Anna Pavlovna (Matveyevna) Pavlova was one of the most famous and influential ballerinas of all time. She was born on the 12th February [O.S. 31st January] 1881 in St Petersburg and was introduced to the art form of ballet by her mother, who took her to see The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, shortly after the première. From that moment, it was her dream to become a ballerina. Pavlova was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School at the age of 10, but was taunted by her classmates for her unusual and rather sickly physique. They even gave her cruel nicknames such as “the broom” and “la petite sauvage”, but the young Pavlova was undeterred and trained hard to improve her technique. She was taught by the great teachers of the time – Christian Johansson, Pavel Gerdt and Enrico Cecchetti and finally entered the classe de perfection of Ekaterina Vazem in 1898. Upon Pavlova’s graduation from the school in 1900, it was clear to her teachers that she was a different kind of ballerina, with many critics raving that her style greatly resembled that of the Romantic ballerinas of the early 1840s.
Before long, Petipa noticed Pavlova and fell completely in love with her dancing. Petipa took the young ballerina under his wing and it was in her first season with the Imperial Ballet that signs of a promising career already began to show. In 1900, Pavlova made her first distinctive appearance as Zulma, one of the attendants of the Queen of the Wilis in Giselle and she created the role of Frost in Petipa’s one-act ballet The Seasons. By 1901, she was already dancing Princess Florine in The Sleeping Beauty and the leading role of Flora in The Awakening of Flora. As her repertoire expanded further, Petipa, himself, coached Pavlova in the roles that best suited her dramatic gifts including Nikiya, Giselle, Paquita, Princess Aspicia and Queen Nisia.
Anna Pavlova became Prima Ballerina in 1906. From 1909, she began to dance outside of Russia, especially with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, where she danced lead roles in several ballets by Mikhail Fokine, including Le Pavillon d’Armide, Egyptian Nights and Les Sylphides. However, due to various dissatisfactions with Diaghilev’s directorship, she pulled out of the 1910 Ballets Russes season. After her departure, she founded her own company, with whom she would tour across Britain and the world. She would later dance again with the Ballets Russes as a guest ballerina and made her final appearance with the Imperial Ballet in 1914.
For her own company, Pavlova added many of her favourite ballets and passages to their repertoire including Giselle, The Magic Flute, La Fille mal gardée, The Awakening of Flora, The Fairy Doll and Chopiniana (Les Sylphides). She also added new short ballets that were based on scenes from full-length ballets such as Snowflakes, which was based on the snowy forest scene from The Nutcracker. It was also for her company’s repertoire that her famous solo dances, choreographed by Ivan Clustine, were created, including The Dragonfly, The California Poppy and Invitation to the Valse. But the most famous piece in the repertoire that Pavlova performed many times in many different places was her signature ballet and most famous role – The Swan (known today as The Dying Swan), which had been created for her by Mikhail Fokine in 1907.
After her departure from Russia, Pavlova permanently settled in London when she purchased her famous London home, Ivy House in the North-west London area of Golders Green in 1912. Following her successful tours of Britain and the United States from 1910 to 1914 and her final appearance in Russia, she launched an aggressive ballet marathon that would last the rest of her life. Together with her company, she set out on tours across the world, visiting many places including Mexico, South America, India, China, Japan and Australia, bringing the art form of ballet to places it had yet to touch.
In 1931, while Pavlova was touring the Hague in the Netherlands, she contracted pneumonia and needed an operation, but when she was told that it would have put an end to her dancing, she refused to have the surgery. In her own words, she said, “If I can’t dance, I’d rather be dead.”
Anna Pavlova died of pleurisy in the Hotel Des Indes in the Hague on the 23rd January 1931, aged 49, three weeks before her 50th birthday. According to her husband, Victor Dandré, as she lay on her deathbed, her last words were “Get my Swan costume ready.” She was cremated and her ashes are retained at Golders Green Crematorium.
*Biography by Amy Growcott
Did you know?
- Pavlova had a very strong view on what music was suitable for ballet, so strong was her view that she greatly detested the music of Igor Stravinsky. One of the reasons she left the Ballets Russes in 1910 was because she refused to dance the title role in Fokine’s ballet The Firebird due to her dislike of Stravinsky’s avante garde score.
- Pavlova was a great animal lover and had many pets, including two swans named Jack and Clara.
- Pavlova was a huge inspiration to Sir Frederick Ashton and the famous so-called “Fred step” that appears in most of his ballets was a sequence that he borrowed from her. The sequence is ‘arabesque, fondu, coupé, petit developpé, pas de bourée, pas de chat.’ This has become Ashton’s choreographic signature, but he, himself, referred to this sequence as the “Pavlova”, paying homage to the great ballerina. Ashton often thought of Pavlova when he created new leading ballerina roles and there is a quote from the Australian dancer and actor, Sir Robert Helpmann that says “every ballerina role that Ashton created could’ve been danced by Anna Pavlova.”
Anna Pavlova’s Imperial Ballet repertoire
- Zulma in Giselle (**1900)
- Frost in The Seasons (1900)
- Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt in Le Roi Candaule (**1900)
- Flora, the Goddess of the Spring in The Awakening of Flora (**1900)
- The Third Solo Shade in La Bayadère (1900)
- Princess Florine in The Sleeping Beauty (**1901)
- Lise in The Magic Flute (**1902)
- Nikiya in La Bayadère (**1902)
- Queen Nisia in Le Roi Candaule (**1903)
- The Spanish Doll in The Fairy Doll (1903)
- The Princess’s Retinue in The Magic Mirror (1903)
- Giselle in Giselle (*1903)
- Ondine in The Naiad and the Fisherman (*1903)
- Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh’s Daughter
- Paquita in Paquita (**1904)
- Kitri/Dulcinea in Don Quixote (**1905)
- Swanhilda in Coppélia
- Lise in La Fille mal gardée
- Colombine in Harlequinade
- The Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty (**1907)
- Madeleine in Le Pavillon d’Armide (1907)
- Bacchante in The Seasons (*1907)
(* – original cast member of role in revival)
(** – year of début performance in role)
- Money, Keith (1982) Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art. UK: Alfred A. Knopf
- Pritchard, Jane with Hamilton, Caroline (2012) Anna Pavlova: Twentieth-Century Ballerina. London, UK: Booth-Clibborn Editions