At the turn of the 20th century, ballet had yet to establish a firm foothold outside of Europe. Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova legitimized and popularized it in the United States and around the world with her one-of-a-kind magnetism and performance style. Her emotive style of dancing set a high bar for generations of ballerinas. She is best remembered for her performances of The Dying Swan, a classical solo that fused brilliant technique with striking expression
Pavlova was born in Saint Petersburg in 1881. After seeing a production of The Sleeping Beauty at age 8, she decided she wanted to become a ballerina. Two years later, she enrolled at the Imperial Theatre School in Saint Petersburg. Her instructors included Enrico Cecchetti, known for the Cecchetti technique. After studying for eight years, she debuted with the company in 1899.
Pavlova had a small, frail build, so rather than attempting the virtuosic feats of a stronger dancer, she carved out a reputation as a highly expressive performer, known for completely embodying every role she took on. She was soon cast in solo roles in classics like Le Corsaire, Don Quixote and Giselle and swiftly rose to the rank of prima ballerina. She dazzled audiences with her unwavering expressiveness, most notably in her signature solo, The Dying Swan, composed primarily of bourrées and soft undulations of the arms. It was created especially for her in 1907 (some sources say 1905) by Ballets Russes choreographer Michel Fokine.
Disagreements with company management over better working conditions and more artistic independence inspired Pavlova to seek out touring opportunities. She set out on her first European tour in 1907, to great acclaim. Shortly after, she had a brief stint performing with ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s famed Ballets Russes before continuing her career as a solo artist, touring the U.S. and throughout the world. Her 1910 U.S. debut in New York City was a watershed moment for American ballet, sparking a new interest in and respect for the artform.
Pavlova eventually established her own company. With her troupe, she continued touring internationally for the next two decades, bringing ballet to countries like China, Australia, India, Mexico, Canada, Peru and Argentina. Everywhere she went, audiences responded with enthusiasm. She died of a respiratory illness in 1931, shortly before her 50th birthday. DT
Pavlova with her pet swan, Jack. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library
Pavlova was known for her delicacy and lightness. She had a solid classical foundation but often veered away from perfect lines and smooth transitions, in favor of stylistic variation to enhance the drama or mood of a piece. Her world travels influenced her performance choices, as well. She incorporated elements of different cultural dance forms into her movement, mostly notably regional dances from India, Japan and Mexico. Pavlova was extremely charismatic and glamorous, which contributed to her international following.
Pavlova is credited with creating the modern pointe shoe, with a hard shank and sole that curves to the shape of the foot. She had highly arched but weak feet, so the shank provided her with extra support.
Pavlova and choreographer Michel Fokine were close friends. She was the inspiration for his one-act Romantic-era ballet Les Sylphides (1909).
The Legacy Lives On
Anna Pavlova was an inspiration to generations of dancers and choreographers, including Doris Humphrey, Ruth Page and Agnes de Mille. Pavlova spread ballet throughout the world, creating new audiences and establishing it as a respectable art in the United States. The Dying Swan, which is still associated with her, is performed to this day by companies such as the Bolshoi Ballet, The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and parodied by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Jookin star Lil Buck became famous for his liquid-style interpretation of this solo.
American Dance: The Complete Illustrated History by Margaret Fuhrer, Voyageur Press, 2014
No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press, 2003
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org