Anna Pavlova (1881-1931)
The first superstars that Sergei Diaghilev brought to Paris were Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. Even today they remain household names . There have not been many dancers whose fame has endured after their retirement. It is doubtful that many living today saw Pavlova or Nijinsky dance, yet their names are synonymous with twentieth century ballet.
Anna Pavlova was really the first to make ballet popular in America and her influence is felt to this day. Her colleagues and her audience considered her a genius. She was born in St. Petersburg on February 12, 1881 and entered the Imperial Ballet Academy at the age of ten. Her early teachers were Nicolai and Sergei Legat, Yekaterina Vazem, Pavel Gerdt, and her favorite teacher, and mentor until her death, Enrico Cecchetti.
Pavlova's sensibility of style and poetic way of moving attracted much attention even as a student. Upon her graduation in 1902 she joined the Maryinsky Theatre as second soloist and was promoted to first soloist the following year. With Cecchetti's help she was promoted to ballerina in 1905, and prima ballerina in 1906.
Mikhail Fokine choreographed the Dying Swan for her with music from Saint-Saen's Carnival of the Animals. It became her signature solo.
Pavlova's wanderlust led to tours in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Prague, and Berlin. Although she remained a member of the Maryinsky Theatre until 1913, she was rarely seen on stage in Russia.
Diaghilev signed her for the first Paris performances in 1909. Her presence helped, ensure his success, but she left the company because of his preference for the male dancers. Fokine had her in mind when he choreographed The Firebird, but when she heard Igor Stravinsky's music she pronounced it nonsense and refused to dance to it.
In 1910 Pavlova formed her own company, with eight dancers from St. Petersburg. As she toured the world she enlarged the company with English dancers. In 1913 she toured America, and for the next fifteen years, countless other countries--a total of 300,000. miles and 4000 performances.
In 1931 Pavlova contracted pneumonia, and on her death bed made the request: "Prepare my swan costume." The next night the company performed as usual, and when it came time for The Dying Swan, the curtain opened on an empty stage. During her lifetime Pavlova inspired thousands of young dancers and had probably done more to bring ballet to the world than any other single dancer before or since.
(First published November 1994, rev. 12/28/2011)