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Anna Pavlova, a famous Russian ballet dancer best known for changing the ideals for ballet dancers, was the first to make ballet popular in America and the rest of the world. Her love for classical ballet, determination to perform her love for the arts, influences and zest can still be evidently felt.
Born on 31 January 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Anna Pavlova was awestruck by the first ballet performance she watched and was intent on becoming a ballerina. Petite Pavlova entered the Imperial Ballet School in 1891 despite not having the preferred body type of a ballerina which was a strong, muscular and compact body. However, she gave the examiners enough confidence that she would work hard and excel. In the later years, Pavlova became one of the most astounding ballerinas.
Young Pavlova was a talented and hardworking student. Training years were difficult due to her special physique. She was considered physically weak as she was small and thin coupled with highly arched feet unlike the preferred body of a ballerina at that time. Pavlova was fed with cod-liver oil which tasted awful to her in the hope of getting the ideal body. Even so she remained slender. In order to improve faster, Pavlova tried imitating other ballet dancers. However her teacher, Pavel Gerdt taught her to
understand her unique dancing of daintiness and fragility and the importance to dance out those rare qualities. Her zeal for ballet was remarkable; she worked hard to strengthen her weakness and also with what she had instead of trying to be someone else. Her willingness to overcome these obstacles at such a young age is commendable. Soon, Pavlova grew in gracefulness and could stand in a way that her body formed a beautiful line where she was able to bend and twist her torso with ease and grace. Instead of mastering multiple fouettes turns and other technical steps that the muscular Italian style had induced at that time, Pavlova danced poetically and expressively. She stood out.. Finally upon graduation, Pavlova’s hard work paid off – she graduated as a first class dancer.
After Pavlova’s school years, she continued training hard to improve her technique and even took extra lessons with different teachers such as Christian Johansson, Madame Sokolova and Nikolai Legat. Pavlova graduated at a time where virtuoso Italian ballerinas and a muscular ballet stylewas popular. Although Pavlova had mastered difficult steps and ballet technique, her highly arched feet were still too weak for the flamboyant pointe work. She experimented with ways to wear her pointe shoes with the hope of maximizing her potential. Through experiments, she discovered that by adding a piece of hard leather to the soles, the shoes provided better support. Many people thought this as cheating because ideally, ballerinas should be able to hold their own weight on their toes. However, her idea enabled her to perform better and allowed her to balance in her arabesque with poised and elegance inflicting less pain and
hence easier to sustain on pointe. In doing so, Pavlova created what is known as our pointe shoes today. Being able to go on pointe with ease and having a beautiful extension, flexible torso and tremendous feminine expressive dancing, Pavlova set a higher aesthetic of beauty in ballet where ballet dancers were able to perform with poise and elegance like a princess. With the recreation of the pointe shoes, there was a demand for brilliant and fancy footwork like jumps, multiple turns and balances and that of ballerinas performing on pointe.
Pavlova’s extremely strong stage presence caught a lot of attention and impressed several people such as leading ballerina, Kchessinskaya and ballet master Marius Petipa, who later became her most revered mentor. Pavlova started off performing at the Maryinsky Theatre playing minor roles. Although she was only able to perform short solos, she was not disheartened. Learning under Petipa, Pavlova improved tremendously earning the title role in Paquita, Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, Queen Nisia in Le Roi Candaule, and Giselle. She was named coryphée in 1902, première danseuse in 1905, and finally prima ballerina in 1906 after a resounding performance in Giselle. Petipa would edit various ballet variations to suit Pavlova and her unique style of dancing. With the collaboration between Pavlova and Petipa, they made ballet very popular and was highly demanded in places after Pavlova had performed. Pavlova and her ballet were so popular that she had a fans base who called themselves Pavlovatzi.
Pavlova’s popularity and fame rose with every performance she undertook, both at home and overseas. However she remained humble and danced genuinely. After earning the valuable title of Prima Ballerina in a mere four years, Pavlova traveled around the world to promote ballet. She felt that she needed to venture around the world to look for her true identity as a dancer coupled with the desire to be the best ballerina ever. It lasted for many years and took her all over the world. Pavlova left the Maryinsky Theatre and joined another company where she performed “The Dying Swan” which became her trademark. Pavlova performed extensively, even if it meant small stages. She was sincere in all her performances that she always took the audience’s breath away. Pavlova and her company traveled extensively introducing classical ballet to the world. Countries such as China, India and Australia were touched by her sincere performance. Her first appearance in America, at the Metropolitan Opera House was an astounding one. Most of the American audiences had never seen classical ballet and critics could not depict what Pavlova had offered to them. They concluded however, that it was beautiful. Pavlova appearance in the various countries not only overwhelmed the people with her elegance and grace in dancing but also introduced a new kind of art form, classical ballet. Subsequently, there was a rise in demand and a higher expectation for ballet performances of both technique and aesthetics. Increasingly more people became interested in learning the art form as they wanted to dance as gracefully and elegantly as Pavlova. Pavlova’s performance was always awaited enthusiastically.
In 1904 when Russia was in chaos, Pavlova fought for dancer’s rights such as a
raise in the unjustly low salaries. She was firm in upholding her principles, ;Pavlova was insistent and determined in her values but at the same time respected what others wanted to do. Pavlova had little regard for the wealth she obtained, she was more interested in spreading her love for classical ballet. She would donate generously to charities and to dancers who were paid low. This provided the dancers with a motivation to work hard so that their daily expenses were less of a worry. Shortly after becoming the Prima Ballerina at the Maryinsky Theatre, Pavlova left the company travelled around the world to promote ballet and later setting up a company of her own. Since then she contributed greatly to both the arts and her home town financially and artistically. Although she was on tour during World War I, she gave special charity performances to raise funds to send home and for the needy, making sure that ticket prices were affordable. At the same time, she promoted classical ballet to places where it was foreign to them. Hence more people had the chance to have a glimpse at classical ballet
Pavlova used her love for classical ballet as a source of comfort to the audience. In addition, she was very patriotic. She established a home for Russian refugees and sent large amounts of everything she could to help them including from her own private resources, vast entertainments and charitable performances. She believed that through dance she would be able to make and help patrons forget their problems, or the very least forget their problems momentarily during the performance. Her sincerity and utmost respect for the audience during the performances always awed them and this was what made her very special.
Pavlova never believed in teaching her students how to imitate her in dancing. Pavlova’s student would try to intimate her style of dancing, following her sentimental and melodramatic expression, which she would never hesitate to rebuke the student. She believed that by intimating another, one would only be a dancer without a soul. Everyone is special to her and that no one is replaceable. She too did not believe in teaching a dancer to be a technical dancer, she felt that expressing inner beauty and feelings was more important because that was the way to create sincerity in dancing. Hence Pavlova always taught her students to dance with their heart leading to genuinely performed movements.
In 1931 she contracted pleurisy. An operation would have saved her life however she would never be able to perform again. With her love for dance, Pavlova chose to die. In the end, she died before she was able to perform “The Dying Swan” on stage.
Pavlova’s love for dance and ever lasting determination to do her best in perfecting what she loves is widely recognized in the world. It was because of her that ballet and the usage of her handicraft, the pointe shoes became popular till this day. Through her undying love and creativity in creating wonderful performances in classical ballet, Pavlova touched the hearts of many people. Pavlova taught people the true meaning of art through her sentimental and melodramatic style of dancing. As a result, ballet moved beyond mastering techniques, to the expression of inner beauty and sincere feelings. Pavlova taught people to be sincere with themselves and only so will they be able to perform sincerely. Similarly, her strong character has taught many people to be
humble and to have self respect for themselves, the art form and the people around them. If not for Pavlova’s insistence, classical ballet or any sort of dance would not have been taken seriously or respected till today.