Anna was born in January 1881. Her father, an ordinary soldier, died when the baby was barely two years old without leaving a will or a position in life. Later in her life she didn’t like to mention her father and it’s still not yet clear who he was.
The family lived on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg and in spite of being poor, her mother would find a way to pamper her child giving a big chocolate egg with toys inside for Easter or a little fir tree with golden nuts for Christmas.
When Anna was eight, they visited The Maryinsky Theatre. The girl was so fascinated by the ‘Flower Waltz’ dance that she promised to learn that beautiful art form and to dance on the stage of this very theatre!
At the age of ten she was accepted at the Imperial Ballet School. Despite all the challenges, Anna persevered through final examinations at school, then corps de ballet, until finally becoming premier dancer and ballerina of the Maryinsky.
Critics revered her ‘slenderness, gracefulness, musicality… she was full of life and fire… being unbelievably light’.
Her first European tour shot her to fame. In 1907 she made her debut in Stockholm where rapturous audience followed her back to the hotel. She was not ready for such an adoration, but her maid suggested that she go to thank people from her balcony. She took all the flowers she was gifted at the performance and threw them to the fans.
What was special about Anna Pavlova is that she seemed light and mysterious flying around the stage.
In 1909 a talented lawyer and a patron of the arts, Sergei Diaghilev, decided to launch an opera season in Paris. He invited all the famous ballet dancers of time to his Ballets Russes. Anna Pavlova was one of them; together with her partner Vaslav Nijinsky they caused a sensation.
In 1910 the editor of the Illustrated London News commissioned
to one of The Glasgow Boys, Sir John Lavery, to paint a head and shoulders sketch of the dancer. The artist agreed, but on condition that he be given 'a reasonable number of sittings'. During her three-month stay in London, Pavlova posed for Lavery on a regular basis, as a result of which he produced two full-length portraits of Anna Pavlova as a Bacchante, the liveliest version of which is in Glasgow Kelvingrove Art Gallery (featured in our West End Tour of Glasgow). Sometimes known as The Red Scarf, this work is painted with tremendous freedom in a profusion of pinks, greens and pale blues which capture the colour and energy of the dance. The Observer critic wrote on 16 April 1911: ‘Mr. Lavery’s portrait of the Russian dancer, Anna Pavlova, caught in a moment of graceful, weightless movement … Her miraculous, feather-like flight, which seems to defy the law of gravitation’.
Another portrait of Anna as the dying swan from Swan Lake was made on her next visit to London in 1911.
Diaghilev organised a tour around Europe and he was thinking about going to America and Australia.
When all of a sudden Pavlova signed a contract with a London theatre company that seemed to be very promising, thus betraying Diaghilev. Victor Dandré – the man of her life came to Paris where they secretly got married. He was her manager and companion, who provided the ballerina with a sumptuous lifestyle. Anna liked to say that ‘an appropriate husband to a wife is like music to ballet’. She desperately needed money to get her beloved one out of prison.
From 1912 the couple had their own troupe of dancers. They rented Ivy House in London where she lived for the rest of her life. There was a lake with swans; Anna had a favourite one called Jack, he followed her like a dog and wasn’t afraid to eat from her hands. These birds inspired her most famous solo, The Dying Swan. Nowadays in the lake amidst the reeds stands a statue of her by the Scots sculptor George Henry Paulin – the author of two iconic statues in Glasgow of King Robert of Sicily and Joseph Lister – the works of art that you can see on our Glasgow Tours. She was a popular subject for sculptors; there are at least five memorials to Pavlova in London including the gilded statue atop the Victoria Palace Theatre.
So why is her name so familiar? In 1926 Anna was on tour to Australia and New Zealand. A chef created a meringue-based dessert to treat the dancer. He exclaimed that it was as light as Pavlova. And since that time the dessert bears the ballerina’s name.