11 December 2012

Anna Pavlova: meringue with cream, strawberries and passionfruit

Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) was a Russian ballerina who grew up at a time when Russia was producing the best dancers, choreographers, costume designers, artists, composers, writers and every other creative profession in the world. Pavlova is the name of a town near Omsk and Novosibirsk, but Anna’s stepfather, from whom she took her surname, did not seem to have any relationship with that location.

Anna Pavlova was a student at the Imperial Ballet School in St Pet­er­sburg, and quickly joined Imperial Ballet when she finished school in 1899. Fortunately for the teenager, she was offered many roles with this busy company and came to be admired by the ballet-going public of the very cult­ivated city of St Petersburg. It was in the role of The Dying Swan, a solo choreographed for her by Michel Fokine in 1905, that was most mem­orable. As was The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns.

In the first years of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) revolutionised ballet. Diaghilev made managerial and aesthetic decisions about who to work with: composers like Igor Stravinsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Prokofiev, and dancers and choreographers like Vaslav Nijinsky, Mikhail Fokine, Leonide Massine, Alicia Markova and George Balanchine. Finally there were the costumers and set designers like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alexandre Benois and of course the incomparable Leon Bakst. Originally Anna Pavlova was invited to take the main role in Mikhail Fokine's The Firebird. Amazingly she turned down the role, apparently because Igor Stravinsky's music was too avant-garde.

Anna Pavlova and the Ballet Russe
1926 theatre programme, JC Williamson 
National Library of Australia, Canberra

Nonetheless Diaghilev took Pavlova to Paris in 1909 as her reputation was already well known in that distant city. But she soon left the Ballets Russes because, she said, of Diaghilev's preference for the male dancers. Within one year, Pavlova had formed her own company, with eight dancers from the original St Petersburg group. As she toured the world, she enlarged the company with non-Russian dancers.

During her first tour of Australia in 1926, Pavlova and her 45 dan­cers visited Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. So famous was she that ten thousand people welcomed her when she arrived by train at Sydney's main railway station. [No-one other than King George V himself received such large and welcoming crowds]. She presented fifteen ballets where a very young Robert Helpmann (1909–86) was one of the extra Australian dancers, hired for the occasion. She then continued this section of the company’s world tour in New Zealand, again to rapt acclaim.

For her second Australian tour in 1929, Pavlova travelled thousands of ks throughout rural Queensland, on a special train that was proudly provided by the Queensland state government. They visited the rural cities of Rockhampton, Mackay and Bundaberg prior to her Brisbane opening in the newly completed His Majesty’s Theatre. This was followed by star appearances in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. 

pavlova: meringue, whipped cream, fruit

Although members of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes toured Australia as far back as 1913, it was Pavlova who created the sensational response in Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s. Both tours were directed by the giant theatrical company, JC Williamson. Monte Luke, who had earlier been a successful stage actor and film-maker, had an on-going relationship with Williamson’s and worked as their official photo­grapher. Pavlova photos were on every newspaper and magazine in both countries.

Pavlova’s passion for ballet inspired a generation of young women, their mothers, newspaper journalists and women’s magazines. Professional ballet dancers and teachers in Australia were inspired to create branches of the Royal Academy of Dancing and the Cecchetti Society in Australia. Perhaps the tours led, eventually, to the creation of the Australian Ballet.

The dessert, pavlova, was either created in a Wellington hotel after her 1926 tour of New Zealand or in a Perth hotel after the 1929 tour of that city. What is certain is the name of the dessert was specif­ically used to honour the Russian dancer and to thank her for exciting ballet-lovers in far flung Australia and New Zealand. 85 years later, pavlova is still a hugely popular sweets dish and an iconic part of the national cuisine of both countries. The meringue, whipped cream, sunny strawberries and summer passionfruit look and taste exotic. For a relatively easy recipe, see AllDownUnder.

Pavlova never travelled to Australia or New Zealand again, as she died from pleurisy in The Hague in 1931. If modern readers don’t know the first thing about the Imperial Russian Ballet, the Ballets Russes or indeed Sergei Diaghilev, at least they will still recognise Pavlova’s name, her Dying Swan and definitely Australia/New Zealand’s most famous sweets dish.


A much more substantial link between Pavlova and the British Empire occurred in 1912 when she bought Ivy House in London. Pavlova had her furniture and artwork shipped from St Petersburg and began to make Ivy House her London home. Pavlova’s love for her house and its gardens increased each year, and she cherished the brief time she could spend there between tours. The dancer’s home was also her retreat from the endless months of touring AND the artistic hub of the Pavlova Company.

After calling Ivy House her home for 30 years, the house and its contents were auctioned with the ballerina’s premature death in 1931. The current residents of Ivy House, the London Jewish Cultural Centre, celebrated the centenary of the great ballerina during a week of celebrations in 2012.

Pavlova (and Jack) in the gardens of Ivy House, Hampstead 


Andrew said...

I find it odd that she toured here twice when we had such a small population, or even once, but she wasn't only person to so in the field of the arts. Was it our apparent wealth or our exotic distance or our reputation for appreciation of the arts?

Hels said...


I kept asking the same thing exactly, when Lola Montez arrived here in 1855, receiving rave reviews in our gold field cities and towns. Then Sarah Bernhardt’s trip in 1891 emptied the NSW Parliament and caused wild scenes at Redfern station. The Weintraub Syncopators came to Australia in the 1930s. Even the Vienna Boys Choir came.

I have no idea why they came, but I know they were rapturously welcomed here.

Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Mmmmm pavlova reminds me of my Mum's aunt who used to make lovely ones with pineapple instead of strawberries :-)

P. M. Doolan said...

I had absolutely no idea that pavlova came from down under.

Hels said...


there is something universally appealing about a hard meringue case, a gooey creamy meringue centre and fresh fruit piled on top. I wonder if Anna Pavlova ever had the pleasure herself. Probably not - apparently she lived on lettuce leaves.

Hels said...


meringue by itself is not Australian or New Zealandish, but the total Pavlovian package is.

I learned ballet (1952-64) from the last Borovansky masters who came out with the Ballets Russes in the 1920s tours. The link back to Pavlova, even for a small child, was crystal clear.

Ballet Lover said...

Perhaps Sergei Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova were both prima donnas and the company only had space for one.

Hels said...

Ballet Lover

Diaghilev was the founder of Ballets Russes, its director and key decision-maker. He really wanted Pavlova to go with the company to Paris and perhaps to star in their new found fame. But as you rightly say, Paris wasn't big enough for their two demanding personalities.

Hels said...

I have added a reference to the house Pavlova lived in for 30 years in London - Ivy House. See Jane Pritchard's book "Anna Pavlova: 20th Century Ballerina'.

Hels said...

My next post (18/12/2012) will be about art during the Spanish Civil War 1936-9. I was quite surprised to find at least two connections to the Ballets Russes:

1. Sets and costumes were designed by André Derain, Henri Matisse and Leon Bakst, but also by Pablo Picasso. Picasso designed for Parade in 1917 and four more ballets in the next 10 years.

2. In 1917, Picasso and Olga Khokhlova went to Barcelona with Diaghilev and the company.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Sorry it took so long to respond to this. I have been under the weather and not thinking of food.

It is interesting to consider dishes named after celebrities. With pêche Melba, the case is the opposite of Pavlova--the artist was Australian, and the dessert invented in Europe.

Luisa Tetrazzini was also honored by a chef, but in the end did not come off as well as the other two. Pavlovas and Melbas are always delicious, but chicken Tetrazzini unfortunately became associated with the lowest level of institutional food.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


Welcome back to the land of the living.. Hope you have no more health problems.

There have been entire PhD theses dedicated to food dishes named after important people eg Eggs Benedict or Caesar Salad. I suppose the interesting questions for us are:
1. Do people know who the original namees were?
2. Do we still use the same names for dishes today? And,
3. Do these original names still have the same value today. As you said, poor old chicken Tetrazzini may not. Earl Grey tea certainly does, ditto Lobster Newberg.

ChrisJ said...

In matters of food - pavlova being an excellent example! - I am more of a gourmand than an intellectual. My Australian friend prides herself on her pavlova with just cause. ;)

Hels said...


pavlova has enough cream to clog your arteries and more than enough sugar to give you diabetes. But the look is sensational and the taste is sublime. So the trick is to serve pav only on very special occasions.

Once Australian and New Zealand women stopped making their own pavs, Pavlova Shops popped up in every city and large town. They sell you the meringue case and you fill it with double cream, strawberries and passionfruit etc etc

Coulda shoulda woulda said...

Love this article!

Hels said...

Thanks Coulda.
Love Pavlova and love the pavlova :)

Student of History said...

Thanks for the lecture. You said then that Pavlova probably never married, despite rumours to the contrary. What evidence is there?

Hels said...


according to what you read, she either married Victor Dandre privately in 1911, or in 1924, or they were very close but never married at all. Pavlova didn't seem to mention a husband at all, and Dandre seemed to have mentioned their marriage only after Pavlova died.

Dandre was, according to what you read, a minor aristocrat, an embezzler, a good accompanist or a brilliant manager of all Pavlova's world tours.

Real Food Kitchens said...

The chef from the Hotel Wellington in New Zealand was inspired by Anna Pavlova's white tutu embroidered with green cabbage roses that she wore on stage. So he create a cake made of a meringue crust topped with fresh cream (white tutu), strawberries and kiwi fruit (cabbage roses).

Hels said...

Real Food Kitchen

thank you. I didn't know what a cabbage rose was (round and globular) nor did I know that Pavlova had them on her tutus.