Swan Volumes 10 and 11

Swan Volume 10 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

Masumi and Aoi arrive at the competition with 20 minutes to get ready for their performance of “Legend of Love.” As Masumi dances she thinks of her feelings for Kusakabe, which contrasts with Aoi’s inner thoughts which reflect his character’s feelings for the woman Masumi is portraying on stage. The audience senses something different in the pair’s performance. The judges detect the work of a distinctive choreographer. Larissa thinks that something is different within Masumi. She’s never seen Masumi look so beautiful on stage. Masumi’s teacher Sergiev has been busy working with Lilliana, but he goes in search of Masumi backstage. He is shocked to find her with the older Russian gentlemen who helped her with her most recent dance. The mysterious Russian excuses himself and Sergiev congratulates Masumi on her performance, promising to help her prepare for round three of the competition. Masumi is touched by his faith in her.

Masumi ties with Lilliana as the top contestants when the scores are announced for the dancers who are allowed to progress. Aoi and Masumi just have a few minutes to celebrate before the judges announce that they changed their mind, and are going to penalize the couple due to their tardiness. The mysterious older gentleman pops into the room and explains that they were late due to the process he was putting the couple through as part of his coaching technique, and it was all in service of dance. Sergiev utters the name of the man who danced with Masumi’s mother, “Serge Lavrovsky. Twenty years ago he defected from Russia to the West. At that time he was Russia’s most gifted — no, the most gifted dancer in the world!” The judges are shocked that Lavrosky is still alive after living in obscurity for so long. Masumi is overwhelmed because she didn’t realize that she was being coached by her old partner. There’s no time to ask questions as the judges have decided to relent, and Masumi goes to find out that in the final round she is dancing the Black Swan against Larissa again.

I love the excesses of Ariyoshi’s art. Masumi and Aoi dance and are given a galaxy and the Planet Earth as a backdrop! The caption “We have to survive no matter what!” is centered in a circle of portraits of all the dancers in the competition. Lilliana is always accompanied by wings and floating feathers which highlight the effortlessly weightless image she projects onstage. In addition to the notes about the individual ballets the dancers perform, Ariyoshi also includes some elements of criticism as Masumi reflects on the way the judges react to Giselle when danced by Kyogoku and Lilliana. Masumi favors Kyogoku’s warmly human interpretation and thinks that the judges are too overwhelmed by Lilliana’s effortless presence on stage to realize that the Russian’s interpretation is inferior. How individual dancers make a role unique is brought up yet again when Masumi and Larissa both dance Odile. Masumi decides to tackle the difficult perfection of precise dance moves. Larissa decides to be extremely loose in her choreography in a bold response to Masumi’s triumphant performance. She does 32 double turns and the audience is in shock.

Swan Volume 11 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

As this volume opens the winner is announced. Masumi beats out Larissa even though she thinks that Larissa outshone her on stage and won over the audience. Larissa tells Masumi that she has no regrets for the way she danced the Black Swan. The girls agree that they will be competing in ballet for the rest of their lives, clasping hands and facing off Sergio Leone-style in front of a tree.

Masumi watches Leon dance. While the other girls are discussing his hot, muscular legs she is thinking about how strange and annoying he is. Masumi sees Leon play up to the audience reaction and senses that he’s secretly mocking all the women who are swooning over his body. Leon passes Masumi backstage and predicts that the pair competing against his Don Quixote will crash and burn. Sure enough, the male dancer has become infected with the strength of Leon’s performance and inadvertently tries to duplicate it, failing horribly in the process.

In the next round Kyogoku and Masumi are assigned to dance a trio with Leon, while Aoi partners with the Russian girls. Masumi reflects about her relationship with Kyogoku and how she looks up to the older ballerina. Aoi is surprised that when he partners with Lilliana she’s able to cover up for his small mistakes because she’s so light on her feet. He’s in awe of her ability. Masumi watches them perform and sees that even Larissa’s strong stage presence seems nonexistent when she is performing alongside Lilliana.

Leon gives the series a jolt of energy, just because Masumi has something new to react to. Leon’s smugness combined with the fact that he always seems to be drawn as if he has a personal wind generator artfully blowing his hair across his face always makes me look forward to his appearances. He irritates Masumi as a dance partner as he blows off rehearsal and says that he doesn’t need to prepare for the competition because he already watched Masumi dance once. They dance together before the judges and sure enough, Leon’s timing is perfect and he knows exactly what to do in order to support Masumi as a partner.

Masumi’s dance evolves as she partners with Leon and there are some beautiful panels of their faces close together framed by windblown flower petals. Something significant is happening! When you see flower petals like this, you can’t escape the pull of old school shoujo symbolism! When the dance ends Masumi goes to thank Leon for helping her to dance her very best. He turns to her with a dismayed expression on his face and says “Your very best? That?” He asks her if she can’t be expected to dance any better and turns away. As always when dealing with Leon, Masumi is left alone to deal with the psychological fallout of his comments. She wonders if he delights in making her feel inferior.

The trauma is not over for Masumi because she overhears Sergiev discussing her distressing psychological responses to stress with another person. The upcoming competition where she must share the stage with the ethereal Lilliana may trigger her psychosomatic illness again, making her unable to hear music. Masumi hears Sergiev say “If she is crushed today by her fears Masumi just doesn’t have what it takes!” and she runs away, not hearing him comment that she’s become stronger and he thinks she is ready to confront her issues. Masumi works herself into such a state of anxiety that she become feverish. Kusakabe finds her backstage and tries to comfort her, but Sergiev has a different approach. He brutally confronts Masumi with her weaknesses and tells her to get on the stage or leave the world of ballet. Masumi takes the stage with Lilliana while feeling like a broken marionette.

Even though the external plot elements like the endless ballet competitions are predictable, I’m still curious to see how Masumi will be able to overcome her weaknesses and become a better dancer. I have no doubt that she’ll succeed since she’s the heroine of Swan, but it’ll be interesting to see how her relationship with Leon will develop. I’m wondering if there will be an additional rivalry between Sergiev and Lavrosky when guiding Masumi’s career. There have been hints that the past relationship between Masumi’s mother and Lavrosky turned tragic, so that’s another plot element I’m looking to see explored. As always, Ariyoshi’s art elevates the melodrama portrayed in the series. It is hard not to be captivated by a manga that so easily portrays the dynamic range of the human body in dance as well as the tears and delight of the dancers.