The following historical narrative is organized in the same sequence as the Gallery entries. Its aim is to present the reader with brief biographical information, thereby putting the costumes and fashions into greater context regarding their place in Pavlova’s life.
Anna Pavlova was born on January 31, 1881 in St. Petersburg during the final decades of the Romanov imperial dynasty, which had ruled Russia for three centuries. Her mother, Lubov Feodorovna, was a poor, unmarried laundress. Anna’s father is believed to have been one of Lubov’s employers, Lazar Poliakoff, a wealthy Jewish banker. Being poor and of uncertain patrimony was bad enough, but being Jewish could be downright dangerous. Wisely, Lubov called herself a widow and raised her child in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church.
When little Anna was eight years old, her mother took her to the Imperial Ballet’s "The Sleeping Beauty" at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. From that moment on, Anna’s future was decided. Before she went to bed that night, she solemnly told her mother that she herself would someday dance the role of Princess Aurora on that very stage. Two years later, against all odds, Anna was admitted to the Tsar’s Imperial School of Ballet, and from that day on she committed her life completely to her art. In a story rivalling the best fairy tales she so often danced, this poor, skinny, dark little girl would go on to become the most famous ballerina in the world.
In exchange for receiving eight years of education, room and board, and intensive ballet training at the highest level, students were guaranteed employment with the Imperial Ballet company, owned and financed by the Romanov family and particularly valued by Tsar Nicholas II. It was here, in front of one of the most discerning and knowledgeable ballet audiences in the world, that Pavlova would make her debut as a professional. Her frail beauty and exquisite, evocative style of dance distinguished her from the other dancers. She quickly rose through the ranks and become prima ballerina after an outstanding performance in the famous romantic ballet "Giselle".
A darker side of this very structured yet secure system was that young performers--male and female alike--were often expected to be the special “friends” of wealthy, influential men who called themselves balletomanes. The young dancers’ careers, indeed their entire lives, could be completely controlled by these “patrons.” While Pavlova did have her admirers, and would eventually live with the balletomane Victor Dandré, when it came to her career, she was always her own woman and was determined to chart her own path. She would leave Russia and this secure but exploitative system behind and boldly form her own company abroad.
But from 1900 to 1914, Pavlova was still gracing the stages of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and provincial Russian cities, performing with members of the Imperial Ballet. It was during the earlier part of this time period (1907) that Pavlova and Michel Fokine created what would become her signature role, The Dying Swan.
Each off-season a select group of dancers from the Mariinsky were chosen to tour Europe, performing in all the major capitals. Pavlova was invariably part of this company, and she began to see a world outside of her own constricted environment in St. Petersburg. But the return to Russia always followed. On June 7, 1914, Pavlova danced the lead role in "La Bayadere", in the small provincial town of Pavlosk. it would be her last performance in Russia. Her world was about to change forever. World War I broke out two months later while the company was touring in Berlin. Suddenly any Russian citizen was in hostile territory. Pavlova barely escaped to England. By 1916 Russia was in turmoil with riots, rebellions, and revolution. The Tsar and his family were murdered and the Romanov dynasty came to an end. The Imperial Ballet’s classical tradition, a genre which the world still associates with Russia today, was reimagined as Soviet propaganda ballets featuring young dancers as factory workers and tractor drivers. And Anna Pavlova, the quintessentially Russian ballerina and beloved daughter of her country, would never set foot in her homeland again.
LONDON: ON THE STAGE
By 1910, still with the Mariinsky but having performed across Europe, Pavlova knew that she wanted to move on from the rigid hierarchy, limited repertoire, and tradition of male patronage that were all a part of the Imperial Ballet. She craved a freedom she knew she would never have at the Mariinsky: a self-determination that would give her new artistic opportunities, new audiences, and most of all, new worlds in which to perform. She knew she wanted to dedicate the second half of her career to bringing ballet to the entire world. From 1910 to 1913, while still maintaining ties to St. Petersburg, she had established herself at the Palace Theater in London and began to form her own company. She became a sensation in Great Britain, touring large cities and small towns to ecstatic crowds. She also made two trips to America, a foretaste of the unceasing travel which would define the rest of her life.
From 1914 on, London would be as permanent a home as she would ever have. In 1910 she had danced for the first time at a private home in London in front of the King and Queen. Twenty years later, her final performance on the stage would be a just a few miles away at the Hippedrome Theater in Golders Green. She had travelled the entire world several times over in those intervening years.
LONDON: AT HOME AT IVY HOUSE
With London as her new base, Pavlova began the five-year process of purchasing and renovating a 19th century Arts & Crafts home in Golders Green, at that time a relatively open area of London. Though rural in feeling, Ivy House was centrally located near theaters, transportation, and the sensational new department store Selfridge’s. A recent PBS Series, “Mr. Selfridge”, has a wonderful scene of Pavlova dazzling the shop attendants and another where she dances her iconic role in “the Dying Swan.”
The house had an immense, high ceilinged reception hall, perfect for a rehearsal studio. For a short time, it served as a ballet school, but Pavlova’s constant travels made it impossible to sustain. However, one promising young student named Muriel Stuart was invited by “Madame” to dance with the company professionally. The house had large, airy rooms, ample cellars for storing sets and costumes, and best of all, a two-acre garden with a small lake. It was here that Pavlova planted her tulips and installed her famous swans, including her favorite, Jack.
Pavlova’s longtime companion, Victor Dandré, barely escaping a scandal in St. Petersburg, would eventually join her at Ivy House. Theirs was a tempestuous, fluidly defined relationship, seasoned with equal measures of dependency and dispute, love and exasperation. Pavlova clearly ran her own life and her troupe, but she would turn to Dandré for stability in times when her own changeable moods overwhelmed her. All her life she had been fiercely independent, and she had an intense need for freedom. A trip to the Italian town of Salzo-maggiore in 1925, where she met and was photographed with the dashing artist Alexandre Jacovleff, was one of the few times she was able to be on her own.
In the last few years of her life, Pavlova would refer to Dandré as her husband, though there is no evidence that they ever married. He was possibly more in love with her dancing than with the woman herself, but he would remain by her side until her death in 1931. The following year, he wrote a surprisingly detached biography of the woman he’d known for thirty years. But to the disappointment of her fans across the globe (and to us!), this was no “tell-all.” The true nature of their relationship remains elusive to this day.
Pavlova was to spend precious little time at her beloved Ivy House, which she called “my spiritual home.” The ballet company’s relentless travel and performance schedules across oceans and continents meant that her times at home were all too brief and then she was gone again. Ivy House still stands, though its rural setting is gone. Since 2015, it has been St. Anthony’s School for Girls, a small private school for girls aged 4 to 11. Ballet is included in the curriculum. A small blue plaque announces: “Anna Pavlova lived here. 1912-1931.”
ACROSS THE USA
In the early 1900’s, ballet was virtually an unknown art to most Americans, with no dedicated theaters and no ballet schools or companies. Pavlova and her troupe, traveling by train from large city to small town, over mountains and rivers and deserts, would perform in the most unlikely of venues: circus tents, vaudeville stages, mission halls, saloons, public auditoriums, and even outdoors. Local musicians, stagehands, and audiences could be strange indeed. In Waco, Texas, she recalled that though the ushers were barefoot, they nevertheless came prepared with revolvers in their belts.
At first audiences were mystified by the silence of the performers: no singing, no emotive monologues, no words at all. One critic complained that “We are not accustomed to three hours of silence.” (Denver Post, 1914). Viewers had trouble following story lines and weren’t sure what they were watching. Worse, some felt that costumes were too revealing and garish. Of "Oriental Fantasies" that same critic declared “I never saw so many naked men on the stage before.” But despite some of these dubious early reviews, Pavlova’s company would make in all six triumphant trips across the United States, from their first visit in 1910 to the sixth and last tour ending in 1925. Crowds flocked to venues to see “this new Russian ballet” and ballet schools suddenly appeared across America, some still in operation today. And as the troupe crisscrossed the country year after year, Pavlova’s reputation grew, and she became known everywhere as “Pavlova: The Revelation of her Age.”
When touring the United States with her company, Pavlova often stopped in Hollywood. In 1913 she made her only feature-length silent film. It was an acting, not a dancing role, as the mute peasant girl Fenella in "The Dumb Girl of Portici", adapted from a popular French opera by Daniel Auber and directed by fellow Russian emigrée Lois Webster. She received the unheard-of fee of $50,000, but the film was not an overwhelming success. People wanted to see Pavlova dance. The film has recently been restored by Milestone Films, and to modern sensibilities has a bit of a “keystone cops” feeling to it; nonetheless it is of historical importance to anyone interested in Anna Pavlova’s life and art.
Pavlova became great friends with legendary Hollywood celebs Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She even posed with the starstruck child actor Jackie Coogan for a “photo op” of them dancing together. Her Hollywood friends talked Pavlova into being filmed while dancing, but she was not convinced that film was the medium of the future for ballet. Her connection to her live audience was too important to her. She was willing to experiment with film but remained firmly convinced that dance could only truly be experienced on a live stage. Indeed, it was her magical personal connection with her audiences that made her the most beloved ballerina of her day.
FASHION ICON AND ARTIST’S MUSE
Anna Pavlova was almost as famous for her fashion style as for her dancing. She regularly appeared in public dressed in the latest “looks” of the fashion luminaries of her day, among them Paul Poiret, Mariano Fortuny, CoCo Chanel and fellow Russian emigré, Erté. Despite her demanding schedule, she never appeared in public looking anything less than flawless and fabulous, even when just walking her dogs. Much like today’s British Royals, she would be relentlessly photographed by the paparazzi, then her ensemble would be scrupulously studied and copied by her tens of thousands of fans on several continents.
For artists of every discipline, Pavlova became a muse, an inspiration. They saw in her the very essence of the ballerina, the perfect embodiment of dance. Painters, photographers, sculptors, choreographers, poets, writers and composers were all drawn to the great dancer, finding her unconventional beauty, ethereal movement and elegant carriage apt subjects for artistic expression. But perhaps what most attracted other creatives to Pavlova was her capricious, often enigmatic and constantly changing personality. Capturing those qualities was an irresistible challenge in any medium.
Painters John Lavery, Laura Knight, Savely Sorinne and Alexander Jacovleff all gave us portraits in oils, with the ballerina in both motion and in repose. The innovative photographer Madame D’Ora (Dora Kallmus) found in Pavlova an intriguing subject for her unconventional photographs, while sculptors Malvina Hoffman and Paul DeBoloungne skillfully captured her vibrancy and movement in marble and bronze.
The most famous costume designers of the age were also eager to create for Pavlova and her company. Russian designers Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, and Konstantin Somov all designed costumes for her company. But the unsung hero of Pavlova’s elegant appearance on and off the stage was her seamstress and dresser, Manya Charchevenikova. Over the years, “Madame Manya” became one of Pavlova’s most intimate and loyal friends. She was beside Pavlova when she died, and would go on to be the wardrobe mistress of another famous ballerina, Alicia Markova, who had been drawn to dance by seeing Pavlova perform.
Pavlova herself was a respectable painter and sculptor; So intimately did she understand her own body’s range of motion as a dancer that she created a number of small paintings and sculptures that have an accuracy and vitality remarkable for an untrained artist.
AROUND THE WORLD
It has been estimated that Anna Pavlova and her ballet company travelled over 800,000 miles between the years 1910 and 1931—all this before air travel--performing almost daily in large cities and small towns on six continents. Often a matinée would be in one town and an evening performance in the next. Transportation was slow and arduous overland by railroad and across oceans by steamship. She brought ballet to North and South America, Mexico and Cuba, Japan, Java, and India, to South Africa and Egypt, Australia and New Zealand. Many of today’s ballet traditions in these far-flung parts of the globe owe their beginnings to Pavlova’s performances. And in a “sweet” and touching tribute to her, both Australia and New Zealand claimed credit for the invention of an innovative meringue dessert, the pavlova, in her honor. Pavlova’s name became a household word, she was often referred to as “The Incomparable One.”
Anna Pavlova devoted her entire life to her art. She believed in the power of dance—which did not depend on language--to unite people everywhere. Wherever she went, she embraced the local community, and she was genuinely interested in their culture, their art, and their own dance traditions. Always eager for new knowledge, she sought out master teachers to instruct her in regional styles. Then she would take what she learned and incorporate it into to her own choreography. Her repertoire, though always grounded in classical ballet, was rich, diverse, and full of delightful surprises. Anna Pavlova's acceptance of and respect for other races and ethnicities was extremely rare for that time. She shared her art with the great and with the humble. She was not just the most well-known ballerina of the day, Pavlova was also a woman of kindness, generosity and goodwill, all of which made her truly loved by people around the world.
THE LAST DANCE
1930 saw Pavlova at the very pinnacle of her global fame. But she was suffering from chronic exhaustion and a painful knee had been bothering her for years. Feeling responsible not just to her audiences but to her entire company, she did not slow down. In December she returned to London to the Hippedrome Theater in Golders Green with a series of performances which concluded on Sunday, December 13. In the program was “Autumn Leaves,” a presciently somber piece about the death of a beautiful flower. No one on the stage or in the audience could have imagined that Anna Pavlova was dancing for the very last time.
Over Christmas the company took a break, with a European tour planned for the New Year. Significantly, this trip would include Pavlova’s first return to Russia in more than fifteen years. In early January, 1931, the company’s train enroute from Paris to the Netherlands was derailed in a heavy snowstorm. Everyone had to disembark and walk to the nearest town in the frigid weather. Chilled to the bone, Pavlova contracted a bad cold. Victor Dandré settled her into a hotel in The Hague, where her cold worsened into pleurisy, settling in her lungs. Doctors were called in and her lungs were drained to no avail. In an extraordinary gesture, the Queen of England sent her private physician across the Channel to attend to the critically ill dancer. But nothing could be done. Anna Pavlova died in the night on January 23, 1931. She was 49 years old.
The news stunned the public. No one could believe that Pavlova was gone. So full of life and light had she been, that she had seemed positively immortal. Bells tolled, schools were closed, churches opened their doors, incredulous headlines across the globe told of her passing. It was as if the whole world mourned. In one brief moment of time, Anna Pavlova had moved from life to death; from living legend to Immortal Swan.