Glimpse Into People's Ballerina Private Life: Fascinating Story of Anna Pavlova
There was one dancer the world will never forget. She wowed and won over audiences across the world with her beautiful ballet and interesting persona. Anna Pavlova changed our perception of ballet for good! There was no ballerina quite like Anna Pavlova, and there hasn’t been one since. The popular star had various secrets up her sleeve, from who her father was to a possible secret marriage. She always managed to get the people talking both on and off stage. Here are some facts that will help you understand why.
THE MYSTERY OF ANNA PAVLOVA'S PARENTAGE
Anna Pavlova revolutionized ballet and while her life seemed to be in order on stage, it was often in shambles off of the platform. Not only did she struggles with her identity but she never truly knew who her father was. This had a big impact on her life and on how she navigated through it.
Anna Matveyevna Pavlova was born on February 12, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her mother Lyubov was a laundress for a wealthy banker named Lazar Polyakov. Anna’s supposed father was Matvey Pavlov—but there are dark whispers about her true parentage. Some said Anna was actually the banker Polyakov’s daughter.
Apart from these whispers, the young girl also faced ridicule for her background and appearance. She was extremely thin and lanky and was often teased because of it. Little did her naysayer know that one day, this lanky girl would change the face of ballet and dance all over the world!
Growing up in St. Petersburg, Pavlova overcame her working-class roots to become the most important ballerina of the 20th century. She was tall and thin, and many thought her body was too frail to execute the demanding technical feats expected of other ballerinas. She proved them all wrong, but it didn’t save her from many tragedies.
DYNAMITE COMES IN SMALL PACKAGES
Little Anna was severely premature, and in her early years, her life was constantly in danger. She suffered illness after illness until her mother finally sent her to live with her grandmother in Ligovo, a quieter suburb of St. Petersburg. It’s more than likely that this sickly childhood contributed to her tiny frame which would help her later in life.
Just one performance of The Sleeping Beauty turned little Anna onto ballet. Determined to become one of the graceful ballerinas she saw on stage, Pavlova auditioned for the Imperial Ballet School when she was nine. The judges’ response was utterly heartbreaking. They felt she was too young, too frail, and maybe too sickly to ever make it.
But the dancer didn't accept this fate. She believed in herself and trained harder than anyone else. She combined her natural ability with a unique sense of stamina and dedication. She was determined to be the best and made sure that she attained this goal. In the face of oppression, she explained why she would try and try again. She said:
"It is by the steady elimination of everything which is ugly - thoughts and words no less than tangible objects - and by the substitution of things of true and lasting beauty that the whole progress of humanity proceeds."
ANNA, THE SWAN
When she became a dancer, Pavlova closely associated herself with the grace and power of swans. Not only is she most famous today for her tragic Dying Swan dance, but she also incorporated swans into her origin story. As a vulnerable premature baby, Pavlova claimed that her mother used to wrap her up in swan down to keep her warm.
This story stuck with her fans and became part of her brand and namesake. She was always identified with this animal in mind and it made her even more popular. This popularity was not enjoyed by everyone, especially her rivals. There were, of course, those hoping to see her fail and setting her up for impending disaster.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
Pavlova’s success brought adulation, but also jealousy. Ballerina Mathilde Kschessinka was once the toast of the town but had to choose a replacement when she became pregnant. The crafty Mathilde then devised an ingenious plan. She chose Pavlova to swap in because she felt the girl’s lack of technical proficiency posed no threat.
This plan backfired horribly. Pavlova breathed new life into the performance, completely upstaging her helpless rival and rocketing herself to stardom. After receiving her first rejection, Pavlova refused to give up. She auditioned again for the Imperial Ballet the following year, and this time they accepted her. In a twist of fate, Pavlova began training.
LIFE WASN'T ALWAYS EASY
She trained under the masterful Marius Petipas, the very same choreographer who had staged the performance of The Sleeping Beauty that had inspired Pavlova to dance. Once she got into the Imperial Ballet, Pavlova thought she’d finally made it—but her nightmare was just beginning. The young girl struggled to fit in.
The other children cruelly teased her about her gangly frame. Since they couldn’t deny her talent as a dancer, they mocked her looks instead, referring to her as “the little savage” or “the broom.” Pavlova’s tuition at the Imperial Ballet School was paid by Lazar Polyakov, i.e. her mother’s employer—and her alleged father.
Was this a token of generous appreciation to a loyal employee, or a reflection of paternal responsibility? We may never know. Pavlova’s body type didn’t lend itself readily to ballet. She had thin ankles and her feet were narrow with high arches. In fact, Pavlova had to insert wooden sticks into her slippers just so she could stand en pointe.
Once, during class, she attempted Legnani's famous fouettés, causing her teacher, Pavel Gerdt, to become very upset with her. She wasn't the model student and would often cause some issues in her classes. If it wasn't her unique style, it was her attitude. In a rage her teacher told her the following harsh words:
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 realize 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.
However, Pavlova rose through the ranks rapidly, becoming a favorite of the old maestro Petipa. It was from Petipa himself that Pavlova learned the title role in Paquita, Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh's Daughter, Queen Nisia in Le Roi Candaule, and Giselle. These would become her iconic performances and what she is remembered for.
At the time when the strict academicism of Petipa was at its height, Pavlova won the sympathies of the audience with her style, which opposed many academic rules. She had a bad turnout; she was too energetic, which caused her to make many mistakes; she danced with bent knees; her tours were placed incorrectly; she had misplaced port de bras.
But what the audience couldn’t resist was her enthusiasm and passion on stage. This was what made her stand out. After she moved to England, Pavlova influenced British ballet and its development. She had a great influence on the career of Alicia Markova, the first British ballerina to become the principal dancer of a ballet company.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TALENT AND HARD WORK.
Pavlova was a naturally talented performer, but her work ethic was beyond what many of us can imagine—and she went to disturbing lengths to be on top. Pavlova hired the best teachers and practiced for hours outside of classes. According to her, “No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent, work transforms talent into genius.”
Like this analogy about talent and hard work, another one came into being. It revolves around her ballet slipper, the slipper that would yet again raise her station and fame. What was meant to lower her standing actually increased it as she altered her ballet shoes. This act was frowned upon but as we will read, it was not despised for long!
Pavlova gradually refined her slipper design to suit her needs, adding layers of hard leather to the soles and flattening the toes. This was actually quite controversial: Most of her jealous peers didn’t approve of these improvements and considered it cheating—but Pavlova had the last laugh. Her design became the prototype of the modern ballet slipper.
SLIPP'ER'ING HER WAY TO SUCCESS
Pavlova herself may have been ashamed about her revolutionary slipper design. After all, a true ballerina should have been able to hold herself up in her shoes. Moreover, Pavlova hated the way they looked. Whenever she posed for publicity photos, she always made sure to change into traditional slippers for the shot.
Around 1910, producers offered Pavlova the lead in the now-iconic The Firebird. Famed musician Igor Stravinsky had composed the music—but Pavlova’s reaction to it was the definition of “diva.” She absolutely detested the avant-garde music and ultimately refused to dance to it. Instead, the role went to a rival. That’s gotta hurt and hit hard.
PAVLOVA THE BUTTERFLY
Pavlova’s hard work did not go unnoticed. Upon graduating from the Imperial Ballet School, her teachers allowed her to bypass the usual rank of corps de ballet and enter the workforce as a coryphée. The Dying Swan is the dance that put Pavlova in the history books, and it was choreographed especially for her. How special!
In the performance, Pavlova flutters about the stage, mimicking the last moments of an expiring bird. According to the choreographer, the dance was almost improvised, and Pavlova was inspired by the swans in public parks around St. Petersburg. Though we often think of ballerinas as eternally graceful, Pavlova had some terrifying accidents.
She believed that she could only push herself more and more into success and never ever stopped until she reached her goal; goals, which were usually out of this world. There was a belief that Anna clung to ballet when things got tough. She said the following about how she remains in happy spirits when working and training so hard:
"When a small child, I thought that success spelled happiness. I was wrong, happiness is like a butterfly which appears and delights us for one brief moment, but soon flits away."
THE BALLERINA THAT NEVER STOPS SPINNING
Without the usual ballerina build to help her, she once entirely fell off the stage while performing a double-pique turn. Her mentor Petipa even pleaded with her to stop attempting fouettés lest she hurt herself. After a commanding performance of Giselle in 1906, Pavlova became prima ballerina of the Russian Imperial Ballet.
It’s no wonder people associated Pavlova with The Dying Swan: she performed the piece a whopping 4,000 times or more. Pavlova became a luminary of the famous Ballets Russes, the renowned and avant-garde touring show put on by impresario Sergei Diaghilev in the early 20th century.
THE UNCONVENTIONAL DANCER
Though she served as a principle dancer, Pavlova declined to formally join the group. After all, she was still the premier dancer of the Imperial Ballet, and her tastes were traditional. Pavlova’s early dancing style was so unconventional, it shocked critics. She wasn’t preoccupied with perfect placement or form, preferring to let emotion take over.
Her body just wasn’t well suited to some of ballet’s more physically demanding feats, and she had to work with what she had. To help run the business side of her dance company, Pavlova enlisted Victor Dandre, a French-Russian businessman, as her manager. But there was more going on behind the curtain.
ANNA AND DANDRE'S LIFE BEHIND THE SCENES
Dandre lavished Pavlova with gifts and even bought her a studio space, leading many to believe that he was deeply in love with the prima ballerina. Eventually, Pavlova broke away from the Imperial Ballet to form her own company. Pavlova’s company toured the entire world at a time when most ballet companies toured Europe and the United States.
In 1914, Pavlova gave her final performances in Russia, performing in St. Petersburg and Moscow. She would never return to her home country. Pavlova tried to get into the movie industry in 1916, starring in The Dumb Girl of Portici. Her film career never took off, but The Dumb Girl of Portici may have helped another young actor get his start.
THE TEMPERAMENTAL BALLERINA WITH A BIG HEART
That young actor was Boris Karloff, famous for his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster, who supposedly had a small role in the movie. Despite her many rivalries and her jealous temper, Pavlova did have a big heart. She was so disturbed by the suffering of children in World War I that she adopted 15 orphaned girls in 1918.
She housed them all in a small mansion in Paris, with a live-in governess hired to keep watch over them. The ballerina even gave an ongoing series of charity performances to provide for her girls. Pavlova’s longtime dance partner was Mikhail Mordkin—but they hid scandals behind the scenes. Pavlova was frequently jealous of his success.
Once she slapped him after a performance just because he received more applause than her. Despite Pavlova’s reluctance to share the spotlight, the tension between them never failed to produce a fiery performance. For most of her later life, Pavlova lived at a house in Golders Green, London. She bought the “Ivy House” in 1912.
JACK THE SWAN
She lived there for the remainder of her life. Pavlova didn’t live alone in London. She was joined by her unusual pets: A flock of swans, of course. The ballerina had several of the creatures, but her absolute favorite was one she named Jack. Jack and his pals lived in an ornamental lake Pavlova had constructed in the backyard.
Indeed, Pavlova was an animal lover in general and often took official photos alongside her pets. When Pavlova toured the world with her company, she wasn’t afraid to resort to lies. Though her dances had a Russian flavor, most of the Russian ballerinas were either working for the Imperial Ballet or the Ballets Russes.
THE DESSERT NAME AFTER HER
Instead, Pavlova had to settle for British dancers. But no problem. She just gave these English roses “Russianized” stage names. While on tour in New Zealand, Pavlova earned the greatest honor a person can receive: She had a dessert named after her. The Pavlova, a dessert made from meringue, whipped cream, and fresh fruit.
It was first served at a Wellington hotel during the ballerina’s 1926 visit. Pavlova was responsible for introducing the Jarabe Tapatío—the Mexican Hat Dance—to a global audience. She first found out about the dance while visiting Mexico in 1919. Whatever the nature of their relationship, Victor Dandre did gain Pavlova’s absolute trust.
LOYAL TO A FAULT
When Dandre was arrested for embezzlement of public funds, Pavlova made a ruinous sacrifice. The ballerina signed a harsh and horrible contract with a dance company just to be able to pay off Dandre’s debts and release him from prison. When traveling in exotic locations, Pavlova loved wowing the crowd with incredible stunts.
While in China, she successfully performed 37 continuous pirouettes while atop a moving elephant. Pavlova’s death is one of the great tragedies of ballet. While touring Europe at the age of 49, the ballerina came down with a fatal case of pneumonia. The only cure was surgery—but it came at a heartbreakingly high cost.
THE END OF THE PAVLOVA ERA
The procedure would rob one of the world’s greatest ballerinas of the ability to ever dance again. When she heard the consequences of the surgery, Pavlova’s response was unforgettable. She refused, declaring, “If I can’t dance, I would rather be dead.” Pavlova soon fell into the throes of pleurisy.
To demonstrate how much dancing meant to her she uttered the following words: "Dancing is my gift and my life... God gave me this gift to bring delight to others. I am haunted by the need to dance. It is the purest expression of every emotion, earthly and spiritual. It is happiness."
Sadly, she died on January 23, 1931. In the years since her death, there have been repeated—and controversial—efforts to move her ashes to Russia. It is not clear, however, that Pavlova wished to have her body returned to her homeland. For now, at least, she remains in London. After her cremation, loved ones tied a pair of Pavlova’s ballet slippers to her urn.
She died in the bedroom next to the Japanese Salon of the Hotel Des Indes in The Hague, twenty days short of her 50th birthday. Victor Dandré wrote that Anna Pavlova died a half-hour past midnight on Friday, January 23, 1931, with her maid Marguerite Létienne, Dr. Zalevsky, and himself at her bedside. What followed was beautiful.
Victor and Marguerie dressed her body in her favorite beige lace dress and placed her in a coffin with a sprig of lilac. At 7 am, a Russian Orthodox priest arrived to say prayers over her body. At 7:30 am, her coffin was taken to the mortuary chapel attaching the Catholic hospital in The Hague. They then let an old ballet tradition take its course.
On the day she was to have next performed, the show she was meant to perform went on, as scheduled, with a single spotlight circling an empty stage where she would have been. This tradition honors and respects the dancer with one final "dance." For a woman who gave her life to the profession, it seemed like a fitting ending to her story.
THE WORLD LOST A SAVVY BUSINESSWOMEN AND A BALLERINA
What made Anna stand out was her versatility. She was a true entrepreneur, always looking for new opportunities. After her first visit in 1910, Anna was captivated by London and decided to make it her home and base of operation as stated earlier. In fact, she moved to the English capital in 1911 and established her own ballet company.
Her determination was again the force behind this new operation from the dancer. Having achieved great recognition for her talents as a performer, she pushed the boundaries yet further, becoming fully in control of the entire creative and business process. For over 20 years, Anna never stopped touring all over the globe bringing her signature moves to the masses.
Her figure was so dominant at the time, that in the USA, in Australia and in India (just to mention a few of the countries she visited over the years), the general public knew her name before knowing ballet. She became the symbol through which the masses were able to get in touch with the art of dancing.
This was made possible by the ability of her and her company to create connections and business opportunities. The vision of an artist interested in the business aspect of the live performance was ahead of the time in which Anna was living. Pavlova’s grit gave her the ability to constantly perform dependently from any external condition.
Neither long-distance traveling or the first World War could stop this dancer. She did so until January of 1931. After a short holiday in Cannes, traveling from France to the Netherlands, her train broke down for 12 hours. This was where she first fell ill and what would later be her demise.
A SECRET REVEALED AFTER HER DEATH
After her death, Pavlova’s manager and possible lover Victor Dandre made a shocking confession. He claimed they had secretly married, and he was now Pavlova’s widower. Though he couldn’t prove his claims with any documentation, no one can rule out the possibility, either. But it is safe to believe that the pair were lovers as they did everything together.
When Dandre died in 1944, his family buried his ashes next to his beloved Anna. Even at death’s door, Pavlova was obsessed with performing that her reported last words were “Get my Swan costume ready.” At the height of her career, Anna Pavlova was so popular as a dancer, that she had her own kind of cult.
THE DARK AND CULT SIDE TO THE SWEET BALLET GIRL
The Russian Empire’s upper crust was famous for its “balletomanes,” or ballet maniacs, and those men and women who particularly adored Pavlova called themselves “Pavlovatzi.” She truly was the rock star of her day. Pavlova wasn’t just a weak little girl—the prima ballerina had a dark side.
She had an intense and infamous rivalry with fellow dancer Tamara Karsavina, and took every opportunity to humiliate her. While on stage one night, Tamara experienced a sudden “wardrobe malfunction,” and Pavlova’s sneering comments to the embarrassed girl left the dancer in tears.
Pavlova made her Metropolitan Opera House debut in 1910, and toured America and Europe before her brief final return to Russia. She made her last appearance in St. Petersburg in 1913 and spent the rest of her life on tour. Pavlova toured all over the world including Europe, Asia, North and Central America, and Australia.
Pavlova was able to make eight to nine performances per week and had a great interest in performing for inexperienced audiences in remote rural areas around the world. Her performances in Mexico, India, Japan and Australia were legendary. She was overworked and exhausted by her late 40s, but still danced vigorously.
HER REMAINING LEGACIES
The Jarabe Tapatío, known in English as the 'Mexican Hat Dance', gained popularity outside of Mexico when Pavlova created a staged version in pointe shoes, for which she was showered with hats by her adoring Mexican audiences. Afterward, in 1924, the Jarabe Tapatío was proclaimed Mexico's national dance.
In 1980, Igor Carl Faberge licensed a collection of 8-inch Full Lead Crystal Wine Glasses to commemorate the centenary of Anna's birth. The glasses were crafted in Japan under the supervision of The Franklin Mint. A frosted image of Anna Pavlova appears in the stem of each glass. Originally each set contained 12 glasses.
Pavlova's life was depicted in the 1983 film Anna Pavlova. This legendary prima ballerina was known for her daintiness, seeming frailness, and lightness on stage and in choreography. Her movements had great finesse, delicacy, and emotional dimension. A native Russian, Pavlova remained largely committed to the classic style of ballet.
AWKWARD BUT POISED
This was for the duration of her career—even while contemporaries were introducing revolutionary innovations to dance. Pavlova as a swan in Michael Fokine’s The Dying Swan marked her rise to fame. It was a profound allegory for the ballerina: The awkward body, when put through a series of unnatural steps, becomes superhuman.
It almost transforms into something otherworldly, more graceful even than the symbol of grace which is imitated. Anna Pavlova was often called the consummate ballerina because she maintained the same elegance on and off stage. The public loved her image, her fashion, and her aura of satin and roses. But she made them adore her.
A WOMAN OF PASSION AND GRIT
She did this with her fierce drive and undaunted presence, proclaiming, "God gives talent, but work transforms talent into genius." Pavlova was instrumental in bringing ballet to the masses, converting new fans everywhere she went and moving them to tears with her most famous showpiece, The Dying Swan.
Anna Pavlova was a woman of courage and passion, that lived her life for her art. She became an ambassador for ballet and a businesswoman that traveled around the globe during one of the worst time in the history of humanity. Pavlova's achievements inspire others to reach for their own goals. In an interview conducted by Ellen Ersham, Anna Pavlova said:
“From then on, all I thought of was dancing professionally. I knew that I could do it as long as I put in my best effort. And look at me today. That work must have really paid off.” The dancer set her mind on her goal and did not let her imperfectness stop her from reaching the dream.
Any obstacle thrown in Anna's path was overcome. She never let the audience doubt her abilities and gave her best performance every time. Anna's perseverance to never let anything get in between her and dance is something that will always be admired. She is a person who is worthy of the title hero!
She was a woman, a dancer and an entrepreneur that leaves us with a lesson: “Fight until the end to reach your own goal: that is the secret of success. And what is a success after all? I don’t find it in the clapping of an audience, but in the satisfaction of having realized an ideal.”
Despite the catty side of the dancer, she was also filled with warmth and compassion. Her life and extreme work ethic has inspired ballerinas around the world and continues to do so. She took the genre to a whole new level and her legacy will never be forgotten. What do you think about this star whom people once called swan?