From the stack: SWAN Vol. 1

April 1, 2006

When I was in college, one of my closest friends liked to describe herself as a “recovering ballerina.” She transferred from a dance academy into the theatre program after a knee injury essentially ended her career. She was a tremendous actress, incredibly bright, generous, and she could play damaged, edge-of-sanity characters like nobody’s business. She was the kind of actress who made everyone she acted with better and didn’t torment them in the process.

She also completely deglamorized the world of ballet for me. She clearly missed dancing, but her feelings about the process and environment were ambivalent to say the least. The competitiveness, the exhaustion, and the frantic emotion that made the theatre department look positively serene by comparison inspired rueful fondness at best, mystified relief that she’d survived the experience at worst.

I thought about her a lot when reading the first volume of Ariyoshi Kyoko’s classic ballet manga Swan (CMX). It captures some of the urgency she attributed the experience, but it does it in such a purely shôjo context that it’s hard not to be swept away. Who cares if these dancers are as fragile as racehorses and they’re living on the razor’s edge of health and ambition and success? They’re all so crazy in love with ballet that it’s impossible not to get caught up in it all.

What I really admire about the book is the way it appropriates shônen constructs. Talented amateur Masumi loves ballet, and she wants to excel. She doesn’t necessarily want to be a star so much as to be the best ballerina she can be. She’s surrounded by friendly rivals who share the same goal but ultimately respect her passion more than envy her successes. There are intense mentors who balance demanding regimens with genuine kindness. From a structural point of view, it could just as easily be about basketball or Go or fighting demons.

But it’s about ballet, first and last. There are hints of romance and the prospect of escalating interpersonal tensions, but the consistent driver is a love of ballet and a desire to elevate it by mastering the balance of artistic expression and athleticism. Every page teems with passion, and it could come off as ridiculous if you aren’t indoctrinated into shôjo’s emotional extremes.

I am, so I found it all to be a breathtaking page-turner. It moves at an absolute clip, which is only appropriate given the intensity and often short duration of a dancer’s career. The characters are trying to move a very great distance in a very short time, and Swan conveys this without sacrificing the swirling visuals and searing emotional moments.

It’s hard to believe that it was originally published 30 years ago. Sometimes classics take on a musty, of-their-period quality that you have to filter out. Swan has such utter sincerity and directness that it’s really not necessary. It’s still great, and I can’t wait to read more of it.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by CMX.)