Arts·Cutaways

To bring our ballet film Swan Song to life, we had to become part of the dance

Chelsea McMullan's new film follows Karen Kain's final production at the National Ballet of Canada. It world premieres at TIFF 2023 before coming to the CBC as a mini-series in November.

Chelsea McMullan's new film follow Karen Kain's final production at the National Ballet of Canada

Still frame from the film Swan Song.
Chelsea McMullan's Swan Song. (TIFF)

Cutaways is a personal essay series where Canadian filmmakers tell the story of how their film was made. This TIFF 2023 edition by director Chelsea McMullan and executive producer Sean O'Neill focuses on their film Swan Song, also coming to the CBC as a mini-series in November.

In February of 2020, we sat together in a tiny studio in Vancouver with the goal to find a project we could make together that built on the collaborative process we'd honed over two years traveling around the world making short documentaries about artists for the CBC series In the Making. We wanted to make something that retained an artful approach at its centre, but we also wanted to reach for the spectacular — to use the tools we'd honed and build a capacity to draw audiences into a story they could lose themselves within.

We started with the world of arts, given both of us had dedicated our careers to making work in collaboration with and about artists, and quickly we discovered Karen Kain's upcoming production of Swan Lake at the National Ballet of Canada. Immediately, we knew we'd found our project. There was Swan Lake, the most iconic ballet there is. There was Karen Kain, a legend who was not only retiring with this production, but stepping into the director's chair for the first time. And, most critically, there were the dancers, locked into a rigid hierarchy, craving to stand out and be seen, and risking their bodies — and so much more, it turned out — to reach the pinnacle of their art form.

The problem was, the production was scheduled for that June. We could never raise the funds and assemble a production in time, and so, we let the idea go.

Still frame from the film Swan Song.
Chelsea McMullan's Swan Song. (TIFF)

Then, March came, and along with it a global pandemic, and the world shifted. A few months later, with Swan Lake indefinitely postponed, we reached out to the National Ballet of Canada and the process of creating Swan Song began. Over two years of delays, we developed the project, first with the CBC as a four-part series, and later as both a series and a feature. The pandemic cast a shadow of uncertainty over the both the ballet and our project, but at the same time, as the production was delayed, and delayed again, we were able to slowly and deliberately enter the world of the company, building trust and, whenever lockdown rules allowed, shooting with our subjects and finding our way into their lives.

We met with every dancer in the company, seeking a diversity of perspectives on this rarefied world. We wanted the project to tell the story of Swan Lake through the eyes of a group of subjects whose perspectives varied, both in terms of their respective places in the company's hierarchy, and also in terms of their identity positions and personal histories. Karen wouldn't be the lead character — we weren't interested in a biographical documentary — but instead the centrepoint around whom the action revolved, receiving the same treatment and screentime as each of the other primary subject, a member of an ensemble of people working toward something impossible, amid a time of utter instability.  

Finally, two years after we first conceived of the idea, rehearsals began. We were determined to shoot the project with a rigorous commitment to a cinema verité aesthetic and ethic. We wanted viewers to feel utter immersion and intimacy, and we wanted the action to unfold before their eyes, rather than rely on interviews and beauty shots. We had no idea the level of complexity and sheer physical stamina this approach would create until the shoot began — never mind navigating an institution whose contracts with five unions meant a level of production bureaucracy we'd never encountered. Many experienced people told us we were crazy to even try navigating that environment; we ignored them with naive hutzpah.

Still frame from the film Swan Song.
Chelsea McMullan's Swan Song. (TIFF)

A typical day would go something like this: the crew would arrive at the Walter Carsen Centre around 9am to set up, and by 9:25 we'd race out in a whirlwind to mic the subjects. There was a rigidly enforced five-minute time period to mic four dancers and two coaches, a sliver of time between morning class and the day's first rehearsals. We used credit card-sized player mics developed for professional athletes to be as unobtrusive as possible, hiding them in leotards and tights.

In the first weeks, the sheer physical and logistical challenges made the shoot as we conceived it seem all but impossible, but our committed sound team and our amazing associate producer Lucy Cameron built a choreography of efficiency with the dancers. This process, repeated six times a day as the dancers moved between the company's six studios, was a telling microcosm of the challenge of the shoot writ large — a film crew striving to insert itself into a ballet company's clockwork routines and ironclad rigour where any deviation is unthinkable and risked the access we were working so hard to achieve. 

Throughout the day Chelsea (and sometimes Sean, and sometimes both of us in different places) would stand outside the door to rehearsals, watching both of our cameras on a monitor and flipping through six different mic channels, trying to quickly process what was the most important thing to film in the moment while conversations and action was happening simultaneously and relay it to our two cinematographers via walkie headsets in time for them to catch it. The first two weeks of shooting were an unmitigated disaster. The cameras kept getting in the way of the dancers. They hated wearing the lavs and were generally annoyed with our presence. Everything was an intrusion they had no context for, and because of it, the footage felt dry and removed.

Still frame from the film Swan Song.
Chelsea McMullan's Swan Song. (TIFF)

But around the two-week mark, we found our footing and something clicked. We knew we were getting somewhere when the dancers started meeting us in the morning ready with their arms up and they could swiftly place their own mics with minimal assistance. The DPs learned the choreography along with the dancers, and they learned to move in sync and glide around the studios with ease, in spite of the 35 lb. Alexas mounted their backs. Eventually, we were no longer an interruption or a distraction — we'd become part of the routine.

We all became so invested in our subjects that a shorthand and candour developed as we better understood who they were and what all this looked like from their respective perspectives. Each day, the crew debriefed about story, what had happened to whom and what that might mean for tomorrow. They sent notes to the story editors, who would review each day's footage using a system inspired by Fredrick Wiseman's process of scoring verité, combined with a coding system one of our story editor's learned in reality television, marking footage with hashtags like #injury or #conflict or #lols.

After each day, we'd crawl home exhausted before it all started again. After three months of this, both of our DPs had lost over 20 pounds each from the sheer physical demands of the shoot.

Swan Song series trailer

7 months ago
Duration 2:08
Swan Song is an immersive new CBC documentary series that brings viewers inside The National Ballet of Canada as the company mounts a legacy-defining new production of Swan Lake, directed by ballet icon Karen Kain as she bids farewell to the company she’s become synonymous with.

In the end, we shot nearly 500 hours of verité footage, including eight cameras on opening night following our core subjects from the moment they woke up until they stepped out of the theatre, exhausted but exhilarated that the production came together at the very last moment for a triumphant performance, just when it seemed, to both them and us, that a disastrous opening was looming. We conceived of the performance like a battle scene — we wanted viewers to feel what it's like to perform a ballet on that scale, rather than try to watch a truncated live capture focused only on beauty and aesthetics.

We would cut back and forth between spectacular shots on stage of the ballet unfolding and raw, close-up moments with our core subjects backstage as they pushed to make it through, adrenaline running through their bodies, driving them to reach even further than they had through the gruelling process. We also wanted the intimacy and depth we'd built throughout the action to be woven into viewers' experience of the show itself; when Jurgita, the prima ballerina who performs as the Swan Queen and Black Swan steps on stage, we wanted viewers to know exactly what drives her and where her emotional life is centered. It isn't about swans and fouetées; it's about human beings.  

We found an allegory for the world of ballet — and, as an infinity mirror opened between our process as filmmakers and our subjects' process as dance artists, for the act of artmaking more broadly — in Karen's vision for the production. The swans would not be birds in perfect formations — they would be women, trapped by a monstrous predator, helping each other survive, and seeking transcendence. For an artist, the source of transcendence is also the potential for destruction — if you're really doing it, you're dancing on the edge; you're giving something pure and essential to yourself; you're taking real risks and making real sacrifices. This was true of our subject, our shooters, our editors, and us. This project took everything, for years. 

Still frame from the film Swan Song.
Chelsea McMullan's Swan Song. (TIFF)

In the end, we achieved a kind of synthesis that allowed for a new level of intimacy between two creative entities, dance and film. The rigour, the repetition, day after day, step after step, port de bras after port de bras, allowed the camera to melt away, leaving a mutual sense of understanding in connection. We'd forged a singular bond of shared purpose that extended beyond the studio and into the lives of our subjects. Trust was built, which in turn gave them the confidence to open up about their personal lives and struggles, in and outside the world of ballet. 

We learned so much as we watched our subjects reach beyond their capacities and as we, in turn, reached beyond ours (literally, as we threw the entire edit out after four months of work and started again from scratch). We were challenged and changed as people, and artists. We're proud of this project — and we're so tired — but, like our subjects, we hope our work stirs something in the body of our viewers, bringing something mysterious into a form people can hold for a moment, before it disappears again, into the mist.

Swan Song screens at TIFF 2023 on Friday, September 15 at 1pm.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chelsea McMullan grew up in Langley, BC. Their films include the feature documentaries My Prairie Home (13), Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John (15), Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas (22), and Ever Deadly (22), which played the Festival. Swan Song (23) is their latest film.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

Say hello to our newsletter: hand-picked links plus the best of CBC Arts, delivered weekly.

...

The next issue of Hi, art will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window

now