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Anna Pavlova, great Russian dancerWritten by Eliza Minden. Copyright © 2000 by Gaynor Minden, Inc. Used by permission.
"Leave acrobatics to others, Anna...It is positively more than I can bear to see the pressure such steps put upon your delicate muscles and the arch of your foot...I beg you never to try again to imitate those who are physically stronger than you. You must realize that your daintiness and fragility are your greatest assets. You should always do the kind of dancing which brings out your own rare qualities instead of trying to win praise by mere acrobatic tricks."
Thus was young Anna Pavlova admonished by her teacher, Pavel Gerdt.1 She followed this good advice and became a legend - indisputably one of the great ballerinas of the twentieth century and also one of ballet's most influential ambassadors. Pavlova's emotional, expressive, ecstatic style thrilled audiences all over the world, despite its lack of showy, virtuosic technique. In fact Pavlova didn't have a lot of technique; her famous feet were actually quite weak. But she had passion, a complete commitment to her art and the power to communicate through movement.
At a time when fouettes were fashionable but Romanticism was not, when strong, meaty Italian ballerinas were favored and thin, dainty Russian girls weren't, Pavlova resurrected the ethereal, delicate qualities of the Romantic ballerina and combined them with her enormously expressive style. Then she took it on the road. No dancer, before or since, traveled as extensively: 350,000 miles in fifteen years - and this was long before people used airplanes for traveling. She introduced ballet to remote crevices of the world and inspired balletomania thousands of miles from her native Russia. Sir Frederick Ashton, the brilliant choreographer and director of England's Royal Ballet, became a dancer because he was smitten by the performances he saw Pavlova give when he was a boy - in Lima, Peru.2
Anna Pavlova was born on January 31, 1881 in a suburb of St. Petersburg. Her mother took little Anna to a performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theatre (home of the Kirov Ballet) and the child resolved that some day she herself would be the beautiful Princess Aurora. She had to wait several years before the Imperial School of the Maryinsky Ballet would accept her, and even then her weak feet, poor turn-out, scrawny body and bad placement made her ballet career seem dubious. Pavlova was also said to be shy, unsociable, introverted and therefore without many friends.3
She graduated form the Maryinsky School not long after the invasion of the virtuoso Italian ballerinas - Legnani, Zucchi et al. had mastered multiple fouettes and other technical "tricks" that diminished the public's desire for lyrical Romanticism and created a demand for the muscular Italian style. Pavlova hadn't the strength for it; her delicate, highly arched feet were too weak for the flamboyant pointework coming into vogue.
But ultimately Pavlova made such a virtue of her over-arched feet that critics said they represented the yearnings of the Russian soul.4 She cleverly devised a shank and platform for her pointe shoes that conserved her energy and let her balance in arabesque until the audience was breathless. She took advantage of what she did have: extension, ballon, a pliable torso, feminine delicacy, tremendous expressiveness and she worked extremely hard, studying with Gerdt, Christian Johannsen, Nicholas Legat, Catarina Beretta and the great Petipa himself. In the end she triumphed.
Pavlova excelled in the repertory at the Maryinsky, especially in La Bayadere, Giselle, Le Corsaire and Don Quixote but dancing the choreography of Mikhail Fokine is what made her immortal. Les Sylphides (also known as Chopiniana), showcased Pavlova's exquisite Romantic-style lyricism. The Dying Swan went even further. Quickly choreographed as a piece d' occasion, The Dying Swan is technically just a matter or bourres and highly stylized port-de-bras meant to evoke the last moments in the life of a swan. The dancer, alone on stage in her spotlight, bourres forward and back, torso bending expressively, arms extended in a non-stop, soft-elbowed bird-like fluttering until she gracefully expires - usually in a seated pose with one leg outstretched and her upper body bent over it. The Dying Swan is an easy target for satire - campy, sentimental, even melodramatic - but when done well it has the power to be very moving.
By 1907 Pavlova had become a star at the Maryinsky, but that was just the prelude. Her need for artistic independence, the freedom to pursue her very individual style and to dance new and different work, as well as her need to have the spotlight all to herself led her to a solo touring career that lasted twenty years and took her all over the world. She danced with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes but not for long. She may have had doubts that the company could succeed, she may have been unable to bear Diaghilev's notorious authoritarianism or she may have hated sharing the glory with the famous Nijinsky, the male star of the troupe.5
She lived most of her life on trains and in hotels. Toward the end she had to compromise by cutting difficult sections and performing only the less demanding pieces. One of her methods for conserving stamina was to modify her pointe shoe to make it easier to balance. It was considered cheating at the time, but actually it was the first modern pointe shoe and no ballerina today would even attempt toe-work without its equivalent. Pavlova took soft pointe shoes that were too big, inserted a piece of leather under the metatarsal for support and pounded down the platform to make it bigger and flatter. She would then darn it so it would hold its shape. However, the always image-conscious Pavlova wanted to appear as if daintily dancing on only the tiniest little pointed tip of a slipper, so she scrupulously retouched all photographs of herself to remove the broad platform of the shoe.
In 1931 she contracted pleurisy. Doctors could have saved her life with an operation that would have damaged her ribs and left her unable to perform. Pavlova chose to die rather than give up dancing. As she lay dying she is reported to have opened her eyes, raised her hand and uttered these last words: "Get my swan costume ready."6
A few days later, at show time at the theatre where she was to have performed The Dying Swan, the house lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and while the orchestra played Saint-Saens familiar score, a spotlight moved around the empty stage as if searching in the places where Pavlova would have been.
In her own words: "What exactly is success? For me it is to be found not in applause, but in the satisfaction of feeling that one is realizing one's ideal. When, a small child rambling over there by the fir trees, I thought that success spelled happiness. I was wrong. Happiness is like a butterfly which appears and delights us for one brief moment, but soon flits away."7
1. Smakov, Gennady, The Great Russian Dancers, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1984 p. 4
2. Kavanagh, Julie, Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton, Faber and Faber Ltd., London, 1996 p. 3
3. Smakov, p. 3
4. Ibid, p. 4
5. Lieven, Prince Peter, The Birth of the Ballets-Russes, Dover Publications, Inc. , New York, 1973 p. 334
6. Smakov, p. 18
7. Magriel, Paul ed., Nijinsky, Pavlova, Duncan :Three Lives in Dance, Da Capo Press, Inc., New York, 1977 p. 15
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