“So famous she has desserts named after her.” This week, know who you’re Googling as we hook into the history of ballet royalty, Anna Pavlova.
When I was a little girl, my mother gave me a book about Anna Pavlova. I read with mounting excitement the bit where Anna’s mother tells her that to be a great dancer, her feet needed to be super tough – she had to be able to walk on stones and other rough ground if she was to cope with the rigours of classical ballet. Wow, I thought – I’m always barefoot, I walk over rocks and hot bitumen – I’ll be a great ballerina. And it worked – I wowed ’em as Fifth Glowworm in the Glimmer routine at the Happy Feet (Under-11s) end-of-year concert, the apotheosis of my performing career.
Countless little girls then and since have been inspired by the legendary Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), one of most famous ballerinas ever, so famous she even has desserts named after her.
Anna Pavlova had a delicate ethereal quality about her, a dancer of such expression that she was a superstar in her own time. It was Anna Pavlova who helped bring ballet to the wider world.
She created her own company and performed all over the world. Japan, India, Myanmar, Mexico, South America, Egypt… She even visited Australia in 1926, her shows in Melbourne and Sydney complete sell-outs.
She was born in St Petersburg to a mother who worked as a laundress, and an unknown father. There are a number of candidates for her father, but really, who cares? Her mother raised her and it’s her mother who did everything in her power to help her Anna achieve her dream of being a dancer.
Of course, she had talent too. Anna was ten years old when she was accepted at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg in 1891. Led by legendary balletic figure Marius Petipa, she became part of a golden age of Russian ballet. She worked hard and by 1906, Anna was named prima ballerina.
Choreographer Michel Fokine created a short piece for Anna based on the music of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The Dying Swan became her signature piece. Look at this footage from 1925. Anna was 44 when this was filmed but she is as graceful and convincing as she must have been when it was first performed in 1905.
She becomes the swan – it’s a beautiful, haunting performance conveying emotion, fragility, pain. It’s quite something. This was Anna’s great gift – she could touch the soul.
But Anna also had an entrepreneurial spirit. She recognised the benefits of joining Sergei Diaghilev’s famed Ballet Russes in 1909, touring beyond Europe to the United States and Britain.
Then in 1911, she created her own company and performed all over the world, and I mean all over. Anna was one of the great ambassadors of dance and performed in many an unlikely venue or country. She went to Japan, India, Myanmar, Mexico, South America, Egypt, places not usually thought of in the same breath as classical ballet especially in the early decades of the twentieth century. She even visited Australia in 1926, her shows in Melbourne and Sydney complete sell-outs.
It’s been estimated that she covered over 600,000 kilometres, an incredible distance considering there was no air travel back then. Anna really brought classical ballet to wider audiences. They performed the classics: Giselle, La Fille mal gardée and The Sleeping Beauty; and of course, The Dying Swan. Audiences across the globe were enraptured.
This was a pretty amazing achievement – she ran the company and was its star. She choreographed many of her own dances. Always in the limelight, Anna Pavlova was really the first international superstar ballerina.
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In 1912, Anna and her husband Victor Dandré bought a house in London and she lived there the rest of her life. She died from pneumonia in 1931 aged just 49, but her influence continued long after her death.
Here’s something you may not know. Anna Pavlova is at least partly responsible for the design of the modern ballet slipper. She had quite arched feet and very long toes and needed extra support to stand en pointe, so a shoe was designed specifically for her with leather soles and a kind of flattish box in the toe to provide extra support for her feet.
Another thing about Anna was that when she started out, many at the ballet school felt she wasn’t suited to be a dancer because her physique was all wrong and she was too frail. Critics tend to agree that she may not have been the most technically proficient dancer, but she brought such intensity and charm to her performances that this outweighed any shortcomings. Renowned British choreographer Frederick Ashton said of her:
Her plasticity of movement was unique and she was alive in every aspect of her fragile and delicate body. With this glorious instrument she could convey every nuance of feeling from passion to deep melancholy. All this was made easy for her by her sensitive and expressive feet, and by the use she made of her wonderful hands with which she could stir the human soul to great depths.
He’s right. One of her popular performance pieces was The Dragonfly, choreographed by Anna herself. She wears a gauzy costume with diaphanous wings and appears very faerie-like indeed. Look at how her flickering hands suggest the darting about of a dragonfly in this short clip.
No other dancer had travelled as far or wide as Anna Pavlova had. She was the image of grace and elegance, and inspired boys and girls across the globe to take dancing lessons, and become, if not dancers, then balletomanes; even clumsy little girls with short-lived careers as dancing glowworms.