Swan Song is a documentary film by Chelsea McMullan and collaborator Sean O’Neill that follows Karen Kain and company as she directs her first ballet — and simultaneously retires from — the National Ballet. It’s a story that takes audiences behind the magic that’s created on-stage to the sweat and (often) heartache of its genesis.
While the story is unique, the terrain of artistic creation was already familiar to McMullan as a filmmaker.
“I’d done a lot of artist documentaries,” says McMullan. “I love working with artists.”
They’re responsible for a string of well-received documentaries, include Ever Deadly, which premiered at TIFF 2022, created in collaboration with Inuk artist Tanya Tagaq, My Prairie home (about transgender artist Rae Spoon), and Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas.
The Project Comes Together
Chelsea had been co-showrunner on the CBC show In The Making, which delved into the artistic process, together with Sean O’Neill, who also starred as host.
“We knew we wanted to work together on something,” they continue. “We were trying to look for the right subject matter.”
In terms of a story, the collaborators were looking for a specific kind of project. “We wanted to make something that had sort of a narrative arc.”
Sean O’Neill, who is, together with Chelsea, a co-creator, writer and producer (McMullan is also executive producer), heard about Karen Kain’s retirement, and her plans to finish with her directorial debut.
It was the story they’d been waiting for. Their plans included filming in a cinéma vérité mode, i.e. one where improvisation plays a role, and the camera is used to reveal what happens behind the scenes. (It’s also called observational cinema.) Chelsea notes that it involves an expensive process, and one that involved full access to the subjects of the film.
“We didn’t want to make a Karen Kain documentary.” The story of putting the ballet together held much more possibility. Chelsea was drawn by the inherent drama in telling the story of Kain’s retirement from a half century with the National Ballet of Canada.
The pandemic, as it turns out, played a key role in actually ensuring that the project saw the light of day.
The process began back in early 2019, with initial plans for filming in Jun of that year. There wasn’t enough time, however, to raise the funding. When the pandemic struck, the delay works in their favour. “We picked up the conversation six months later,” Chelsea recalls. The pandemic gave them unique opportunities. “It really gave us time to connect with the dancers […] outside of the studio.”
In Swan Song, members of the corps de ballet — whose role it is to move and act in unison on stage — come through as compelling individual characters in their own right. Their anxieties and heartbreaks, along with the sweat and hard work, are under the spotlight, and their vulnerability as artists is one of the major takeaways of the doc. As several members of the company acknowledge, in Swan Lake in particular, the corps de ballet work non-stop. Their exertion is exhausting to watch.
That focus came about as the filming began. “It was quite organic, in the sense that, some of the subjects we were following were in the corps de ballet.”
Karen Kain also had an important role in mind for the corps in the ballet, however. In her interpretation, they are all victims of the evil sorcerer Baron Von Rothbart who support each other, and attempt to end their enchanted captivity.
“It’s the art imitating lifeness of it all.”
Chelsea did extensive research on ballet before filming began, but the dancers of the corps de ballet drew their notice for another reason. “I think something that really stood out for me, one of the shots I loved, was when they’re in the change room together getting ready.”
As the camera pans down the room, Chelsea was struck by their youth. “The body of the company is a 19-year-old that essentially runs a marathon.” It’s a demanding environment at any age. “When you’re that young anyway, you’re struggling with mental health,” they note.
Shaelynn Estrada, one of the corps members, emerges as one of the stars of the film. “She’s an amazing person, and an amazing subject,” Chelsea says. They note Shaelynn’s raw vulnerability in a culture where compliance is more the norm. Ballet is about discipline. “They’re taught from a young age to control everything.”
Audiences will root for the young dancer as she agonizes about her future. “Shea really struggles with it because she’s so honest and truthful. We knew she would make a great subject.”
Ballerina Jurgita Dronina, who performs the starring role for opening night, is also featured in the film. She is revealed as a tough survivor, one who fights through lingering physical issues, and who isn’t afraid to take issue with director Kain when she feels it necessary. The younger dancers in the corps idolize Jurgita as a “beast” who is legendary for performing one role, hopping on a plane, landing and then performing another role without skipping a beat.
Naturally, Karen Kain, her artistic process, and her retirement, are a major focus of the documentary. “She’s essentially been in that company for 50 years,” Chelsea notes. “She’s like a genius artist. Sometimes I feel like Karen doesn’t totally get her flowers.” They call Kain’s interpretation of Swan Lake “brilliant”, and comment that her choreography is most often overshadowed by her work as a dancer.
In the film, it’s clear that Kain evolved from her own days in the corps into an assured dancer, and then confident leader of the company. Her public persona remains intact. However, as the rehearsals unfold, uncertainty sets in, and issues seem to multiply as opening night looms. Up to and including the dress rehearsal, it’s unclear how (or if) the ballet with take flight in performance.
“She was very vulnerable in the process. That’s what being an artist is.”
Documentary Film & TV Series
The film opens theatrically as a documentary on September 29, 2023. There is also a TV version in the form of a 4-part series that will air on CBC beginning November 29. The TV series is an expanded version of the story.
“I really feel like it was the hardest thing in my life to do,” Chelsea says of the process. TV and film are different animals. “It’s a very different language. We essentially recut the entire film.”
The film is restricted to following the opening night cast, and ends with the premiere performance. The TV series takes the time to delve into the other casts who performed, in particular Siphesihle November, who becomes another major character. “It was hard to cut him out of the film,” they say. “In the series, there’s a lot more characters. You could watch both and get different reactions from it.”
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