Anna Pavlova (1881 – 1931) was a Russian super star who put her life and soul into the interpretation of classical ballet. She is remembered still for the emotions she was able to communicate through her dancing.
Anna danced virtually all of her life. As a small child, she danced in the fields near her home with the butterflies, able to feel as she thought a butterfly might feel. When Anna was eight years old, her mother took her to see Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” at the Mariansky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The dance moved Anna so much, she decided to devote her own life to ballet and was, two years later, enrolled in the Imperial School of Ballet in the Czars’ Court in St. Petersburg.
Pavlova the ballerina emerged at the age of 22. At this time she began the ritual of performing, always performing; something she would continue to do until she died. Quite simply, her life was the dance, the dance her life. When she was not actually on the stage dancing, she would be mentally dancing and preparing herself for the physical dance. Even while talking to people her fingers would be flitting like butterflies.
It was not unusual for Pavlova to give nine or ten performances each week, and to practice for each performance at every ” spare” moment. She was a perfectionist, almost fanatical in her dancing. “Art is not a flower of leisure, or a relaxation. Art means work. It is useless to dabble in beauty. One must be utterly devoted to beauty, with every nerve of the body.” Pavlova truly lived these, her own words.
If her critics are to be believed, Pavlova was a ballet genius. Walford Hyden, her former musical director, said, “In her profession she was as technically perfect as it is possible for a human being to become.”
Pavlova’s technique and philosophy were one. “She was not a theoretical thinker. She philosophized with her feet; and with every line and curve of her body she showed beauty to the world in a practical, physical demonstration,” Hyden noted. Valerian Svetloff, a ballet critic, on seeing Pavlova dance had this to say: “Her ‘pirhouettes’ are absolutely ‘clear’ and her ‘pizzicati sur les pointes’ irreprovably elegant… Her ‘fermatas sur pointe’ are completely clear; they astonish and charm at the same time. The same can be said of her balance which reaches the almost impossible. This perfect technique does not in any way detract from the lightness and ethereality of her dancing, even when she executes the most complicated movements… With her all seems natural, and easy; no shadow of an effort anywhere. Never does she lose her elegance, her simplicity or her lightness… Even the most difficult of her variations never seems to cost her the slightest effort… Not only does she dance, but dancing she conjures up images which pass one by one before the eyes of the public. She not only executes her dances, she creates them.”
The use of her hands was one of Pavlova’s most remarkable accomplishments. She could express any emotion through the tiniest flits of her fingers. Also, she could do the “arabesque” pose, with one leg raised and pointed behind her, extremely well.
Anna Pavlova strove to dance fantastically to please her audience. “Her versatility was amazing,” said Hyden. “She could change from the tragedy of ‘Giselle’ or the poignant characterization of ‘Amarilla,’ to play a few minutes later the part of the skittish and mischievous daughter in ‘La Fille Mal Gardee,’ enrapturing the audience and the ballet company alike with her delicious pranks and coquettish ways. When one considers that she would be Greek in ‘Dionysius,’ Egyptian in ‘The Egyptian Mummy,’ a Hindu Goddess in ‘Krishna and Rada,’ the Spirit of Life in ‘Les Preludes,’ a Perisan Princess in ‘The Three Palms,’ a classical ballet-dancer in ‘Chopiniana,’ the magic bird in ‘Russian Folk Lore,’ a fairy doll in ‘The Fairy Doll,’ a debutante in ‘Invitation to the Valse,’ – to name at random but a few of her many ballets – one realizes to what extent she had schooled herself in adaptability. No other dancer could hope to portray so many dramatic characters in one repertoire, actually living the parts as she did.”
Pavlova never failed in the twenty years she danced to please an audience through her ballet.
Dance historian and critic, Cyril Beaumont once wrote, “She was first and last a great individual artist, a complete unity in herself, who had the supreme power of not only being able to breathe into a dance her own flame-like spirit, but no matter how many times she had danced it before, to invest it with an air of spontaneity, novelty and freshness, as though it had but just been born. She was something more than a great dancer. She made her features speak and her body sing.”
She died of pneumonia in 1931, three weeks prior to her 50th birthday. About a month earlier she had been onboard a train that had a minor derailment. She walked the length of the train in only pajamas and a light scarf to investigate the situation; many believe this compromised her health and caused the pneumonia. On her death bed, she reportedly said, “If I can’t dance then I’d rather be dead.” On the day of what would have been her next performance, the show went on as scheduled with a single spotlight trained on the empty space on the stage where she would have been.