Anna Pavlova — Biographical Note
Anna Pavlova was born on January 31, 1881. Her life's ambition crystallized in childhood, at a performance of The Sleeping Beauty ballet, at the Maryinski Theatre in St. Petersburg. "It never entered my mind," she remembered later, "that there were easier goals to attain than that of a principal dancer of the Imperial Ballet."
At the age of ten she was admitted to a famous ballet academy and was soon singled out by her teachers. Bypassing the corps de ballet, Pavlova was accepted into the Maryinski company in 1899, and in 1905 was appointed to the rank of prima ballerina. Her performances were so popular that students would apply for jobs as extras just to see them. Theatre staff would crowd into the auditorium to watch the rehearsals.
Such was her prestige that she was soon going on independent tours in Russia, and later throughout Europe and America. In 1912, Pavlova settled permanently in London, taking up residence in Ivy House, Golders Green.
Anna Pavlova died, under the circumstances described by Agnes deMille, on January 23, 1931, at the age of 50.
Paradoxically enough ballet dancing is designed to give the impression of lightness and ease. Nothing in classic dancing should be convulsive or tormented. Derived from the seventeenth and eighteenth-century court dances the style is kingly, a series of harmonious and balanced postures linked by serene movement. The style involves a total defiance of gravity, and because this must perforce be an illusion, the effect is achieved first by an enormous strengthening of the legs and feet to produce great resilient jumps and second by a co-ordination of arms and head in a rhythm slower than the rhythm of the legs which have no choice but to take the weight of the body when the body falls. But the slow relaxed movement of head and arms gives the illusion of sustained flight, gives the sense of effortless ease. The lungs may be bursting, the heart pounding in the throat, sweat springing from every pore, but hands "lust float in repose, the head stir gently as though swooning in delight. The diaphragm must be lifted to expand the chest fully, proudly; the abdomen Pulled in flat. The knees must be taut and flat to give the extended leg every inch of length. The leg must be turned outward forty-five degrees in the hip socket so that the side of the knee and die long unbroken line of the leg are
presented to view and never the lax, droopy line of a bent knee. The leg must look like a sword. The foot arches to prolong the line of extension. The sup porting foot turns out forty-five degrees to enhance the line of the supporting leg, to keep the hips even, and to ensure the broadest possible base for the sup port and balancing of the body.
It should always be remembered that the court, and therefore the first, bal let dances were performed by expert swordsmen and derive much of their style from fencing positions. The discipline embraces the whole deportment. The lifted foot springs to attention the minute it leaves the floor. The supporting foot endures all, the instep must never give way even when the whole weight of the body drops and grinds on the single slim arch. The legs can be held in their turned position by the great muscles across the buttocks only by pulling the buttocks in flat. The spine should be steady, the expression of the face noble, the face of a king to whom all things are possible. The eyebrows may not go up, the shoulders may not lift, the neck may not stiffen, nor the mouth open like a hooked fish.
The five classic positions and the basic arm postures and steps were named at the request of Louis XIV by his great ballet master, Pécourt, Lully's collaborator, codified, described and fixed in the regimen of daily exercise which has become almost ceremonial with time. Since then the technique has expanded and diversified but the fundamental steps and nomenclature remain unchanged....
The ideal ballet body is long limbed with a small compact torso. This makes for beauty of line; the longer the arms and legs the more exciting the body line. The ideal ballet foot has a high taut instep and a wide stretch in the Achilles' tendon. This tendon is the spring on which a dancer pushes for his jump, the hinge on which he takes the shock of landing. If there is one tendon in a dancer's body more important than any other, it is this tendon. It is, I should say, the prerequisite for all great technique. When the heel does not stretch easily and softly like a cat's, as mine did not, almost to the point of malformation, the shock of running or jumping must be taken somewhere in the spine by sticking out behind, for instance, in a sitting posture after every jump. I seemed to be all rusty wire and safety pins. My torso was long with unusually broad hips, my legs and arms abnormally short, my hands and feet broad and short. I was besides fat. What I did not know was that I was constructed for endurance and that I developed through effort alone a capacity for outperforming far, far better technicians. Because I was built like a mustang, stocky, mettlesome and sturdy, I became a good jumper, growing special compensating muscles up the front of my shins for the lack of a helpful heel. But the long, cool, serene classic line was forever denied me.
In The Dancing Class, the French painter Degas captured a moment in the arduous training routine of the young ballerinas at the Paris Opera, 1873
And at first, of course, the compensations and adjustments were neither present nor indicated. Every dancer makes his own body. He is born only with certain physical tendencies. This making of a ballet, leg takes approximately ten years and the initial stages are almost entirely discouraging, for even the best look awkward and paralyzed at the beginning....
From Agnes deMille, Dance to The Piper 391