An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Anna Pavlova

Posted on August 5, 2014


As a country, Russia has a very stern image. It has a reputation for producing huge barrel-chested men, bare-knuckle fighters and general bastards. It’s curious, therefore, that less than 100 years ago the state was producing some of the finest ballet dancers the world has ever seen. Out of all the arts in the whole wide world, you’d be hard pushed to find one more delicate than Ballet. Seriously, think about it. Imagine a ballet dancer. Just picture one. Unless you have a particularly bizarre imagination, you are going to be imagining some sort of ultra dainty female, all pointed toes and delicacy. That is what ballet is in all of our minds. Pure delicacy. Russia and delicacy do not go together so well in the minds of the average person. Even so, Russia has produced its fair share of fine ballerinas.

Quite possibly the most acclaimed and well-known Russian ballerina of them all was Anna Pavlova. Born out of wedlock in Ligovo (near Saint Petersburg) in 1881, Anna was born into a por family and of poor health. Her mother was a washerwoman, and it has never been confirmed or clear who her biological father was. It doesn’t matter really. Either way, the young Anna’s life was changed forever when her mother scraped together enough money to take her daughter to a showing of The Sleeping Beauty. Her active imagination and love of fantasy were aflame, and from that moment on she knew what she wanted to do. To dance, my dear, to dance.

So she auditioned for the Imperial Ballet School aged nine, but was unsuccessful due to being too young and looking too ill. I mean, if you’re too young then you’re too young and they probably didn’t need to add the ‘looking too ill’ part. Harsh. She tried again the next year, and lo and behold was accepted in. Well done Anna. Her first on-stage appearance was as a part of Un Conte de Fees. That’s ‘A Fairy Tale’, Her early years were tough though, and she found classical ballet a struggle. She had arched feet, thin ankles, long limbs, all of the characteristics that a ballet dancer shouldn’t have. Small, compact bodies were favoured, and hence she was bullied. Anna was called such names as ‘the Broom’ and ‘Le Petite Sauvage’, which I’m sure you can assume translates into ‘The Little Savage’.

Still, Anna wasn’t going to let anything like that stop her from progressing, and she spent all of her time practising until she couldn’t go no more. She took on every extra lesson she could, including lessons from Enrico Cecchetti, the greatest virtuoso of the time. She made it to her graduation year, in 1899, as one of the finest performers of her generation, attested to by the number of roles she performed in that final year. She successfully graduated, and entered the Imperial Ballet a rank ahead of usual, meaning she was immediately dancing as part of smaller groups. Her official debut came in the Mariinsky Theatre, the very same theatre where she was influenced by The Sleeping Beauty all those years ago. How beautifully poetic.

Her style was unusual, at odds with what was expected from ballet but all the more glorious for it. Her knees bent, her placement was frequently incorrect, the whole thing was almost erratic. Still, there was an undeniable romanticism in her work, exacerbated by her ethereal nature. Her sheer, unbridled enthusiasm would often lead her astray though, causing her to lose her balance. Her teachers frequently grew tired of having to deal with this, none more so than Pavel Gerat, who once raged at the young Pavlova;

‘you must realise that your daintiness and fragility are your greatest assets!’

Anna Pavlova rose prodigiously through the ranks of the Imperial Ballet, and was named Prima ballerina in 1906 at the age of 25. She had legions upon legions of fans, who in one of the first examples of superstardom referred to themselves as ‘Pavlovatzi’. Cute. Ballet dancers were genuinely dainty, but Pavlova was on another level. She was frail, ethereal. She was death, and the fragility of life was very evidently on show when she danced on the stage. It was this fragility that led to the creation of her most loved role. This was The Dying Swan, created specifically for her in 1905. Her delicacy and her intensity almost pre-destined the dance. Anna Pavlova became an international celebrity.

It was this fame that allowed her to found her own company in 1911, giving her total creative control over her performances, and she would go on to perform all over the world. In doing so she became the first ballerina to tour ballet all around the globe. Impressive, without doubt. Her first foreign tour came in 1907, when she performed in Berlin, Copenhagen and Prague.She did this without ever straying to far from classical scores, and in spit of her bent knees and weak ankles. She achieved it by being the most dedicated and ambitious of her time. It was more than her fragility that allowed her to stand out. She was purely more involved than any of her peers.

‘No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent, work transforms talent into genius.’

In 1912, she decided to move to London. Why anyone would want to move to that god forsaken hole I don’t know, but hey, Pavlova did. She even had a lake and scores of pets whilst she was there. Pavlova was famous for her love of animals, owning Siamese cats, birds, dogs and god knows what else. Her favourite swan was one called Jack, which doesn’t really seem like the most obvious name for a swan. Anna really liked swans.

It was whilst on tour that she would meet her end however. Whilst in Holland, in the Hague to be exact (oh so many dead Slavs there), she was on a train that had something of an accident. A smash, we’ll call it. Whilst Anna herself wasn’t injured directly from the crash, the 12 hour wait on a platform in the dead of night waiting for a replacement did for her. She wasn’t prepared for the bitter cold at all, and she would contract double pneumonia. Double pneumonia?! I didn’t realise that thing could double up. That’s a bit mental. Her fragility meant that an operation would be necessary, but it would be one that would make her unable to dance again. Given the choice between dance or death, Pavlova’s decision was never in doubt. Anna Pavlova died on January 23rd, 1931. Her last words were ‘Get my Swan costume ready.’ Anna Pavlova really fucking liked swans.

As with tradition in ballet, the next performance she was scheduled for went ahead as planned, only with a single spotlight tracing the stage where the dainty Russian should have stood. I don’t know anything about ballet, but I like that tradition. In fact, 100% of the things that I know about ballet I have picked up from reading about Anna Pavlova, or from journeys to Birmingham in my youth when my sister danced with the Royal Ballet, and I ate at Wimpy with my Dad. Good times. Now, however, I no longer associate ballet with Wimpy. Thanks to Anna Pavlova, I associate ballet with swans. Loads of swans.