Anna Pavlova (Matveyevna) Pavlova was born on February 12, 1881 in Ligovo, Saint Petersburg, Russia to unwed parents. Her mother, Lyubov Feodorovna, was a laundress. Her father was rumoured to have been Jewish (some sources, including The Saint Petersburg Gazette, state that her biological father was the banker Lazar Polyakov). Her mother's second husband, Matvey Pavlov, is believed to have adopted her at the age of three, by which she acquired his last name.
Pavlova's passion for the art of ballet was ignited when her mother took her to a performance of Marius Petipa's original production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Imperial Maryinsky Theater. The lavish spectacle made an impression on Pavlova. At the age of nine, her mother took her to audition for the renowned Imperial Ballet School. Because of her youth, and what was considered her "sickly" appearance, she was not chosen. In 1891, she was finally accepted at the age of 10. She appeared for the first time on stage in Marius Petipa's Un conte de fees (A Fairy Tale), which the ballet master staged for the students of the school.
Young Pavlova's years of training were difficult. Classical ballet did not come easily to her. Her severely arched feet, thin ankles, and long limbs clashed with the small and compact body in favour for the ballerina at the time. Her fellow students taunted her with such nicknames as The broom and La petite sauvage (The little savage). Undeterred, Pavlova trained to improve her technique. She would practice and practice after learning a step. She took extra lessons from the noted teachers of the day—Christian Johansson, Pavel Gerdt, Nikolai Legat—and from Enrico Cecchetti, considered the greatest ballet virtuoso of the time and founder of the Cecchetti method, a very influential ballet technique used to this day. In 1898, she entered the classe de perfection of Ekaterina Vazem, former Prima ballerina of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres.
During her final year at the Imperial Ballet School, she performed many roles with the principal company. She graduated in 1899 at age 18, chosen to enter the Imperial Ballet a rank ahead of corps de ballet as a coryphee. She made her official debut at the Mariinsky Theatre in Pavel Gerdt's Les Dryades pretendues (The False Dryads). Her performance drew praise from the critics, particularly the great critic and historian Nikolai Bezobrazov.
At the height of Petipa's strict academicism, the public was taken aback by Pavlova's style, a combination of a gift that paid little heed to academic rules: she frequently performed with bent knees, bad turnout, misplaced port de bras and incorrectly placed tours. Such a style in many ways harked back to the time of the romantic ballet and the great ballerinas of old.
Pavlova performed in various classical variations, pas de deux and pas de trois in such ballets as La Camargo, Le Roi Candaule, Marcobomba and The Sleeping Beauty. Her enthusiasm often led her astray: once during a performance as the River Thames in Petipa's The Pharaoh's Daughter her energetic double pique turns led her to lose her balance, and she ended up falling into the prompter's box. Her weak ankles led to difficulty while performing as the fairy Candide in Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty, leading the ballerina to revise the fairy's jumps en pointe, much to the surprise of the Ballet Master. She tried desperately to imitate the renowned Pierina Legnani, Prima ballerina assoluta of the Imperial Theaters. Once during class she attempted Legnani's famous fouettes, causing her teacher Pavel Gerdt to fly into a rage. He told her,
"... leave acrobatics to others. It is positively more than I can bear to see the pressure such steps put on your delicate muscles and the severe arch of your foot. I beg you to never again try to imitate those who are physically stronger than you. You must realize that your daintiness and fragility are your greatest assets. You should always do the kind of dancing which brings out your own rare qualities instead of trying to win praise by mere acrobatic tricks."
Pavlova rose through the ranks quickly, becoming a favorite of the old maestro Petipa. It was from Petipa himself that Pavlova learned the title role in Paquita, Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh's Daughter, Queen Nisia in Le Roi Candaule, and Giselle. She was named danseuse in 1902, premiere danseuse in 1905, and finally prima ballerina in 1906 after a resounding performance in Giselle. Petipa revised many grand pas for her, as well as many supplemental variations. She was much celebrated by the fanatical balletomanes of Tsarist Saint Petersburg, her legions of fans calling themselves the Pavlovatzi.
When the ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska was pregnant in 1901, she coached Pavlova in the role of Nikya in La Bayadere. Kschessinska, not wanting to be upstaged, was certain Pavlova would fail in the role, as she was considered technically inferior because of her small ankles and lithe legs. Instead audiences became enchanted with Pavlova and her frail, ethereal look, which fitted the role perfectly, particularly in the scene The Kingdom of the Shades.
Her feet were extremely rigid, so she strengthened her pointe shoe by adding a piece of hard wood on the soles for support and curving the box of the shoe. At the time, many considered this "cheating", for a ballerina of the era was taught that she, not her shoes, must hold her weight en pointe. In Pavlova's case this was extremely difficult, as the shape of her feet required her to balance her weight on her little toes. Her solution became, over time, the precursor of the modern pointe shoe, as pointe work became less painful and easier for curved feet. According to Margot Fonteyn's biography, Pavlova did not like the way her invention looked in photographs, so she would remove it or have the photographs altered so that it appeared she was using a normal pointe shoe.
Pavlova is perhaps most renowned for creating the role of The Dying Swan, a solo choreographed for her by Michel Fokine. The ballet, created in 1905, is danced to Le cygne from The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens. Pavlova also choreographed several solos herself, one of which is The Dragonfly, a short ballet set to music by Fritz Kreisler. While performing the role, Pavlova wore a gossamer gown with large dragonfly wings fixed to the back.
In the first years of the Ballets Russes, Pavlova worked briefly for Sergei Diaghilev. Originally she was to dance the lead in Mikhail Fokine's The Firebird, but refused the part, as she could not come to terms with Igor Stravinsky's avant-garde score, and the role was given to Tamara Karsavina. All her life Pavlova preferred the melodious "musique dansante" of the old maestros such as Cesare Pugni and Ludwig Minkus, and cared little for anything else which strayed from the salon-style ballet music of the 19th century.
By the early 20th century she had founded her own company and performed throughout the world, with a repertory consisting primarily of abridgements of Petipa's works, and specially choreographed pieces for herself. Members of her company included Kathleen Crofton. The ballet writer Cyril Johnson said that "her bourrees were like a string of pearls".
Pavlova had a rivalry with Tamara Karsavina. According to the film A Portrait of Giselle, Karsavina recalls a 'wardrobe malfunction'. During one performance her shoulder straps fell and she accidentally exposed herself, and Pavlova reduced an embarrassed Karsavina to tears.
After leaving Russia, Pavlova moved to London, England, settling, in 1912, at the Ivy House on North End Road, Golders Green, north of Hampstead Heath, where she lived for the rest of her life. The house had an ornamental lake where she fed her pet swans, and where now stands a statue of her by the Scots sculptor George Henry Paulin. The house was featured in the film Anna Pavlova. It is now the London Jewish Cultural Centre, but a blue plaque marks it as a site of significant historical interest being Pavlova's home. While in London, Pavlova was influential in the development of British ballet, most notably inspiring the career of Alicia Markova. The Gate pub, located on the border of Arkley and Totteridge (London Borough of Barnet), has a story, framed on its walls, describing a visit by Pavlova and her dance company.
Pavlova was introduced to audiences in the United States by Max Rabinoff during his time as managing director of the Boston Grand Opera Company from 1914 to 1917 and was featured there with her Russian Ballet Company during that period.
Victor Dandre, her manager and companion, asserted he was her husband in his biography of the dancer in 1932: Anna Pavlova: In Art & Life On death (5 February 1944) he was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes placed below those of Anna.
Victor Dandre wrote of Pavlova's many charity dance performances and charitable efforts to support Russian orphans in post-World War I Paris
...who were in danger of finding themselves literally in the street. They were already suffering terrible privations and it seemed as though there would soon be no means whatever to carry on their education.
Fifteen girls were adopted into a home Pavlova purchased near Paris at Saint-Cloud, overseen by the Comtesse de Guerne and supported by her performances and funds solicited by Pavlova, including many small donations from members of the Camp Fire Girls of America who made her an honorary member.
During her life she had many pets including a Siamese cat, various dogs and many kinds of birds, including swans. Dandre indicated she was a lifelong lover of animals and this is evidenced by photographic portraits she sat for which often included an animal she loved. A formal studio portrait was made of her with Jack, her favorite swan.
While touring in The Hague, Pavlova was told that she had pneumonia and required an operation. She was also told that she would never be able to dance again if she went ahead with it. She refused to have the surgery, saying "If I can't dance then I'd rather be dead." She died of pleurisy, in the bedroom next to the Japanese Salon of the Hotel Des Indes in The Hague, three weeks short of her 50th birthday.
Victor Dandre wrote that Anna Pavlova died a half hour past midnight on Friday, January 23, 1931, with her maid Marguerite Letienne, Dr. Zalevsky and himself at her bedside. Her last words were, "Get my 'Swan' costume ready."
In accordance with old ballet tradition, on the day she was to have next performed, the show went on as scheduled, with a single spotlight circling an empty stage where she would have been. Memorial services were held in the Russian Orthodox Church in London. Anna Pavlova was cremated, and her ashes placed in a columbarium at Golders Green Crematorium, where her urn was adorned with her ballet shoes (which have since been stolen).
Pavlova's ashes have been a source of much controversy, following attempts by Valentina Zhilenkova and Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, to have them flown to Moscow for interment in the Novodevichy Cemetery. These attempts were based on claims that it was Pavlova's dying wish that her ashes be returned to Russia following the fall of Communism. These claims were later found to be false, as there is no evidence to suggest that this was her wish at all. The only documentary evidence that suggests that such a move would be possible is in the will of Pavlova's husband, who stipulated that if Russian authorities agreed to such a move and treated her remains with proper reverence, then the crematorium caretakers should agree to it. Despite this clause, the will does not contain a formal request or plans for a posthumous journey to Russia.
The most recent attempt to move Pavlova's remains to Russia came in 2001. Golders Green Crematorium had made arrangements for them to be flown to Russia for interment on 14 March 2001, in a ceremony to be attended by various Russian dignitaries. This plan was later abandoned after Russian authorities withdrew permission for the move. It was later revealed that neither Pavlova's family nor the Russian Government had sanctioned the move and that they had agreed the remains should stay in London.
Pavlova inspired the choreographer Frederick Ashton when as a boy of 13 he saw her dance in the Municipal Theater in Lima, Peru.
The Pavlova dessert is believed to have been created in honour of the dancer in Wellington during her tour of New Zealand and Australia in the 1920s. The nationality of its creator has been a source of argument between the two nations for many years.
The Jarabe Tapatio, known in English as the 'Mexican Hat Dance', gained popularity outside of Mexico when Pavlova created a staged version in pointe shoes, for which she was showered with hats by her adoring Mexican audiences. Afterward, in 1924, the Jarabe Tapatio was proclaimed Mexico's national dance.
She once said that the country that would produce the best ballerina in history would be the United States because of all the different cultures that came together there.
Anna Pavlova was able to complete 37 turns while on top of a moving elephant while on a tour in China.
In 1980, Igor Carl Faberge licensed a collection of 8-inch Full Lead Crystal Wine Glasses to commemorate the centenary of Anna's birth. The glasses were crafted in Japan under the supervision of The Franklin Mint. A frosted image of Anna Pavlova appears in the stem of each glass. Originally each set contained 12 glasses.
Pavlova's life was depicted in the 1983 film Anna Pavlova.
Pavlova's dances inspired many artworks of the Irish painter John Lavery. The critic of The Observer wrote on 16 April 1911: 'Mr. Lavery's portrait of the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, caught in a moment of graceful, weightless movement … Her miraculous, feather-like flight, which seems to defy the law of gravitation'.
There are at least five memorials to Pavlova in London, England: a contemporary sculpture by Tom Merrifield of Pavlova as the Dragonfly in the grounds of Ivy House, a sculpture by Scot George Henry Paulin in the middle of the Ivy House pond, a blue plaque on the front of Ivy House, a statuette sitting with the urn that holds her ashes in Golders Green Crematorium, and the gilded statue atop the Victoria Palace Theatre.
When the Victoria Palace Theatre in London, England, opened in 1911, a gilded statue of Pavlova had been installed above the cupola of the theatre. This was taken down for its safety during World War II and was lost. In 2006, a replica of the original statue was restored in its place.
A McDonnell Douglas MD-11 of the Dutch airline KLM, with the registration PH-KCH carried her name. It was delivered on August 31, 1995.
Anna Pavlova appears as a character in the fourth episode of the British series Mr Selfridge, played by real-life ballerina Natalia Kremen.