Her feet bled. Her back ached. She barely slept. Voices echoed in Anna Pavlova’s head: “you could never be a dancer”.
How wrong they were.
Anna Pavolva was born to a washerwoman in 1881. Her mother raised Pavlova alone for the first three years of her life, and even when she did eventually marry, the family was very poor.
So it was bound to be an incredible night when Pavlova, age eight, was taken to Russia’s preeminent theatre, the Mariinsky Theatre, for a performance of Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty. Neither mother nor daughter could have predicted the profound impact the occasion would have.
As soon as the performers appeared on stage, Pavlova was swept up in the spectacle. From that point on, she vowed to become a ballerina, a dream her mother proudly supported.
But at age nine, when she auditioned for the Imperial Ballet School, she was rejected. The selectors called her ‘sickly’, and suspected that she would not develop the kind of frame that would allow her to continue dancing in her later life.
One would think it hard to hear such damning remarks at nine years old, but Pavlova was unphased.
When discussing her career, she would later say “to follow, without halt, one aim: that is the secret to success”.
The next year, she applied again, and was successful.
The selectors proved right: Pavlova’s figure made her eight years of training a painful trial. Where the other ballerinas were small and compact, Pavlova was lanky, her ankles thin, and feet arched.
Still, she persisted, taking extra lessons with some of Russia’s most renowned dancers. It was this persistence that made her teachers begin to realise Pavlova’s exceptional talent.
At age 18, Pavlova graduated and was chosen to skip the traditional ‘right of passage’ for dancers newly inducted into the ballet in order to be featured more prominently on stage.
She made her debut in a performance of The False Dryads. Her performance was flawed, but in a way that harked back to the type of performance that had been so popular in the early 19th century. Her peers were perfect, but in their perfection they only made Pavlova stand out further to an audience that was slowly falling in love with her.
She also became a favourite of Marius Petipa, whose production of The Sleeping Beauty had, a decade early, inspired her love for the dance.
As Pavlova developed as a dancer, her confidence grew, and she attempted to imitate the country’s most famous ballerinas through steps her body was not built to handle. During one such attempt, her teacher flew into a rage, shouting:
“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 realise 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.”
When finally Pavlova understood, her career began to soar. In 1901, she was trained for the lead role in The Temple Dancer by a pregnant dancer who thought Pavlova’s unusual performance could never overshadow her own.
It turned out to be one of the biggest breaks in her career.
Five years later, Pavlova was named prima ballerina: the leading ballerina of the theatre.
It was around this time that she first danced The Dying Swan, the short ballet that would become her signature performance. Over the next two decades, she would perform the solo 4,000 times.
Based on the movements of a swan, Pavlova’s dainty frame lead itself to the graceful steps that the performance required. These moves would go on to inspire Tchaikovsky’s The Swan Princess, one of the most popular ballets of all time.
In 1907, Pavlova set out on her first international tour to Europe. Though it was exceptionally gruelling, the tour was a success, and would mark the first leg of an endeavour that saw Pavlova travel an estimated 640,000 kilometres (400,000 miles) to bring ballet to audiences around the world.
By 1911, she had established her own ballet company, and was bringing the craft to people from all walks of life, many for the first time. One particular tour that covered Australia and New Zealand had such an impact that it spawned the classic dessert, the pavlova, in hour of the performance. The cake’s actual country of origin is still fiercely debated to this day.
DYING FOR THE CRAFT
In 1931, during a tour of The Netherlands, Pavlova was diagnosed with pneumonia, and required an operation that would see her never able to dance again. She refused it.
“If I can’t dance then I’d rather be dead” she told doctors. “Prepare my swan costume.”
She died on January 23rd, three weeks before her 50th birthday.
The next day, when she was set to perform, the curtains rose to an empty stage, and a spotlight pointed at her mark.
Anna Pavlova died as the world’s most famous dancer, and arguably remains so to this day.
Her dedication to ballet, a dance for which her body seemed unfit to handle, became the inspiration for future generations, and dictates a tale that anyone with a passion for their art can understand.
“Success depends in a very large measure upon individual initiative and exertion, and cannot be achieved except by a dint of hard work.”