Updated: Apr 21, 2020
by Georgina Butler
Passion. Creativity. Beauty. Expression.
Ballet is an artistic endeavour that offers both inspiration and aspiration. Painters, musicians and writers are inspired by the grace, elegance and poetry of ballet and aspire to produce work that reflects the emotions it conveys. Dancers are inspired by the music, the ability to communicate through movement and the pleasure felt when choreography is mastered – yet they will always aspire to be better because ballet technique is about reaching for an unattainable ideal.
“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.” – Anna Pavlova
One of ballet’s most influential ambassadors was Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova.
As famous in her day as a contemporary pop star, Pavlova was totally committed to ballet and has a near-mythical status as the dancer who propelled the art form into the 20th century. She inspired audiences to embrace ballet and her legacy continues to provide aspiration – hope and ambition to achieve and improve – for dancers worldwide.
Born on 12th February 1881, Pavlova was enthused by dance when, aged eight, she saw a performance of Marius Petipa’s original production of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. She enrolled in classes and, at nine years old, auditioned for the prestigious Imperial Ballet School but was unsuccessful. Undeterred, she persevered and was accepted the following year.
Life at the school was tough for this aspiring ballerina. Her long limbs, weak ankles and extremely arched feet did not comply with the small, compact body favoured for ballerinas at the time and her fragile appearance led to taunts from fellow students. They would mercilessly tease her and nicknamed her ‘The Broom’ and ‘La Petite Sauvage’ (‘The Little Savage’).
Shy and introverted, Anna sought solace in dancing.
Vigour and flamboyant tricks were in vogue while Anna was training. Consequently, her physical limitations (she had less than perfect turnout, lacked strength en pointe and often danced with bent knees) and naturally ethereal, unpretentious quality troubled her.
She practised for hours, taking extra classes with some of the greatest teachers in history (including Enrico Cecchetti, Pavel Gerdt, Christian Johansson and Nikolai Legat). Her devotion to dancing for her own fulfilment was encouraged by Pavel Gerdt.
Addressing a young Anna in class, he said:
“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.”
This is a message for all aspiring ballerinas – and a lesson to live by beyond the studio. It reminds us that we must discover our own passions, talents and qualities and make the most of them. Enjoy all you do, recognise what you do well and do not lament those traits you do not possess.
This guidance proved life-changing for Anna Pavlova. She embraced her strengths (light footedness, good extension, a flexible torso, feminine delicacy and expressiveness) and triumphed.
After graduating in 1899, she joined the Imperial Ballet a rank ahead of the corps de ballet as a coryphée. Rising through the Company quickly, she became a prima ballerina in 1906.
Audiences were enchanted by her ability to capture the spirit of the characters she portrayed. She was celebrated by balletomanes – her fervent fans, dubbed the ‘Pavlovatzi’, were captivated by her daintiness, frailness and pathos. Her emotional, eloquent style, combined with passion, conviction and belief in what she was dancing, produced heart-rending performances.
Perhaps the most poignant piece Pavlova danced is her signature solo, ‘The Dying Swan’, choreographed for her by Michel Fokine in 1905. Consisting of bourrés en pointe and a very stylised port de bras, the piece evokes emotions associated with death – pain, fear and resistance before the moment of surrender.
Fluttering arms and a supple torso create the movement of the wings, which continue to quiver until the swan gracefully ‘dies’ – seated with one leg outstretched and the upper body laid over it. It was Pavlova’s exquisite expressiveness that made this solo so moving. Her emotive style was about more than the lines of the body, it exposed her soul.
“Master technique and then forget about it and be natural.” – Anna Pavlova
In 1910, Pavlova founded her own company and toured globally – at a time when the very notion of a woman doing something like this was considered radical. No dancer, before or since, has travelled as extensively to bring ballet to the masses.
Anna Pavlova was truly the epitome of a devoted dancer – devoted to being the best she could be, devoted to remaining true to herself and devoted to widening ballet’s appeal. As dancers and dance lovers we can look to Anna as an inspirational figure – a ballerina whose charisma and passion popularised ballet worldwide – and use her story to aspire to be the very best version of ourselves that we can be.
More about Georgina Butler
My name is Georgina Butler and I am a writer based in the United Kingdom.
I am trained in classical ballet, modern, jazz and contemporary dance and seize any and all opportunities to dance myself or watch professionals perform.
I am a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science and have post-graduate industry qualifications in journalism.
With abundant writing experience in local newspapers and online, I regularly review ballet, dance and theatre productions, write features on dance and interview dancers.
I was selected as an ‘Emerging Dance Writer’ for Cloud Dance Festival, London, in November 2013 and I am an English National Ballet ‘Dance is the Word’ writer.
I am thrilled to have been asked to write the inaugural blog post, on the legendary Anna Pavlova, for Ballet Papier.
Anna Pavlova is a fascinating historical figure who did so much to widen ballet’s appeal.
Her legacy lives on in all the people – artists, dancers, students – who discover her story and her whole-hearted approach to dancing.
I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes as I encourage you to enjoy my words and pursue your dancing dreams:
“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.” – Voltaire.
You can learn more about me and read my work at http://georginabutler.wordpress.com.