In 1931 the audience rose in tribute as Saint Sa'ns' music from "The Dying Swan" played to an empty stage. Anna Pavlova had just died of pleurisy. On her deathbed, she issued one last request: "Bring my swan costume." By the... [more]
In 1931 the audience rose in tribute as Saint Sa'ns' music from "The Dying Swan" played to an empty stage. Anna Pavlova had just died of pleurisy. On her deathbed, she issued one last request: "Bring my swan costume." By the end of her illustrious career, the swan had become her emblem. One stunning photograph even shows Pavlova outdoors in street clothes, embracing a huge swan. In the photo, Pavlova's grace stands in stark contrast to the swan's ungainliness -- the ungainliness of a creature she portrayed at her most graceful. The pairing of Pavlova and the swan was a press gimmick, but it's also a profound allegory for the ballerina figure: the awkward body, when put through a series of unnatural steps, becomes superhuman, otherworldly, more graceful than grace's symbol.
Pavlova fell in love with ballet at the tender age of eight, when her mother took her to the Maryinsky Theater for the first time to see "Sleeping Beauty." Her well-to-do suburban mother never suspected that what was meant as a bit of cultural education would turn into a life-altering influence. But Pavlova went on to dance with the Ballets Russes as star ballerina until 1910, though she broke with Diaghilev after he began to favor Nijinsky. She eschewed Diaghilev's chic, art-house vision for crowd-pleasers and took her solo act on the road.
Indeed, she was an act all by herself. Anna Pavlova was often called the consummate ballerina because she maintained the same elegance on- and offstage. The public loved her image, her fashion, and her aura of satin and roses. But she made them adore her with her fierce drive and undaunted presence, proclaiming, "God gives talent, but work transforms talent into genius." Pavlova never stopped -- she was a workhorse who happily served her public. Her constant exposure and her intensely dramatic stage presence made her one of the most popular ballerinas of all time. Pavlova was instrumental in bringing ballet to the masses, converting new fans everywhere she went and moving them to tears with her "Dying Swan." Between 1910 and 1925, her company traveled 300,000 miles and gave nearly 4,000 performances.
Some critics have berated Pavlova for her sometimes-questionable taste. She rejected Stravinsky's "Firebird" as noise, but chose to dance to a popular tune that would come to be known as "Glowworm" in pop culture. Whether that particular aesthetic choice proved wise or not, her repertoire of fanciful, accessible solos -- "The Dying Swan," "California Poppy," "The Dragonfly" -- made her famous. Pavlova completely immersed herself in her roles, lofty or light, and came to embody the art of dancing for generations. [show less]