No other name in ballet history seems to be surrounded by as many stories as the name of Anna Pavlova. She was born on February 12, 1881, in St. Petersburg. Her love for ballet awoke at the age of eight when her mother took her to the play Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theater. She was unusually delicate, so she was not admitted to ballet school when she first auditioned at the age of nine. During the 1890s the emphasis was on the technical skill of ballerinas, which required them to have strong, muscular bodies. Pavlova, on the contrary, was slender, light and looked fragile. Later, it would become her trump card because it was almost unbelievable how much strength she has in that fragile body.
Ana Pavlova When she turned ten, she began to study ballet at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. The school was under the auspices of Russian Tsar Alexander III. (1845 – 1894) and offered her students lifelong protection, but in return she asked them to be fully committed to ballet. She became a member of the Mariinsky Theater, the most famous opera and ballet house in St. Petersburg, at the age of eighteen, and a few years later (1906) a prima ballerina.
Thanks to her talent and hard training, she became the most famous ballerina of her time. She was the first to use a piece of hard leather in ballet flats to facilitate dancing on her fingertips, which later became a practice in ballet. She was taught by top teachers such as Marius Petipa, Christian Johansson, Pavel Gerdt and Enrico Cecchetti. It was she who presented the Russian ballet to the world as the main participant in Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes troupe in Paris. Despite her external engagements, she remained the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater because she wanted to preserve her independence and fidelity to classical ballet. She performed with the then great ballet dancer Mikhail Mordkin in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Most American audiences had not seen classical ballet until then, and critics did not know how to describe what they saw on stage, but everyone was fascinated by the performance.
She founded her own troupe in 1913 and traveled with her to Europe, Asia, America and Australia for years, and then it was truly an adventure and a difficult endeavor. The audience in front of which she danced usually did not even know what ballet was. She danced in big cities and small towns, awakening in children a love of ballet. During this period she met many folk dances, and she was most impressed by the dances of Japan and India. She was able to successfully harmonize elements of ballet and local dances from around the world, thus contributing to the revival of forgotten dance forms.
Anna Pavlova did not stand out so much with her virtuoso technique as with her grace and sophistication and the gift of creating always new characters and figures. She said that talent comes from God, but that only through hard work does it grow into genius. Her artistic genius was a blend of dance, music and acting. When she read Lord Tennyson’s Dying Swan, she was so impressed with it that she asked choreographer Mikhail Fokin to design a ballet solo for her. Thus arose the ballet The Dying Swan which became her trademark. Pavlova danced it devotedly and poetically and amazed the whole world with it. This short ballet shows the last moments of the swan’s life, and was first performed in 1905, the same year it was conceived. In an interview he gave to Dance Magazine, choreographer Mikhail Fokin describes the origins of that ballet spot which, he said, was created mostly by improvisation.
I danced in front and then behind. After that we swapped places and I corrected her (Anna Pavlova, op. Cit.) Arms and body position. Prior to that ballet, I was accused of encouraging barefoot dancing and refusing to dance in rush hour and that’s why Death of a Swan was my answer. This ballet has become a symbol of something new – because of the combination of technique and expressiveness. He is proof that dance can satisfy the eyes, but also that it can penetrate the soul – Fokin explained.
French critic André Levinson described the last scene of the ballet in these words: Hands crossed, ballerina on her toes moving slowly and slowly across the stage. Her hands seem to tend to the horizon – but the tension slowly subsides and she sinks. She waves her arms weakly, as if in pain. Then, trembling, he approaches the edge of the stage with irregular steps, his leg like the strings of a harp. And then – he dies.
Even a short film was made in 1925 in which Ana Pavlova dances.
Well-known ballet critic Vadim Gajevski said in an interview with the Voice of Russia: She possessed great acting talent. Not purely acting, but ballet-acting. She could have been filmed in all the silent films of that time. This combination of musicality with a genius dramatic gift made her unique. A dying swan is pure music in visible incarnation! People cried when they watched the madness of her Giselle. She was a great dramatic ballerina!
While still alive, she became an idol and a legend. Her performances were accompanied by triumphant success. During the twenty-two years of numerous tours she had nine thousand performances.
Off stage, her life was devoid of any drama and scandal. She had no children, but in 1920 she founded a shelter for Russian orphans in Paris. When she was not dancing, she stayed on her Ivy House in London surrounded by swans.
She died at the age of forty-nine, on January 23, 1931, on a farewell tour in The Hague. The last show she was supposed to take part in was held, but the spotlight lit up an empty spot on the stage where she was supposed to dance… Her last words were: “Prepare me a swan costume“ ”