a short biography

Anna Pavlova was born in St. Petersburg on January 31 (February 12 new style), 1881. About her parentage we are not well informed: she was the daughter of a washerwoman, Lyubov Feodorovna Pavlova, married to a reserve soldier, Matvey Pavlov, who, however, was not supposed to be Anna's biological father. She may have been the offspring of Lyubov and the Jewish banker Lazar Poliakoff. The young Anna Pavlova herself seems to have adopted the fiction of calling herself Anna Pavlovna Pavlova instead of Anna Matveyevna Pavlova, with reference to a mysterious Pavel, supposed first husband of her mother who died when Anna was two years old.

For Pavlova's early memories we had best turn to her own words: 'I always wanted to dance, from my youngest years. I could think of no other future, could not see myself in any other role than that of dancer on a big stage in front of a crowded audience. I wanted to perform for them the perfect beauty of movement, to wait with baited breath and a convulsing heart for their applause. Thus I built castles in the air out of my hopes and dreams, which work was crowned when I was taken for the first time to the Maryinsky a performance of the Sleeping Beauty ...I was so riveted by the spectacle that I sat motionless. I hardly dared to breathe, fearful to break the spell. Then, in the second act, just when many couples were waltzing, I was suddenly tapped on my arm. I was startled, looked about and saw that it was my mother who touched me. My breathless attention had struck her. "Nura", she said, "would you like to be dancing with them?". I said "No, I would rather be dancing there alone, like that sweet Princess" ... When I was eight years old I could no longer keep my aspirations in check, and begged to be allowed to learn to dance' (translated from Anna Pawlowa, Tanzende Fuesse. Der Weg meines Lebens, Dresden 1928).

Parts of this story may be fictitious, but we can be reasonably sure that Anna aspired to be a ballerina from a tender age, and that her mother took her to the St. Petersburg ballet academy on Theatre Street when she was eight years old. Indeed, her mother may have welcomed the idea of the academy taking on all financial responsibilities for the child's upbringing. At the academy she was told to re-apply in two years time, and in 1891 she was admitted to this famous, priviliged imperial institute. Pavlova seems to have been happy at the school: there were worse places to be in late 19th-century Russia.

Because of her talent and more elusive qualities, Pavlova soon attracted attention from her teachers, amongst whom were Pavel Gerdt and Ekaterina Vazem, and of the man in power at the Maryinsky, the famous ballet master Marius Petipa. There were some disagreements as to her physique and her good looks, but not about her being something 'special'. At the annual graduation performance of 1899 she made quite an impression on the jury, and it was announced that she would join the Imperial Ballet at the Maryinsky Theatre later that year, as a coryphee, that is, bypassing the corps de ballet. She made her debut on September 19 (old style), 1899, in La Fille Mal Gardée.

During the season 1901-1902 Pavlova's reputation became firmly established with the knowledgeable St. Petersburg balletomanes. One amongst them looked upon her especially favourably: Victor Dandré, a minor aristocrat and member of the municipal council, who had followed her career from her schooldays. The balletomanes or balletomaniacs, as the 'hard core' Maryinsky audience referred to themselves took much interest in the pupils at the academy, as they of course did in company members. This interest might often go beyond the mere artistic, but certainly their love of ballet was as genuine as their desire for some liaison.

Having much support, Pavlova's career flourished. In 1905 she was officially appointed to the rank of prima ballerina. During these years she already was in close contact with those members of St. Petersburg theatrical life who were poised for quite radical renewal, people as Sergei Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst and Mikhail Fokine. In May 1907 she was allowed to go to Moscow on her first independent tour, with a small company led by Mikhail Fokine. Later that year, she presumably travelled as far as London (though not yet performing there). She was quite ready to try on new things. Things such as Fokine's new- fangled choreography. In December 1907 Fokine created a short solo, The Swan, for Pavlova. This piece was to become completely identified with her name in the popular imagination.

Pavlova's fame grew. So did her desire to go on tour. In 1908, her influential friends persuaded the management of the Maryinsky to let her go with a small touring group to Helsingfors (Helsinki), Stockholm, Copenhagen, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, and a number of other German towns, finishing in Berlin. The success was overwhelming, and repeated the following year. After her 1909 tour she traveled to Paris where she appeared in Diaghilev's Saison Russe. The Russians' triumphs awoke interest in London and in the United States. A quick visit to London, in order to perform for a choice audience which included the King and Queen, brought Pavlova an advantageous contract, but first she had to return to her duties in St. Petersburg. She was now with the Maryinsky for ten years, 28 years old and seven years before her compulsory retirement. The world lay before her.

In 1910-1911 Pavlova toured England and the United States. In the meantime, in St. Petersburg a scandal was brewing: Victor Dandré was accused of the embezzlement of government money. After Pavlova's return to Russia he was released on bail, after having promised not to leave the city. But within a few weeks Pavlova was performing in London for Diaghilev, and early in 1912 Dandré slipped out of Russia and joined her. Was Pavlova involved in the embezzlement one way or another, or did she just stand by an old lover and protector? Probably Dandré was infatuated with Pavlova, while Pavlova appreciated him as her protective manager. Anyhow, she now was loyal to him, and stayed on in England. Later on, Dandré was presented as her husband, to which status he could never produce any title. She certainly could not do without him, in future years, when he masterminded her world wide tours.

Pavlova and Dandré settled permanently in London. She rented a house, which she later purchased, on The North End Road in Hampstead. This house, which became known as Ivy House, was to be the base for Pavlova's world tours. She gathered her own company around her and travelled widely, presenting ballet literally all over the world, also in places where classical ballet had never been seen before. Millions must have seen her dancing, and she attained the status of a super star. Many testified to the profound impression she left behind, convincing the one of the beauty and expressiveness of classical ballet, inspiring the other to take up ballet him or herself.

But two decades of almost uninterrupted touring took their toll: she burned herself up. In January 1931, by now aging and tired, she was involved in a railway accident while travelling from Cannes to Paris. She was unhurt, but caught a cold during the twelve hour delay during which the carriages were without heating. By the time she reached Holland, the starting point of a new tour, billed as a farewell tour, she had developed pneumonia. She died in a bedroom of the Hôtel des Indes in The Hague in the early hours of January 23, 1931. Her ashes are at Golders Green Cemetery, close to her beloved Ivy House.

Frederick Naerebout

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