Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) was in her time—and is perhaps even now—the most famous dancer in the world. From her early classical training at St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet School, Pavlova carried on incessant, globe-covering tours, everywhere making new audiences for the ballet.
Anna Pavlova, whose exact origins are as unfixable as the startling images she created on stage, was born on January 31, 1881, in St. Petersburg. She was the daughter of a washerwoman, and reputedly her father was reserve soldier Matvey Pavlov, whom Pavlova never knew. The implication exists, however, of illegitimate and well-born Jewish parentage.
According to Pavlova, she cared to be nothing but a dancer from the age of eight, when she attended a performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theatre. Two years later she was accepted as a student at St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet School. This extraordinary training-ground for classical dancers offered its students lifelong material protection; the Czar himself was its direct and highly visible benefactor. In return, the school demanded a fervent and almost monastic physical dedication.
The young Pavlova, considered frail—she was often characterized as too thin later in her career—and not conventionally beautiful, was nevertheless exceptionally supple, with beautifully arched insteps. Her talents impressed ballet master Marius Petipa, who was to become her most revered mentor. Pavlova's work with Petipa, as well as such other legendary Maryinsky teachers and choreographers as Christian Johanssen, Pavel Gerdt, and Enrico Cecchetti, provided a classical foundation, steeped in directly-inherited ballet tradition, that was to serve as her never-to-be-forgotten physical and artistic heritage.
Pavlova made her company debut at the Maryinsky on September 19, 1899. Competition from her contemporaries and near-contemporaries was marked, yet Anna Pavlova soon claimed as her own a loyal sector of Maryinsky balletomanes, who recognized in the young dancer an extraordinarily poetic and expressive quality.
Pavlova's first tour in what was to become a lifetime of innumerable performances for strange audiences (it is estimated that Anna Pavlova travelled over 400,000 miles in the pre-air-travel age and was seen by millions) was to Moscow in 1907. In February 1910, Pavlova, partnered by the brawny Moscow dancer Mikhail Mordkin, made her first appearance in America, at the Metropolitan Opera House. This tour was like countless others to come, in that most of the audiences had never before seen classical ballet in other than highly degenerate form. This was true even in cities such as Boston and Baltimore. There was simply no critical vocabulary for what it was that Pavlova did—all agreed exquisitely—on stage; writers were reduced to calling Pavlova's faultless pirouettes "twirls" and the ballets themselves "ocular operas."
Although these early tours were undertaken with the Czar's consent, Pavlova's final trip to Russia occurred in the summer of 1914. She was travelling through Germany en route to London when Germany declared itself at war with her homeland on August 2, 1914. Pavlova was briefly detained; more crucially, her protection from and obligations to the Czar and his Maryinsky Theatre were practically, if not emotionally, at an end.
From this point until her death, Pavlova continued to make grueling, globe-covering tours, always with her own company—international in make-up, volatile, and variable in dance talent—to support. The early war years found her back in America; 1917 took her to South America; 1919 to Bahia and Salvador. A 1920-1921 tour to America represented Pavlova's fifth major tour of the United States in a decade, and in 1923 the company travelled under the aegis of impresario Sol Hurok to Japan, China, India, Burma, and Egypt. South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand were given a glimpse of Pavlova in 1926, and 1927-1928 were dedicated to a British and continental tour.
Although Pavlova's repertoire grew and was influenced by exposure to foreign cultures and by the often shocking innovations in classical technique and choreography being brought to the dance by Isadora Duncan and Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, she remained by temperament and financial imperative a more conservative classicist. She kept several of the great ballet classics, such as Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty, in the company's repertoire; her own popular signature pieces were the Bacchanale, a duet attributed to Pavlova's former fellow-student Mikhail Fokine, and her eerily beautiful The Swan.
It was Pavlova's ability to accept her role as emissary for her art, often with good humor and always with a kind of missionary zeal and self-discipline, that brought vast audiences to her and eventually to the ballet itself. She was willing to let her art find its own level of appreciation, whether in the most discriminating theaters of Europe or, when the economic stresses of maintaining an ungainly touring company dictated, in London's music halls or even New York's gigantic home to vaudeville, the Hippodrome.
Pavlova's rare private days were spent at Ivy House in Hampstead, London, where she kept a menagerie of exotic birds and animals—including a pair of pet swans that were undoubtedly a source of imagery for Pavlova's famous onstage version. Her companion, manager, and perhaps husband (Pavlova was contradictory concerning the exact nature of their relationship) was Victor Dandré, a fellow exile from St. Petersburg.
Pavlova died of pleurisy in The Hague on January 22, 1931. She had performed incessantly until her death; her final words were to ask for her Swan costume to be prepared and, finally, "Play that last measure softly."
Further Reading on Anna Pavlova
Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art (1982) by Keith Money is the most comprehensive and perhaps the most accurate biography of the dancer. John and Roberta Lazzarini's Pavlova (1980) gives a fine account of Pavlova's repertoire. Two books by Pavlova's associates are Victor Dandré's sometimes misleading but essential Anna Pavlova (1932) and Algeranoff's (born Algernon Harcourt Essex) My Years With Pavlova (1957), based on his diaries kept from 1921 to 1930, the years he was a member of Pavlova's company.
Additional Biography Sources
Fonteyn, Margot, Dame, Pavlova: portrait of a dancer, New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1984.
Pavlova, a biography, New York: Da Capo Press, 1979, 1956.
Lazzarini, John, Pavlova: repertoire of a legend, New York: Schirmer Books; London: Collier Macmillan, 1980.
Money, Keith, Anna Pavlova, her life and art, New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1982.
Anna Pavlova, New York: Dover Publications, 1974.