Pavlova, Anna (1881–1931)

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Pavlova, Anna (1881–1931)

One of the greatest classical Russian ballerinas of the 20th century who was responsible for popularizing ballet throughout the world. Pronunciation: PAV-lov-a. Born Anna Matveevna Pavlova on January 31, 1881 (o.s.), in St. Petersburg; died of pneumonia in The Hague, the Netherlands, on January 23, 1931; illegitimate daughter of Lazar Jacovlevich Poliakov (an aristocratic banker) and Liubov Fedorovna Pavlova (a laundress); attended Imperial Ballet School, 1891–99; reputedly married Victor Dandré, in 1914; no children.

Was a member of the Maryinsky Theater company (1899–1913), second soloist (1902), first soloist (1903), ballerina (1905), prima ballerina (1906); danced with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris (1909) and London (1911); formed her own company, Les Ballets d'Anna Pavlova (1912) which toured throughout the world until her death; lived in London (1912–31).


best known for her roles in La Bayadère, Giselle, Bacchanale , and The Dying Swan . Film: The Dumb Girl of Portici (1915). Publication: Pages from My Life (1912).

The snow was lightly falling in St. Petersburg as the sleigh carrying Liubov Pavlova and her daughter Anna arrived at the Maryinsky Theater. To celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas in January 1890, Liubov was taking her eight-year-old to see The Sleeping Beauty. It was the first time the young girl had been to any theater, much less the legendary Maryinsky, and she was understandably excited as they climbed the steep stairs to the upper balcony. For the next three hours Anna, like many girls of her age before and since, was enthralled by the fairy-tale scenery, Tchaikovsky's enchanting music, and the marvelous dancing of the ballerinas. When it was over, Liubov asked her daughter if she would like to dance one of the waltzes sometime. "I should rather dance the part of the Princess," Anna replied. "One day I shall be the Princess and shall dance upon the stage of this theater." This was an unlikely dream for the frail daughter of an impoverished single mother. At Anna's insistence, she was taken for an interview with the director of the Imperial Ballet School who told her without great enthusiasm to come back when she was ten years old for an audition. Much to his surprise, since only one in three applicants was traditionally accepted, Anna returned, passed, and in 1891 entered the prestigious school. After eight years of rigorous training, she graduated with flying colors and was accepted into the Maryinsky Theater company. Seven years later, she was a prima ballerina and acclaimed as one of Russia's greatest dancers. Triumphant tours of Europe followed, culminating in two seasons with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris and London. In 1912, she formed her own company and for the next 19 years toured the world popularizing ballet and building her reputation as "the greatest dancer of the century." She died a rich and famous woman shortly before her 50th birthday.

Few would have predicted such an illustrious career when Anna Pavlova was born two months prematurely on January 31, 1881. Her father of record was a Russian peasant soldier, Matvei Pavlovich Pavlov, who either died or deserted his family when she was two years old. Anna never knew him and in later life refused to speak about him. Unlike most Russians, she disliked being addressed by her patronymic, Anna Matveevna. According to Oleg Kerensky, her biological father was Lazar Jacovlevich Poliakov, a wealthy and respected Jewish banker who was a patron of the arts. Anna's physical characteristics as well as some of her later comments seem to confirm this parentage.

Anna's mother Liubov was 22 years old when her only child was born. She was uneducated, very religious and poor. She is described in most accounts as being a laundress though there is some evidence that she worked in the Imperial Ballet School as keeper of the linens and later may have run her own laundry. There is speculation that she met Poliakov at the Ballet School or at one time had been employed as a servant in his household. Her continued need for full-time employment made it difficult for her to raise Anna in St. Petersburg. As a result, her under-nourished child was sent off to the more healthy environs of Ligovo, a summer community 50 miles from the Russian capital, to live in her grandmother's dacha or cottage. Given the poverty of the Pavlova household, it is possible that Poliakov arranged for this retreat and that he also provided the Christmas ballet tickets which proved so instrumental in his illegitimate daughter's subsequent life. The only memory Anna has left us of these early years concerns her growing love of nature which came from spending hours wondering alone through the fields and forests surrounding Ligovo.

Her dream of becoming a ballet student became a reality in 1891, perhaps because the director on second glance liked her delicate physique and her determination, perhaps because Poliakov said a good word on her behalf. The Imperial Ballet School was one of the few places in tsarist Russia where birth and wealth meant little. Once accepted, a student paid no tuition and received accommodation, meals and clothing at no cost for eight years. Accommodation, to be sure, was in a dormitory room shared with 20 other girls and uniforms which changed only in color as a student passed through the grades. For some, it was like a "silken prison" where discipline was strict and casual contact with boys forbidden. Anna's day started at 8 AM with the ringing of a bell, dressing under the "stern eye of a governess," saying prayers, then having breakfast of tea, bread, and butter. The rest of the morning was devoted to ballet lessons. The afternoons were given over to academic training though here too emphasis was placed on subjects relating to the theater—French, dramatic art, and music. Breaks in this routine were few: occasionally the tsar or a member of his entourage dropped by to have tea with the young dancers who were considered part of his extended family; on Sundays, Anna's mother could visit; on holidays, she could go home or more likely to Ligovo.

In 1899, at age 18, Pavlova graduated from the Imperial Ballet School and was immediately accepted into the Maryinsky Theater company, not as a member of the corps de ballet, but as a coryphée who danced with two or three other promising graduates. One contemporary described her at the time as:

a very thin girl, slightly above average height. A charming smile, and beautiful eyes that were a little sad. Her legs were long, slim and very beautiful, with extraordinarily arched instep. Her whole body was graceful, delicate, and ethereal, as if she were trying to leave the earth.

For the next decade Anna Pavlova perfected her skills and continued to grow as a dancer. Five or six hours a day rehearsing at the Maryinsky were supplemented by private lessons in St. Petersburg or Italy. As Keith Money has noted, "her natural talent, the curious poetry of her body, was so outstanding that nobody could ignore it." One of those who noticed it was Marius Petipa, the ballet master and choreographer of the company. In 1902, the year in which she became a second soloist, he chose her over many more senior dancers for the female lead in La Bayadère. A year later, he gave her the prized title role in Giselle in which she was an instantaneous success. One reviewer wrote, " Giselle is certainly Pavlova's most finished creation, giving promise that in her there is an unfolding of exceptional talent." A growing group of admirers, known as "the Pavlovtzi," showed up at every performance to enthusiastically applaud their favorite. In 1906, she reached the pinnacle of her profession when she was given the title of prima ballerina and with it an annual salary of 3,000 rubles. The critic Arnold Haskell notes that by this time she excelled "in the portrayal of the pathetic, of some ephemeral being that came to life and then withered and died all on a summer's day." These qualities were used to full advantage in The Dying Swan specially choreographed for her in 1907 by Petipa's successor, Michel Fokine, which became her signature dance for the next 23 years.

Ballet flourished in Russia during the decade and a half before the First World War. The music of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, the choreography of Petipa and Fokine, and the dancing of Matilda Kshesinskaia , Vaslav Nijinsky, and Pavlova made Russian ballet the finest in Europe. Unlike elsewhere, ballet in St. Petersburg and Moscow was high culture, rivalling symphonic music and certainly surpassing the legitimate theater as the art form of the intelligentsia and the aristocracy. The ballet season coincided with the winter social season and leading ballerinas such as Anna Pavlova were much sought-after celebrities. It was not uncommon for male members of the royal family or respected entrepreneurs to escort ballerinas to social events and to further their careers in whatever way they could. Rarely, however, did these liaisons lead to marriage. In 1900, Pavlova met Victor Dandré, a well-to-do man 11 years her senior who loved ballet and was active in the St. Petersburg City Council. In time, Dandré became her "protector." He helped finance her private lessons, her trips abroad, and her acquisition of a large apartment with its own dance studio in an artistic neighborhood of St. Petersburg. He was to become her lifelong companion.

Russian society was in ferment, both politically and artistically, during this period. Politically, the grievances of the lower classes spilled over in an abortive revolution in 1905. Many of the ballerinas, despite their upper-class friends and admirers, came from less privileged backgrounds and often sympathized with the demonstrators. Anna Pavlova was not alone in speaking out against the shooting of factory workers in January 1905. Ten months later, she and some of her colleagues addressed a petition to the director of the Maryinsky Theater demanding more freedom and less dictation inside the ballet company. When these demands were not met, they followed the lead of the St. Petersburg workers by holding a one-day strike. Underlying their demands was a desire for more artistic freedom. Russian ballet had become very conventional, very traditional. Some of the younger dancers, Pavlova among them, wanted more innovative choreography, more comfortable costumes, less stylized performances, and less of a caste system within the company. Neither the Russian government nor the Maryinsky management was interested in meaningful reform. Some of the dancers were fired, others no longer got prized roles, and still others, such as Anna Pavlova, were sent abroad on foreign tours. In May 1908, she and 20 of her colleagues visited the capitals of Scandinavia and then Prague and Berlin. The next year, she made another tour of the major cities of Germany and Austria. She found she enjoyed life outside of her native country and getting away from the restrictions of her employers. In turn, the Russian dancers and Pavlova in particular were enthusiastically received, and did much to spread the fame of Russian ballet and to popularize it as a legitimate art form in Europe.

But this was still classical Russian ballet in the Maryinsky tradition. Others of the 1905 strikers wanted to push the boundaries of ballet further than the Maryinsky directors would allow either in St. Petersburg or on officially sanctioned tours of Europe. In 1909, Serge Diaghilev convinced Fokine, Nijinsky, Pavlova and several other leading Russian dancers to join a

new company—Ballets Russes—and to try out their ideas in Paris, the cultural capital of Europe. Ballets Russes took Paris by storm. During a period of six weeks in May and June 1909, Diaghilev alternated a night of Russian opera with one of Russian ballet. Fokine's innovative choreography, Léon Bakst's spectacular sets and costumes, and the virtuoso dancing of Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina brought ballet into the 20th century and won over the Parisian audiences. Because of previous engagements in Vienna, Pavlova did not arrive until early June, in time to dance only six performances of Les Sylphides and Cléopâtre. This was enough for Le Figaro's reviewer: "This one is a glory," he wrote of Pavlova. "A sacred flame burns in her. Mere technique and accuracy in her art do not constitute her aim; when she dances, the result is that undefinable thing, a masterpiece."

Pavlova was at the height of her powers in the summer of 1909 and also at the turning point in her career. One option open to her was to continue dancing with Ballets Russes in Western Europe as Diaghilev fervently wished. This would have been remunerative, and it would have allowed her to participate in the revolutionary change Ballets Russes brought to the field of dance over the next two decades. While Pavlova joined Diaghilev for the 1911 season in London, where she partnered Nijinsky in several memorable performances at Covent Garden, she declined to become a permanent member of his company. Some have suggested that she did not wish to share the limelight with younger and more dynamic stars such as Nijinsky and Karsavina or to accept the dictates of Diaghilev himself. Others, perhaps with more cause, have noted her dislike of the harshly dissonant music Diaghilev was commissioning Igor Stravinsky to write for his company.

Is it some creature from fairyland, some spirit of ethereal grace freed from the terrestrial trammels of the flesh? … No. Merely Pavlova, the incomparable Pavlova.

Manchester Evening News

Another option was to return to St. Petersburg to resume her privileged life as an acclaimed prima ballerina at the Maryinsky Theater. In 1909, she remarked: "I have no wish to break completely with Russia. The memory of my childhood, my first steps on the stage and my first success is associated with St. Petersburg. I would never leave Russia forever." She did indeed dance the 1909–10 season with the Maryinsky, and she agreed to go on an extended company-arranged tour of the United States in the winter of 1910–11. Despite a signed contract, which she acknowledged promised her the "highest salary a ballerina had ever received," her visits to St. Petersburg during the next two seasons were notably shorter, and she resigned her position altogether in 1913. This move might be explained by the lack of interesting roles offered even to prima ballerinas or by the fact that she was subject to mandatory retirement at the rapidly approaching age of 35 in 1916. Her stated justification in the year of her resignation was that "the same old ballets are being staged at the Maryinsky, with the same antiquated scenery and costumes that we Russians abroad have left far behind." Unstated but undoubtedly paramount in her decision was the predicament of Victor Dandré—her patron, "protector," and sometime lover. In February 1911, Dandré had been arrested on a charge of embezzlement. Pavlova, who learned about this while in the United States, asked that her earnings be used to satisfy his 35,000 ruble bail. Shortly before his scheduled trial in the fall, however, Dandré forfeited her bail and any possible career for himself in Russia by fleeing the country and joining Pavlova in London.

This, plus their strained financial position, dictated that Pavlova's subsequent career should follow a third and more risky option of dancing on her own or at the head of her own company. This alternative was not entirely new to her. She had been approached after her success with Ballets Russes in Paris by promoters wishing to arrange performances for her at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Palace Theater in London. In February 1910, she sailed for New York where for two months she performed late at night after the conclusion of the opera at the Met or to audiences in Boston and Baltimore where ballet was a novelty of the first order. That summer, she shared the Palace stage in London with violinists, singers, and other music-hall entertainers. Since her audiences were enthusiastic and the pay good, she had no hesitation about returning to the Palace during the next three summers. In the winter of 1911–12 and the fall of 1912, she experimented with touring the British countryside with her own small troupe, presenting excerpts from Russian ballets to music-hall audiences.

After Dandré arrived in London, he took over as business manager for her growing ballet enterprise. Together they acquired a large house in Golders Green near Hampstead Heath in London. "Ivy House" became their home and headquarters for the next two decades. Anna liked spending her free time in the large garden or spoiling the white swans in the estate's pool. She turned one of the rooms in Ivy House into a ballet studio where she trained a half-dozen English girls each year in the art of Russian ballet. The best of them were given Russian names (Hilda Boot, for example, became Hilda Butsova ) and hired as supporting dancers for her small touring company. The precise nature of Pavlova's relationship with Dandré was a source of considerable gossip inside the company and of controversy among her biographers. On frequent occasions, she said she would not marry, "that a true female artist must be consumed in her art." In 1924, perhaps to satisfy public opinion in the United States, she contradicted herself when she told reporters that she had been married to Dandré for many years. Some of her associates later claimed that the ceremony took place in New York in 1914. A marriage certificate, however, has never been found and, after Pavlova's death, an English judge rejected Dandré's claim that he was her legal husband.

In June 1914, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Anna and a few soloists visited Russia once again. After dancing in St. Petersburg and Moscow, they caught one of the last trans-continental trains back to London. While Pavlova, unlike most of her colleagues, sympathized with many of the aims of the Russian Revolution three years later, she never again returned to the land of her birth. She spent the war years in the West plying her trade and popularizing classical ballet. Her stamina and ingenuity were remarkable. Shortly after arriving in New York in October 1914, she set out on a 16-month tour of 197 American, Canadian, and Cuban cities. Traveling mostly by train, she and her small company performed almost every night before audiences who rarely had seen an "ocular opera," as ballet was often called. Promotional work in the form of interviews, informal auditions, and receptions consumed whatever time that was not spent traveling, rehearsing, and performing. When the rest of her company took a short vacation in the summer of 1915, Pavlova went off to Hollywood to make a full-length silent film, The Dumb Girl of Portici. For four months in 1916, she even tried her hand at vaudeville, dancing nightly in "The Big Show" before audiences of 5,000 at the Hippodrome in New York. Next came South America. Departing by tramp steamer in February 1917, Pavlova and company spent over two and a half years crisscrossing the Caribbean, Central America and South America, coping with revolutions, strikes, makeshift stages, third-rate orchestras, and the influenza pandemic.

One might have thought that she would have welcomed the end of the war and the chance to return to a more normal life in Western Europe. In October 1920, however, after less than a year of performing in London and on the Continent, her missionary zeal and Dandré's financial ambitions brought "Les Ballets d'Anna Pavlova" and its 400 pieces of luggage back to the United States for another tour. This gruelling, coast-to-coast junket was repeated in 1921–22 and again in 1923–24 with excursions

into Mexico and Canada. When the novelty of Russian ballet began to wear off in North America, Pavlova and 24 of her dancers set sail for a half-year tour of the Far East in September 1922. Conditions for dancing were even more primitive there and knowledge of ballet was virtually non-existent, but everywhere except in China the company was enthusiastically received. In Rangoon, Pavlova was advertised as "The Sensation of All the Civilized World," and from Japan and India she borrowed national music and dance styles to incorporate into future performances in Europe. A tour of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand was arranged for 1926 and return visits to South America, Australia, and India took up most of 1928 and 1929. In all, Pavlova traveled 350,000 miles by boat and train and gave over 4,000 performances popularizing the art of ballet.

Almost every fall during the 1920s, Pavlova managed to stay in Ivy House for a month while fulfilling her commitments at London's Covent Garden. If travel schedules permitted, Dandré fitted in shorter tours of the British Isles as well as to most countries of Europe outside of the Soviet Union. Time and again, at least in Europe, her path crossed that of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Curiously, the two companies complemented rather than competed with one another, and together they brought ballet to the same level of public acceptance in Europe that it had once enjoyed in Imperial Russia. Diaghilev concentrated on developing new styles of dance set to unconventional music for an increasingly sophisticated urban audience. Pavlova remained committed to her classical Russian training and offered shorter works which were accessible, undemanding, and agreeable to a less knowledgeable mass audience. She has been criticized by balletomanes for contributing little to the evolution of modern choreography, for avoiding ambitious full-length works after 1911, for developing few new dancers of note, and for her sometimes questionable technique. No one, however, has ever questioned her stage presence, the emotional impact of her graceful dancing, or her dedication and success in winning thousands of converts to ballet throughout the world.

By the end of 1930, Pavlova was beginning to tire of her hectic pace and was increasingly bothered by a sore knee. After a short Christmas vacation in Cannes, she went to Paris where she caught a cold while rehearsing for a forthcoming tour of the Netherlands. Over the objections of her doctor, she insisted on making the trip. Upon her arrival in The Hague, a mounting fever confined her to her bed in the Hôtel des Indes and forced a rare postponement of a scheduled performance. Six days later, on January 23, 1931, after more than 30 years of dancing and a week short of her 50th birthday, the "incomparable Pavlova" died of pneumonia.


Fonteyn, Margot . Pavlova: Portrait of a Dancer. NY: Viking, 1984.

Kerensky, Oleg. Anna Pavlova. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.

Money, Keith. Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art. NY: Alfred Knopf, 1982.

suggested reading:

Lazzarini, John, and Roberta Lazzarini. Pavlova: Repertoire of a Legend. NY: Schirmer, 1980.

"Pavlova (1881–1931)," in Dance Magazine. Vol. XLV, no. 1. January 1976, pp. 43–75.

related media:

"Homage to Pavlova," London Records, 1973.

The Immortal Swan (film), edited by Victor Dandré, 1936.

"The Legend of Anna Pavlova," National Educational Television, 1967.

R. C. C. , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada