack and imply ganging up on the victim. The red nose is
clearly a tool of humiliation, whilst the interrogators cigarette is used to tease the
victim, or maybe even suggest they are loosing patience with his resilience. Canes
are clearly seen and used as a weapon.
The chair is used as a means of expressing the inner emotional state of the victim,
and is used against him by the guards, as it is his only security in the barren cell. It is
also used to symbolise a range of meanings in order to express the feelings of the
victim, eg as bars of the prison cell, which he forlornly peers through.
The costumes of the guards imply a uniform, with khaki trousers and shirts, and the
fact that they are dressed alike. The victim, in contrast, wears very pedestrian, or
urban blue jeans and a faded red T-shirt. The colour red is often used to symbolise
love, compassion and anger, all of which are evidenced in Swansong.
The stage is dimly lit, suggesting a small prison cell. A shaft of light from upstage left
is seen during the victims solos, symbolic in that it suggests an escape route, both
physically and metaphorically. During the guards interrogation scenes, lighting is
above the chair, as if a spotlight is used to intensify the questioning.
Accompaniment (Para 9.7)
Philip Chambon composed the music for Swansong, after Bruce had explained the
subject matter to him. There are sections where the choreography relates strongly to
the rhythm and pulse of the music, whereas at other times the dancers move across
the music, allowing for a freer interpretation.
Sounds were all originally acoustic, then digitally sampled and manipulated.
Chambon crashing pots and pans together in his kitchen created the metallic sounds.
This was to give the music a sense of harsh reality in light of the prisoners
predicament and also provide intensity to the score. The use of wind sounds
represents the spirit and personal struggle of the victim, including the sound like the
cry of a bird.
The ch-p-cha voices were intended to provide a comic relief, and to sound like
someone close by was whispering taunts at you.
The tapping in silence is an important accompaniment in that it builds tension, as well
as providing a rhythmic sound.
Historical and social context of dances
Bruces choreography often has a biographical element, either from his own
personal experiences or biographies and works of other people.
Bruces works often have a political message or underlying theme, eg Ghost
Dances (1981), Land (1985) and Swansong (1987).
Music, literature and the arts are often a stimulus for Bruce, but his
choreography goes on to abstract away from the stimulus rather than
reflecting it directly in his work.
Bruce prefers the audience to make their own mind up with regards to the
subject matter of his dances, which is why his programme notes do not give
much detail.
His works often have a clear theme, even if they are not narrative dance
Set design and lighting are important to Bruce but not at the expense of
distracting the attention away from the movement vocabulary.
Bruce uses a range of accompaniment, incorporating many genres and eras.
The dance often responds directly to the music. Bruce is renowned for
incorporating a range of dance styles in his choreography.