by ALICE BOLIN
The eponymous schoolteacher of Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has for her students in 1930s Edinburgh an eccentric panoply of heroes: Giotto, Charlotte Brontë, Mussolini. Not the least of these idols is the imminent ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, at the time one of the world’s biggest celebrities. “The term was filled with legends of Pavlova and her dedicated habits,” writes Spark, “her wild fits of temperament and her intolerance of the second-rate. ‘She screams at the chorus,’ said Miss Brodie, ‘which is permissible in a great artist.’”
Spark expresses in her novel the defining contradiction in popular thinking about Pavlova: she embodied both the dogged and the sublime. Miss Brodie emphasizes Pavlova’s “dedication,” a drive that ultimately led her to die of pneumonia at the age of forty-nine after twenty years of continual world tours. But she was also the definition of the dancer-as-artist, subordinating technique to delicacy and lyricism. “A dedicated woman,” Miss Brodie deems her, “who, when she appears on stage, makes the other women look like elephants.” It is this combination of elements, effort and magic, doing and being, that made Anna Pavlova the greatest ballerina of the twentieth century.
Pavlova distinguished herself quickly after her debut in the Russian Imperial Ballet in 1899 at the age of eighteen. Her slender body wasn’t typical of ballerinas of her day, who were known more for their power than their emotion, and her long limbs proved to be extraordinarily expressive. She became a prima ballerina in the Imperial Ballet in 1906, and the next year she began her life of touring, first dancing with Sergei Diaghilev and his legendary Ballets Russes in Paris, then touring New York and London with her partner Mikhail Mordkin, then forming her own company and visiting India, China, and South America.
There is no doubt that Pavlova was a workhorse, a tireless emissary for dance around the world. With her trips to India, Pavlova not only opened ballet to new audiences but also broke important stylistic ground with the piece Oriental Impressions, a suite of short dances that borrowed Indian dancing styles and the stories of Hinduism; her company collaborated on the piece with a young Uday Shankar, one of the fathers of modern Indian dance. But for the most part, her aesthetic was conservatively classical and her work, for someone whose reputation was so grand, surprisingly modest.
Her career was built on performing the same short solos over and over; she was not known primarily for performing in full ballets or choreographing dances of her own. Her reputation for artistry did not come from creative ambition, necessarily, but from the depth and nuance of her soul. Her one major piece of choreography, Autumn Leaves, expresses this sensitivity: it tells the story of a chrysanthemum that is tended by a poet until it is killed by the autumn wind. She called it a “choreographic poem.”
But when seeking the true source of Pavlova’s gift, we find it somewhere beyond the poetic. Watching her perform her signature solo, The Dying Swan, she is irresistible. Her legs, arms, and hands flutter with an alien grace that is otherworldly, inhuman — the audience is transfixed, and she is transfigured. Pavlova loved birds, and photographs show her entwined with one of her pet swans, his neck circling hers like a garland. She studied her swans, and she imitated them completely; this was her true talent, as a shape shifter. Watching The Dying Swan, it is hard to believe there isn’t something avian in her. How else, we ask, could she move like that?
Of course, “How can they move like that?” is the question that ballet aims to elicit. It makes the human form unfamiliar—the body in ballet is harder and sharper, while also quicker and more pliant, than we have ever known it in life. It follows, then, that of the many strange things we ask ballerinas to be, birds are a constant. They are graceful and severe, beautiful and frightening. It is vaguely creepy when a woman is described appreciatively as “birdlike” — it implies she is small, dainty, frail. But ask Natalie Portman in Black Swan: a woman as a bird has a terrible power, and it is not a sexual power. For Pavlova in The Dying Swan, it seems her bird body can be a conduit for true emotion.
Pavlova’s skill in transformation is related to a tight control of her image, an aspect of her celebrity that feels eerily contemporary. She is immortalized in hundreds of carefully posed studio photographs depicting her many dramatic incarnations: as a fairy, a swan, a flower. She insisted that the photographs were retouched, hiding any physical imperfections and, particularly, winnowing her toes to tapered points. For the same reason that she didn’t allow photographers in the theatre when she danced, she was secretive about her marriage to her manager, Victor Dandré. The public would see what she wanted them to see.
“Pavlova the artist, and Pavlova the wife, they are two very different persons,” she said. For her audience to have all of the artist, they could have none of the wife. She engineered the illusion there was no Pavlova offstage. Outside of airbrushed pictures, she did not exist beyond her art; for that she was a true artist. How else could she become a bird before the audience’s eyes, die nightly and then live again? As Miss Jean Brodie says to her students, “Pavlova doing the death of the swan, it is a moment in eternity.”
Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about The Bachelor.
"Spitting Fire (acoustic)" - The Boxer Rebellion (mp3)
"The Runner" - The Boxcar Rebellion (mp3)
"Doubt" - The Boxcar Rebellion (mp3)