Feathers and Glass: How Swan’s heroines find themselves through dance

By: Zahra Ymer February 24, 20210 Comments
(Masumi and her partner Leonhart dancing Jerome Robbin’s Afternoon of a Faun)

Spoilers for Swan.

Swan by Ariyoshi Kyoko thrives on the intense emotionality expressed through ballet. Ariyoshi brings the impassioned emotions conveyed through dance to life in sweat-soaked kaleidoscopic dreamscapes, creating the perfect setting to explore identity, friendship and sexuality on the stage. 

Swan, which ran in Margaret from 1976 until 1981, follows Hijiri Masumi, an average high school girl from rural Hokkaido, who through the course of the series becomes famous as a modern ballet dancer. One of her key relationships is her friendship and rivalry with Lillianna Maksimova, a Russian classical ballet prodigy. This relationship uplifts them both, as the series uses Lillianna as an avenue to explore just how harmful and restrictive gender roles and expectations can be. Through their friendship and modern ballet, Lillianna is able to find freedom of expression that she felt she was barred from in the art’s classical form. 

Lillianna is set up to be Masumi’s greatest rival, a young Russian woman who is put on a pedestal of perfection for being a classical ballet prodigy — a “living angel” that critics and fans both adore. Ariyoshi shatters this dehumanising stereotype. Through modern ballet, Lillianna is finally able to become more human, rather than someone forced into an almost impossible, romanticised ideal.

(Masumi and her dance partner Leon after dancing Jerome Robbin's Afternoon of a Faun)

In Swan, Masumi initially struggles to learn Modern ballet. (*Note: Ariyoshi uses the term Modern ballet to refer to the modernization of ballet in the 20th century. The three modern choreographers Ariyoshi uses in Swan–George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Marius Bejart–are technically referred to as Neo-Classical; however, I will simply use Ariyoshi’s terminology as a catch-all.) After some eye-opening experiences in an exchange trip to New York City, she finally grasps the more abstract style and excels at it, earning much praise from critics. Modern ballet allows Masumi to explore her sensuality and emotions in a new space. 

Most classical ballets were created by men from the 19th century, whose notion of what a woman should be was either a pure, virginal girl/ethereal spirit or an evil, more sexualised woman who is a rival to the heroine for the affections of a man, with little middle ground. Putting such value judgements on these traits is purely arbitrary and pointless. The airy heroines of the classical canon are deeply moving, but when it comes to a different range of emotionality outside more traditional feminine traits, modern ballet shines. 

(Lucian Stanley, Masumi’s boyfriend, dancing Bolero by Maurice Berjart)

Lillianna’s fans and critics describe her as doll-like and a “living angel,” a sylph that seems to come from another realm. Because of her immense talent as a dancer, she’s perceived as above the rest. Due to a serious health condition, Lillianna receives extra support from her father, and mentor Sergei Alexei. When Lillianna first meets Masumi at an international competition, she finally starts to feel a sense of rivalry, jealousy and desire to succeed on stage as a first-class ballerina by her own merits. Masumi awakened in Lillianna a sense of her own individual desires. 

Lillianna explaining to Masumi how she wants to break free of the perception of herself as an airy sylph
Translation: I don’t want to end my career as just a ‘sylph!’. To be imagined by others as someone without humanity.. I don’t want that!’ I want to live, to dance, to touch people’s hearts. To be needed, to not be forgotten! This is the first time I’ve ever felt to truly test myself in this world. Do you know why I’ve changed so much in the last two years? Because I met you, Masumi!’

Due to Masumi’s influence, Lillianna begins wanting to perform roles outside her usual sylph typecasting and to create performances with a strong sense of emotional depth to connect with her audience, including portraying more ugly human emotions. She becomes sick of being always dehumanised by fans and critics alike, constantly described and viewed as the “frail girl” or an “angel.”

There’s nothing wrong with conforming to traits seen in ballet’s feminine princess/fairy archetype – that of kindness, gentleness, endurance, docility, etc. – nor should they ever be seen as inferior to ‘masculine’ traits either. But audiences take it so far that it is all she can be, all she should be, rather than just one aspect of who she is as an artist.  

When Lillianna’s constantly forced into a box of just that one single perception of a romantic sylph, it leads to a flattening of her identity. Gender roles are, even today, forced onto others either because of their assigned sex or appearance, and this can lead to a person being boxed into a perception of what they should be rather than what they want to be, inside or outside the gender binary.

Lillianna performing the lead of Odette for Swan Lake with her mentor Alexei Sergei. Incredibly beautiful, but described as emotionally static in the emotionally heavier Acts.
Lillianna performing the Sylph from Les Sylphides
Translation: She…she flew!

Lillianna creates a beautiful atmosphere and spectacle on stage, but the characters she dances all end up somewhat hollow. That is, until she meets Masumi. At the end of the series, Lillianna and Masumi take turns in the same night to star in the Bolshoi ballet’s The Ugly Duckling,  a fictitious ballet created by Lillianna’s father that uses Anderson’s fairy tale of The Ugly Duckling as its jumping off point. It is structured around two styles, modern and classical. Lillianna dances Act 1, and up to Act 2 Scene 3, focusing on her contemporary ballet interpretation; while Masumi dances the climactic classical climax of Act 3. In the contemporary ballet scenes of The Ugly Duckling, the heroine dives deep into her own depression, anger and desire. 

This is what ultimately motivates Lillianna to spurn her father’s help when she faints on the stage wings during The Ugly Duckling. Her father and her mentor Sergei rush to assist, but she’s keen to establish herself as an independent dancer, stating that she’s “not a thing to be broken. I don’t want to be a dancer who is always having to rely on others. I want to dance as a full fledged dancer…on my own. I want to compete with Masumi as equals on the stage!” Having just turned 18 years old, she is starting to develop a more strong sense of her own selfhood. This helps to make Lillianna a more round character in terms of depth, and also denies her usual ascribed image as a dehumanised ‘sylph’ ballet prodigy. It also cements Masumi’s positive influence on her, making their rivalry and friendship the core of her growth rather than the men in her life. 

Ariyoshi’s artwork also reflects the change in Lillianna’s perception of her identity. Swan’s art style utilizes visual elements from the ‘maidenesque’ subgenre (plus the ballet, sports, and school-life genres) that was popular in the 1970’s-1980’s. Maidenesque specifically focuses on average young adult life, but uses visual signifiers from fairytales and other traditionally chic, cute things. Dolls, fairies, nymphs, feathers, flowers, jewels, gauzy dresses, and sunlit pastoral scenes are strewn across the series’ cinematic page layouts, creating a charming atmosphere which revels in and respects more ‘ordinary’ girls culture.

Masumi and Lillianna performing The Ugly Duckling
Translation: I, to your world. And you, Lillianna, to mine.

The series art style also uses mind blowing, more abstract visual techniques, (most likely influenced by the Year 24 Group), to get across a grand sense of scale. For example, at one point, Ariyoshi transforms a theatre’s stage into a wide shot of the characters dancing with planets and stars, conveying loneliness with imagery similar to one of Moto Hagio’s gorgeous space operas. Or using the shattering of glass (as seen above), the distortion of panels, and semi realistic shading etc.   

In the image of Lillianna dancing in Les Sylphides, the lines of her body are sculpted in the classical fashion. This is more constricted and technical, which represents the more rigid world that Lillianna inhabits. (Note: line here refers to the outline of a dancer’s body as they complete a pose or step.) Her arms and legs are gently extended, her back curved to create a clean, sculpted image, with the plant framing her long semi-transparent muslin skirt. This romanticised image further moves Lillianna from being seen as a multifaceted woman to more of a framed classical painting. Likewise, with Swan Lake, Lillianna leans into the prince’s embrace, with her arms extended with unbroken straight lines. Trees and swans in the background with sparkles help maintain that fairytale atmosphere. All these visual elements embody a softer, more gentle persona that Lillianna is trying to distance herself from. By doing this, Ariyoshi provides a point of visual contrast in the narrative. 

Below, in contrast, in The Ugly Duckling her body language and facial expressions are completely different. As Lillianna transitions from the classical act to the modern, her arms and fingers start to almost cage in her body erratically. Gone are the square, straight, inviting lines from the classical world. Replaced by grasping hands, tensed, hunched shoulders and a more expressive face, filled with both elation and frustration. This tension shows a level of conflicting emotions that focuses on an inner life that focuses purely on the self; that would usually not be explored in classical. 

Lillianna dancing the modern scene from Act 2 of The Ugly Duckling
Translation: I’ll be reborn as just a single lone dancer. For the first time, I can create my own world.

Her long dress is ripped away, and Lillianna’s outstretched arms accompany an assured expression. Below, shattering glass replaces any kind of floral motifs that scatter over a page, and a pure black background shows a literal, personal breakthrough for Lillianna in that she escapes any boxed lines. She moves from one dynamic pose to the next, her eyes having an almost ‘come-hither’ expression. Her body isn’t hidden by a long skirt, instead in a form-fitting tunic. 

All these visual elements point to a woman who is in a new space that allows her to embody more than just one archetype. The theatrical space she inhabits in this scene is literally free of any stage props. It just depicts Lillianna as the titular ugly duck, desperately searching within herself for a sense of belonging. There is no prince or secondary character intruding or motivating her in this Act in The Ugly Duckling. The scene is a symbolic outside space in which Lillianna exists not in a romanticised aesthetic pushed on by fans, but rather can explore new aspects of herself which don’t directly relate to the usual classical ballet narrative of obtaining or losing a marriage partner.    

In Swan, the friendship that Masumi makes with Lillianna promotes mutual challenge and growth is treasured, which is important to show in media where the environments which these characters are navigating are highly competitive. It’s through this mutual growth that Lillianna finds a space in which she can express herself outside of how others think she should present to the world. Swan‘s groundbreaking panel composition combined with it’s reverence for girl’s culture, along with it’s feminist themes make for a must read for both girls and women.  

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