Nov 5, 2020

Born to Dance: The Life and Influence of Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova is one of the most famous names in the ballet world. Her performances are acclaimed worldwide, especially her famous Dying Swan routine. She was the most celebrated dancer of her time, and even today millions of ballerinas and ballerinos look up to her. 

Early Life

Anna Matveyevna Pavlovna Pavlova was born on February 12th,1881, in Petersburg, Russia.

She was raised by her mother, Lyubov Feodorovna, a washerwoman, and stepfather, Matvey Pavlov, a reserve soldier. Her biological father is unknown, though her mother was speculated to have an affair with Lazar Poliakoff.

As a child, Pavlova liked to tell people that she was the result of a previous marriage. She told everyone that her mother had been married to another man named Pavel, who died when she was younger. However, no historian has ever been able to trace down Pavel.

A Star In The Making

Pavlova had always been quite imaginative as a child and her love for daydreaming drew her to ballet’s colorful world. Pavlova looked back on her childhood with fondness. She said, “I always wanted to dance; from my youngest years...Thus I built castles in the air out of my hopes and dreams.”

Though Pavlova’s family was not well-off, when she was eight years old, her mother took her to see a performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre in St.Petersburg.

Pavlova was deeply fascinated by the show, and at just eight years old, declared that she was going to be a ballet dancer. Her mother fully supported her young daughter’s ambitions. 

Within two years, Pavlova was accepted into the prestigious St.Petersburg Imperial Ballet School (modern-day Vaganova Ballet Academy). She aced the entrance exam for the school, then headed by a famous ballet master- Marius Petipa (right).

A Leap Away From Success

At the Imperial Ballet School, Pavlova, from the beginning, was an ambitious and dedicated student. Her teachers, Ekaterina Vazem and Pavel Gerdt, quickly recognized her exceptional talent. Though she was incredibly hard-working and had a gift for dancing, classical ballet did not come naturally to her, and she was often teased by her classmates.

Still, with steely resolve and practice, she mastered the art of ballet and graduated from the ballet school in 1899 at 18 years old. She effortlessly transformed from an enthusiastic student to an almost prima ballerina.

Ballet Career

After graduating, she got her first breakthrough starring in the performance of the production - La Fille Mal Gardée.

La Fille Mal Gardée translates to The Poorly Guarded Girl but is better interpreted as the Wayward Girl. It is a two-act ballet originally choreographed by Baller Master Jean Dauberval. It premiered in 1789 in Bordeaux, France under the title Le ballet de la Paille, ou il n’est qu’un pas du mal au bien which translated to The Ballet of Straw, or There is Only One Step from Bad to Good.

Pavlova’s performance took place at the Mariinsky Theatre, the same theatre when she had decided to become a ballerina almost a decade ago.

A Life in the Spotlight

Pavlova quickly rose to fame and with each passing performance, her name became a regular in the headlines. However, the highlight of her career was in 1906, when she scored the lead solo in Michael Fokine’s The Dying Swan.

Her graceful movements and strong facial movements flawlessly communicated the frailty and price of life. The Dying Swan would go on to become the most talked-about performance of Pavlova’s career. Pavlova was first inspired by swans when she saw them in a public park in Leningrad, and for years after she kept studying swans at her home in London.

By 1906, Pavlova had perfected the challenging routine of Giselle. Just seven years into her career, she was promoted to the prima ballerina. The term ‘prima ballerina’ refers to the chief female dancer.

However, Pavlova was not only an amazing dancer but also a compassionate human being. For ten years, she donated $500 annually to underprivileged dancers and made regular donations to the Mariinsky Theatre ballet.

Around the World

Along with a few others Pavlova left for her first tour in 1907. The tour took stops at the capital cities of Europe, including Berlin, Copenhagen, and Prague. Her first tour was immensely successful and in 1908, she decided to go on a second tour.

After her second tour, Pavlova was invited to join Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe on its historical tour, accompanied by dancers like Laurent Novikoff, Thadee Slavinsky, Anatole Vilz, Olga Spessivtzeva, and Alexander Valentine. The Ballet Russe is still performed in Australia and played a significant role in Russian ballet’s influence in Australian dance.

A New Direction

Pavlova then took her career in a completely new direction by opening her own ballet company in 1911. This allowed her to have complete control over her performances, and routines. She put Victor Dandré in charge of her independent tour, whom she later married in 1924.

For the next twenty years of her ballet career, she toured the globe with her excellent company. Her performance left little girls amazed and inspired to dance just like their hero Anna Pavlova. Her work inspired a whole new generation of ballet dancers.

The End, but Not Really

The dance takes a toll on your body, especially if you do it continuously for thirty-years as Pavlova had. At 55 years old, Pavlova decided to take a short Christmas break after finishing a laborious tour in England.

After her holiday, she took a train back to The Hague, Netherlands, where she would resume ballet. En route, the train was met in a crash. Though Pavlova remained unharmed, she had to wait outside on the train platform for almost twelve hours!

Pavlova was wearing only a thin jacket, and silk pajamas, certainly not the best outfit for a snowy evening. On her arrival in Holland, she was diagnosed with pneumonia. Her illness worsened, and she developed pleurisy: a disease in which the two large, thin layers of tissue that separates your lungs from your chest wall become inflamed.

Pavlova passed away early in the morning after taking one last look at her beloved swan costume. Her ashes were interred, near the Ivy House, which she shared with her husband and manager, at Golders Green Cemetery in London.

Though Pavlova herself departed the Earth on January 23rd, her influence, and legacy still surrounds us today. Pavlova is also credited for creating the modern-day pointe shoe, with a hard shank and a sole that curves around the foot which provides the dancer more support. Her legacy lives on in dance schools, and companies established in her honor, but perhaps most strongly in the generations of dancers she inspired.


Sarah Masih

I’m a ninth-grader living in California. Some of my favorite subjects are English, Global Studies, and History. I am a huge fan of anything literature or world-history related!

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