Russian "Swan" Ballerinaby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
“God gives talent, but work transforms talent into genius.” Pavlova was once heard saying. Anna Pavlova was a living testimony to that comment. Sweat and tears paved her road to fame, but her love for ballet helped her endure that road. Someone once said “she had the passion and the power to communicate through movement.” Anna Pavlova gave the people of the world a great gift. The gift of a dance that could make one laugh or cry and hate or love. And the world loved her for it.
When Anna was eight years old her mother gave her a special Christmas gift. They were going to the Marinsky Theater, home of the great Kirov Ballet, to see The Sleeping Beauty. The ballet was the most beautiful thing Anna had ever seen, a world of wonder and fantasy. Then the curtain fell and Anna was dropped back into her own world. Her mother asked, “Do you want to dance like those lovely people?” But Anna answered, “No, I want to dance like the Princess Aurora.” After that Anna would not give up the idea of dancing. After two years of antagonizing waiting, Anna was finally old enough to be enrolled in the Vagnova School of Ballet.
The Vagnova School of Ballet, trained dancers to dance with the Russian Imperial Ballet, after eight long years of training and strain the best dancers were accepted into the ballet company. Anna had been raised Russian Orthodox and was known to pray to the Virgin Mother for the strength and the perseverance that was required of the students. In the year of 1902 Anna graduated. Her debut performance was an affair of much anxiety, because not only was she watched by an audience but also by a jury that decided whether she would join the Company or not. However her part that had been choreographed especially for her was a superb success, thrilling both audience and jury alike. She was accepted into the company as a coryphée, meaning she was never in the corps de ballet, instead she started in semi-solo roles. Within four years Anna had earned the valuable title of “Prima ballerina”.
Anna was a very emotional person, both in her dancing and her love of the people of her motherland. In 1905 the government attacked the people she loved. The day that became known as “Bloody Sunday” was a day of sorrow for Anna Pavlova. She was very involved in the petition of her people and even led a strike against the Ballet Company. From that day on she worked towards the freedom of the arts, one of her great passions.
It was soon after this that “The Dying Swan” was created. The beauty of Anna and her pet swan Jack inspired Michel Fokine, Anna’s dancing partner. “The Dying Swan” became Anna’s masterpiece, her symbol. My own ballet teacher has told me “When you dance “The Dying Swan” you are en point (balanced on your toes) the entire time, only at the end when the swan dies do you collapse.” This requires much skill and strength something that Anna didn’t always have. However “the Dying Swan” became famous not because of its difficulty but because of its meaning and Anna’s ability to convey that. Allegra Kent in The Swan says, “In fact, a woman imitating a swan is an absurd idea. The body parts don't match, and the bird is graceful only when swimming. A swan's foot is a webbed black affair that the bird can shake out like an old dishrag before folding it neatly under a wing. Pavlova en pointe and in motion had no duckish quality whatsoever.” She adds, “"The Dying Swan" is not about a woman impersonating a bird, it's about the fragility of life - all life - and the passion with which we hold on to it. Pavlova's sheer dramatic intensity forcibly conveyed this truth.” Though I agree with this I also think that Anna’s amazing emotion and skill added to that so that she could “become” a swan. It has been said that “Her arms were like wings…the Swan was weakening…it moved no more” people could see a swan not just a person.
The first time Anna Pavlova danced away from her home theater was in 1907 when the Company went to Moscow. Anna’s natural sense of adventure and love for the audience convinced her that she needed to spread her dancing worldwide. “No dancer, before or since, traveled as extensively: 350,000 miles in fifteen years” says a writer for the Gayor Minden website. Anna Pavlova started her own company some time after 1912, though it is not quite clear when. They performed from Australia to Brazil, a dingy movie theaters with car headlights for stage lights, a circus the act after the elephants, a school for children and the Metropolitan Opera House were just a few of her stages.
Before she left for her first tour the Tsar told her “My fear is that we will lose you.” During her extensive travels his fear became reality and she lost contact with Russia. It wasn’t for many years that she learned her mother was alive. The Russian Revolution and World War I not only apprehended her contact with her Motherland but also kept Anna away from her beloved Ivy House in England. After she finally returned to Ivy House, she began to help her country in tangible ways. Ellen Lavine tells us: in 1921, Anna bought a house outside Paris; it became a home for Russian refugee girls. When the house closed it had housed more than forty-five girls.
After returning to London Anna began to grow weak though she would never admit it. One day she sent one of her dancers to a Russian Orthodox church saying “Go and pray for me…I feel in the shadow of a dark heavy cloud” In 1931, after a cold night in a broken down train Anna became very ill, ill enough to cancel her performance something she had never done before. The whole world became distressed when they learned she was ill, several royals called every hour for an update. A much-loved lady was dying. The night of January 22, Anna made her last request in little more than a whisper, “Bring me my swan costume…play that last measure softly” And so Anna passed out of our world thinking of ballet to the very end. The next day her company danced as requested, at the end the “Swan” music was played and the spotlight roved over an empty stage.
Sources:Levine, Ellen. Anna Pavlova: Genius of the Dance. Scholastic Inc., 1995.
Kent, Allegra The Swan, Sept. 26, 2003 <http://www.nytimes.com/special/magazine4/articles/pavlova.html>
Geyor Minden Anna Pavlova Sept. 26, 2003 <www.dancer.com/Pavlova.html>