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