Anna Pavlova: The Most Influential Ballerina In History | History Hit

Anna Pavlova: The Most Influential Ballerina In History

Anna Pavlova in the Butterfly solo (1911, London).
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Anna Pavlovna Pavlova was the most famous ballerina of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Best known for her creation of the role of The Dying Swan, she was a principal artist of the Imperial Russian Ballet, became the first ballerina to tour around the world and helped inspire a new generation of dancers, choreographers and ballet lovers.

However, the enormously talented and well-presented public figure of Anna Pavlova had an equally fascinating personal life. Born into a poor Russian family, her love of ballet was initially inspired by her mother taking her to a production of The Sleeping Beauty. As a child she won a place at a ballet school in Saint Petersburg, then as an adult went on to captivate audiences across the world with her skill, emotion and grace.

Her teacher, Cecchetti, once remarked: “I can teach everything connected with dancing, but Pavlova has that which can only be taught by God”.

Here’s an introduction to the famed ballerina Anna Pavlova.

Her family were poor

Anna Pavlova was born on 12 February 1881 in the Preobrazhensky Regiment hospital, Saint Petersburg, where her father served. Her mother came from a peasant family and worked as a laundress at the house of a Russian banker. Her father died when she was two years old, and as a child, Pavlova was regularly ill so at times was sent to live with her grandmother.

When Pavlova was young, her mother took her to a production of The Sleeping Beauty which inspired her love of ballet. Though her mother was poor, there were opportunities for Pavlova to pursue her love of dance since Tsarist Russia funded highly skilled performers within the empire.

Pavlova set her sights on the Imperial School of Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. Entry was by examination only. In 1890, when she was nine, Pavlova was rejected from the school for looking too weak and sickly. She was accepted a year later.

Photographic postcard of Anna Pavlova, 1905

Image Credit: Photography studio of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. St. Petersburg, Russian Empire., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Her body wasn’t suited to classical ballet

Pavlova’s early years of training proved to be difficult. She had severely arched feet, thin ankles and long limbs which clashed with the ideal of the small and compact body that was preferred for ballerinas at the time. As a result, classical ballet didn’t come naturally to Pavlova and her fellow students taunted her with names such as ‘the broom’ and ‘la petite sauvage’.

Nonetheless, Pavlova was determined to succeed. She took extra lessons from noted teachers of the age such as Christian Johansson, Pavel Gerdt, Nikolai Legat and Enrico Cecchetti, the latter of whom was considered the greatest ballet virtuoso of the day and founder of the Cecchetti method which is still used today.

She said, “no one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent, work transforms talent into genius.’

During her final year, Pavlova performed many roles. Her official debut at the Mariinsky Theatre in Pavel Gerdt’s Les Dryades prétendues (The False Dryads) drew great praise, particularly from some of the most fierce critics of the age.

She became ‘prima ballerina’ in 1906

Pavlova’s style was unconventional at best and ‘incorrect’ at worst: she frequently performed with bent knees, bad turnout, misplaced port de bras and incorrectly placed tours. However, this style was a hit with audiences since it harked back to the time of romantic ballet and the great ballerinas of old.

She performed in ballets such as La Camargo, Le Roi Candaule, Marcobomba and The Sleeping Beauty, and quickly became a favourite of the old maestro Petipa. In 1905, she created the role of The Dying Swan in a solo choreographed for her by the great Michel Fokine. The dance, performed to Le Cygne from The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, went on to become her most famous work.

In 1906, Pavlova was named ‘prima ballerina’ after dancing Giselle with great success.

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She was highly competitive

Pavlova continued to dance to great acclaim and was highly competitive. In 1912, she appeared in the first Royal Variety Performance. She was very competitive, and during a curtain call slapped her partner, Michael Mordkin, because she was convinced that he was receiving more applause than her.

The feud was much reported in the press. However, the pair were still a sensation together. For instance, when they appeared at the Palace Theatre in London in 1910, they received an unprecedented 10 curtain calls for their classical pas de deux. 

They then surprised the audience by dressing in Greek tunics and sandals and performing the Autumn Bacchanal, one of the most high-blooded and passionate dances ever staged.

She based herself in Golders Green, London

In 1912, Pavlova bought Ivy House in Golders Green in London. After she resigned from the Imperial Ballet, it became her permanent home. It had a huge garden and large pond which she populated with swans. Among them was her favourite swan, Jack. She studied them to bring intense realism to her most famous role, The Dying Swan. 

She also used Ivy House as a base to conceive and rehearse ballets, create and store costumes and sets. She was frequently photographed there, with pictures appearing in papers and magazines of her entertaining friends and ‘relaxing’ for the cameras.

Anna Pavlova in the Fokine/Saint-Saëns The Dying Swan, Saint Petersburg, 1905

Image Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

She created her own ballet company

Pavlova left the Imperial Ballet in 1913 and formed her own company which allowed her to be the undisputed star. She believed it was her mission to share ballet with the masses and make it worldwide popular entertainment, so for the rest of her life became a kind of wandering art missionary.

Her husband and manager, Victor Dandré, managed the tours. To better reach her audiences and to expand her own personal dancing style, Pavlova learned local and national dances and created works based on Indian and Japanese dance.

She created Oriental Impressions with Uday Shankar who later went on to become one of the greatest performers of Indian dance. She thus helped play a part in the renaissance of dance in India, and more widely left an impression upon many of those who saw her, inspiring a new generation of ballet lovers throughout the world.

She asked for her swan costume before she died

When travelling from Paris to The Hague, Pavlova became severely ill. By the time she had arrived at The Hague, she was so ill that she called for her personal physician. She was told that she had pneumonia and required an operation. However, by doing so, she would never be able to dance again. She refused to have the surgery, stating, “if I can’t dance, I’d rather be dead”.

Her husband wrote that she died of pleurisy at half-past midnight on Friday 23 January 1931 in the Hotel Des Indes in The Hague, 20 days short of her 50th birthday. Her last words were, “get my swan costume ready”. Her ashes were interred in a columbarium at Golders Green Crematorium.

Pavlova’s death was mourned worldwide. In accordance with tradition, on the day she was next due to have performed, the show went on as scheduled with a single spotlight circling an empty stage where she would have been.

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Her legacy has inspired countless people around the world

Pavlova’s impact upon the ballet world is still felt today, with her famous dances and performance style being imitated by many. She is also the namesake for the Pavlova dessert, which, it is believed, was created in honour of the dancer during her tour of New Zealand and Australia.

In 1980, famed Swiss artist Igor Carl Fabergé licenced a collection of crystal wine glasses to commemorate the centenary of her birth, and in 1983 a film titled Anna Pavlova was made which depicted her life.

Lucy Davidson