Mystery and Excellence on The Human Body - Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova! My life stops as I write that name. Across the daily preoccupation of lessons, lunch boxes, tooth brushing and quarrelings with my sister flashed this bright, unworldly experience and burned in a single afternoon a path over which I could never retrace my steps. I had witnessed the power of beauty, and in some chamber of my heart I lost forever my irresponsibility. I was as clearly marked as though she had looked me in the face and called my name. For generations my father's family had loved and served the theatre. All my life I had seen actors and actresses and had heard theatre jargon at the dinner table. I had thrilled at Father's projects and watched fascinated his picturesque occupations.... But nothing in his world or my uncle's [Hollywood movie moghul Cecil B. deMille] prepared me for theatre as I saw it that Saturday afternoon.

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova

As her little bird body revealed itself on the scene, either immobile  in trembling mystery or tense in the incredible arc which was her lift,  her instep stretched ahead in an arch never before seen, the tiny bones  of her hands in ceaseless vibration, her face radiant, diamonds glittering under her dark hair, her little waist encased in silk, the great tutu  balancing, quickening and flashing over her beating, flashing, quivering legs, every man and woman sat forward, every pulse quickened.  She never appeared to rest static, some part of her trembled, vibrated,  beat like a heart. Before our dazzled eyes, she flashed with the sudden  sweetness of a hummingbird in action too quick for understanding by  our gross utilitarian standards, in action sensed rather than seen. The  movie cameras of her day could not record her allegro. Her feet and  hands photographed as a blur.

Bright little bird bones, delicate bird sinews! She was all fire and  steel wire. There was not an ounce of spare flesh on her skeleton, and  the life force used and used her body until she died of the fever of  moving, gasping for breath, much too young.

She was small, about five feet. She wore a size one and a half slip per, but her feet and hands were large in proportion to her height. Her  hand could cover her whole face. Her trunk was small and stripped of  all anatomy but the ciphers of adolescence, her arms and legs relatively  long, the neck extraordinarily long and mobile. All her gestures were  liquid and possessed of an inner rhythm that flowed to inevitable completion with the finality of architecture or music. Her arms seemed to  lift not from the elbow or the arm socket, but from the base of the  spine. Her legs seemed to function from the waist. When she bent her  head her whole spine moved and the motion was completed the length  of the arm through the elongation of her slender hand and the quivering  reaching fingers. I believe there has never been a foot like hers, slender, delicate and of such an astonishing aggressiveness when arched as  to suggest the ultimate in human vitality. Without in any way being  sensual, being, in fact, almost sexless, she suggested all exhilaration,  gaiety and delight. She jumped, and we broke. bonds with reality. We  new. We hung over the earth, spread in the air as we do in dreams, our  hands turning in the air as in water — the strong forthright taut plunging leg balanced on the poised arc of the foot, the other leg stretched to  the horizon like the wing of a bird. We lay balancing, quivering, turning, and all things were possible, even to us, the ordinary people.

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova

(...) I sat with the blood beating in my throat. As I walked into the  bright glare of the afternoon, my head ached and I could scarcely swallow. I didn't wish to cry. I certainly couldn't speak. I sat in a daze in  the car oblivious to the grownups' ceaseless prattle. At home I climbed  the stairs slowly to my bedroom and, shutting myself in, placed both  hands on the brass rail at the foot of my bed, then rising laboriously to  the tips of my white buttoned shoes I stumped the width of the bed and  back again. My toes throbbed with pain, my knees shook, my legs  quivered with weakness. I repeated the exercise. The blessed, relieving  tears stuck at last on my lashes. Only by hurting my feet could I ease  the pain in my throat.

(...) Anna Pavlova was born in St. Petersburg of a Jewish mother  and an unknown father, reputedly a laundress and a peasant. She was a  graduate of the Imperial School and one of the last five ranking ballerinas of the Maryinski Theatre. Pavlova was the first great star to leave  the Czarist confines and toured Scandinavia one summer with Adolph  Bolm. They forfeited their pensions for doing so. The Scandinavians  had never seen any dancing like it. Years later Bolm used to...beguile  beginners like me with tales of the great days. There were dinners, banquets, torchlight processions, horses unhitched from the carriage, mobs  outside the hotel windows, flowers thrown down on their heads. And  in the winter, in the snows, when they went touring through the  Russian provinces, trainloads of balletomanes followed them from city  to city, rich and enthusiastic young men bringing their own servants  and wine and horses, and in some cases furniture, along with them, and  laughing with...the snow matted on their fur coats, to see the darling,  the great new ballerina, Anna Pavlova, rolling like a kitten in the snow,  frisking and waving her incredible little feet like deer's hoofs.

The short tour through Scandinavia gave her a taste for the outer  world and in 1905 she followed Diaghilev to Paris and danced opposite  Nijinsky in the initial, legendary season at the Theatre du Chatelet. I  am told their waltz in Les Sylphides was the lightest, most aerial and  brilliant dancing ever seen by living eye. She shortly broke away, how ever, to become star in her company and thereafter toured the world,  back and forth, around and around and never stopped.

A few years later...

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova came back. I heard of the return with a mixture of  excitement and dread. What if she was not as I remembered her?... I  knew a great deal more about technique now; I would look at her with a critical eye.

(...) We were excused from school for the Thursday afternoon matinee. I ate scarcely any lunch. I saw to it that we were in our seats twenty minutes before the curtain rose. The ballet was Autumn Leaves corn-,  posed by Madame herself to music by Chopin....

She came on. What did she do? Does it matter? She was gone. The  audience stirred. She was back and dancing. Right there in front of me  in flesh and nerve. Oh, holy life! How could I have doubted her? She  changed us while we sat there that Thursday afternoon; she made us  less daily. I don't know what she did. I know and remember what she  meant. The upturned face, the waiting listening face, the exposed heart,  the shared rapture.

A friend touched my shoulder. "Would you like to meet her? I know  her well." Mother answered for me. I was unable to speak. "She would.  Yes." We filed backstage. I remember the dress I wore, dark blue silk  taffeta, my first silk dress. I had a little blue hat to match with petals  that curled up against the crown. My sister was an exact replica two  sizes smaller. Madame had finished the program with a Russian dance.  She stood in full Boyarina costume in the dressing room talking to  friends. She spoke in light, twittering sounds and her dark eyes flashed  incessantly with enormous alertness and inner excitement. Her claw like hands played nervously with the pearls at her throat. They were the  veined hands of an old woman or of an instrumentalist. I noticed her  insteps jutting up under the straps of her buttoned slippers. The rocky  arch was like a bird claw. There seemed to be no flesh on the foot; it  s all bone and tendon. The toe was clubby, broadened and coarse.  Her little thin shoulders lifted from the gathered peasant blouse. What  was gross had been burnt and wasted off her. She had kept no part of  her body that was not useful to her art, and there was about her the  tragic aura of absolute decision. The high pale brow, her front against e world, the sombre eyes, the mobile lips shut with humorous tolerance on God knows what tumult and violence caged within the little  skull, marked her as one apart. She had the fascination of a martyr. We drew aside and looked at her with both reverence and relief, smug in  our own freedom. Possibly I am reading back into her face the wisdom

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova

of my own bitterness learned later. Possibly as a girl I saw only the  glory. But I think not. I knew enough to understand the cost of the  beauty she achieved and to be terrified at the price.

"This is Kosloff's best pupil," said my friend, pushing me forward.  An exaggeration, of course, but I was incapable of speech. Kosloff had  undoubtedly presented his own candidate nights before.

"Ah! Brava! Brava!" chirped Madame. "Would you like some flowers?" She tore a handful of pink carnations and cherry blossoms from a  basket that had just been handed to her across the footlights. Then she  leaned down and kissed me. Anna Pavlova kissed me.  

I wept.

Someone led me kindly from the room, maybe Mother. Someone  stood beside me and lent me a pocket handkerchief while I fought to  regain control of myself among the hurrying stagehands. Someone  helped me into the car and asked no questions. I was weeping silently  by this time.

"Well," said Margaret, "I must say I don't see what there is to cry   about." :

"Be quiet!" said Mother with the greatest severity I had ever heard ;

her use in addressing my little sister.

When we reached home I ran through the garden without stopping  to take off my coat and threw myself on the ground under the orchard  trees.

O Father in Heaven make me worthy!

I kept the flowers she gave me for ten years in a box, shaming  myself at last into throwing the little mummies away. Dear Madame,  she kissed all the little girls that were brought backstage to her, gave  them all flowers and altered their lives. One out of every dozen dancers  of my generation has confessed to the same experience. That does not  make it any less impressive — more so, I should say. She was an apostle. She had the power of conversion. That it may have come in time to  seem a touch routine to members of her company does not mitigate the  miracle. The recipients bear stigmata.

She returned again three years later, her last tour. ;

(...) She wore her hair fuzzed out in black curls, grapes over the,  ears, and a white tunic flecked with red. Her partner's arm about her,  she entered skipping, the knees working like pistons to the chest and  the feet driving through the earth. The dancers carried over their heads

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova

a scarlet veil, and the man held a large bunch of red paper roses with  which he pelted her. Occasionally, she chewed a paper rose with her  teeth. Corn? Thunder and fire. The working knees, the feet tearing the  earth, the wild glance, the flamelike thrust and contraction of her back,  the abandoned arms, her body broken and contorted on his thigh, the  exhausted flame against the earth as he stood over her, the head moving moving, in restless joy, the hands torn, stretching, fainting, unresting. Oh ancient ecstasy, passion beyond promise!

She danced The Dying Swan.... It is probably the most famous solo  in the history of dancing. When she trembled onto the stage it was a  death agony, the voice in the dark, the final anonymous cry against  annihilation. And when she lay doubled up and the last shudder passed  through feathers and broken bones, drawing as an afterbeat when all  was finished the shivering inert hand across her face in a gesture of  final decency, everyone sat stricken. Death was upon each of us.

Death came to Anna Pavlova in 1931, when she was fifty. She had  not stopped touring for a single season. Her knees had sustained some  damage, but she would not rest, and she was in a state of exhaustion  when the train that was carrying her to Holland was wrecked. She ran  out into the snow in her nightgown and insisted on helping the wound ed. When she reached The Hague she had double pneumonia. Her last  spoken words were, "Get the Swan dress ready."

I saw the headlines on the front page of the New York Times. It did  not seem possible. She was in essence the denial of death. My own life  was rooted to her in a deep spiritual sense and had been during the  whole of my growing up. It mattered not that I had only spoken to her  once and that my work lay in a different direction. She was the vision  and the impulse and the goal.

Her death touched off a world-wide hysteria among adolescent girls  that is without precedent. Several young dancers identified themselves  so completely with the star as to believe in fact that her soul had transmigrated into their own bodies. Each one felt that she had got the original or genuine soul and looked upon the other claimants as impostors.

(...) Pavlova's ashes were laid in the Golder's Green cemetery near  her home, Ivy House, Hampstead Heath.... But also in New York, in  s Angeles, in Paris, Berlin, Rome, San Francisco, wherever there  as a Russian Orthodox Church, the dancers gathered, those that knew  her and many more that didn't. I went in New York and all the dancers

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova

of the city were there. My mother came. She said she wished to, that  she owed her a debt of many hours of joy. We stood. The Russians held  lighted candles; the choir chanted with a high tonal insistency that  wore down like rain on rock. The priest passed in and out of his paint ed, holy screens. A friend leaned to me. "They are singing," she whispered, "Receive the soul of Anna. Cherish our Anna. Bless and protect  Anna." But I put my handkerchief to my mouth and heard the drums  and the beating of feet and the cries she gave as she leaped. At the conclusion of the service, Fokine as senior friend, colleague, and Russian,  received our condolences....

We went out into the day. Wherever Pavlova had passed, hearts  changed, flames sprang in the grass and girls ran out to a strange, wild,  ancient dedication.

From Agnes deMille, Dance to the Piper, 

Da Capo Press Inc., New York.

Anna Pavlova

Back to Content