Pavlova Performs

Anna Pavlova’s memorable solo performance in Michel Fokine’s The Dying Swan symbolized a new era in ballet to appreciative audiences around the world.

Summary of Event

On December 22, 1907, Anna Pavlova premiered The Dying Swan, a miniature ballet that was to influence multitudes. The two-minute solo quickly became her favorite and most successful piece. Its expressive and lyrical choreography, by Pavlova’s colleague Michel Fokine, was a telling synthesis of the classical ballet tradition and “modern” reforms. Pavlova’s emotional interpretation of this synthesis, embodied in the Swan, is nothing short of legendary. Through her independent tours to cities across six continents between 1909 and 1931, Pavlova came to symbolize the new Russian ballet for a vast, appreciative audience. Dying Swan, The (ballet)
Ballet;The Dying Swan[Dying Swan]
[kw]Pavlova Performs The Dying Swan (Dec. 22, 1907)
[kw]Dying Swan, Pavlova Performs The (Dec. 22, 1907)
[kw]Swan, Pavlova Performs The Dying (Dec. 22, 1907)
Dying Swan, The (ballet)
Ballet;The Dying Swan[Dying Swan]
[g]Russia;Dec. 22, 1907: Pavlova Performs The Dying Swan[01990]
[c]Dance;Dec. 22, 1907: Pavlova Performs The Dying Swan[01990]
Pavlova, Anna
Fokine, Michel
Diaghilev, Sergei
Duncan, Isadora
Hurok, Solomon

The Dying Swan was created in response to an invitation by the Imperial Opera. A benefit concert was being given in St. Petersburg’s magnificent Mariinsky Theatre (now the Kirov), and Pavlova was asked to participate. Fokine recommended the music—“Swan” from the 1886 work Carnaval des Animaux by Camille Saint-Saëns—realizing that this composition for mandolin would be an ideal vehicle for the thin and graceful Pavlova. Excited by the suggestion, she asked him to create the dance. The Dying Swan was born.

The ballet’s conception was simple. Wearing a traditional white tutu embellished with down feathers (designed by artist Léon Bakst) and a feathered headpiece, Pavlova portrayed the noble bird’s struggle between life and death in an uncomplicated series of actions. Crossing the stage sur les pointes (on the tips of her toes), as if it were a shimmering pool of water, the Swan fluttered her arms in preparation for flight. Reaching the edge of an invisible precipice, she stopped short in the classic position of attitude (balancing on one pointe, the other leg extended back and bent at the knee). Suddenly, the Swan experienced sharp jolts of pain. She clasped her arms to her chest, moving haltingly to the footlights. There, she made a curving descent to the ground and, after protracted quivers, found everlasting rest.

Fokine later recalled that the dance was choreographed in minutes, as he demonstrated the movements while Pavlova imitated him from behind. She then attempted it alone as he corrected her gestures and poses. The simple movements brilliantly combined classical ballet technique with a new emotional expressiveness. Rather than trying to amaze the audience with technical or acrobatic feats, the choreography consisted of a sequence of traditional pas de bourrées, or patterned steps, and sustained balletic positions.

If the movements of the feet were traditional, however, the movements of the arms were decidedly untraditional. Gone were the static and controlled arm gestures of nineteenth century ballet, devoid of meaning and corresponding only with specific positions of the feet. In their place were animate appendages that contributed to, rather than supported, the choreography. True to the character of the Swan, Pavlova’s arms were transformed into airy wings.

Almost improvisatory, the dance allowed Pavlova the freedom to impose her own mood on its movements, so that each performance was different and uniquely powerful. Pavlova revealed possibilities of expression through her movements that were previously unknown. Fokine remembered it this way: “It was like a proof that the dance could and should satisfy not only the eye, but through the medium of the eye should penetrate into the soul.”

Unlike other ballets of the day, Pavlova’s Swan did not depend for its effect on a sophisticated plot or lavish decor. Answering detractors who called the dance trivial, English dance critic Cyril Beaumont wrote: “Those who never saw her dance may ask what she did that made it so wonderful. It is not so much what she did as how she did it. The emotion transferred was so overpowering that it seemed a mockery to applaud when the dance came to an end.” Similar descriptions of The Dying Swan have been recorded by countless critics, observers, and fans.

Anna Pavlova.

(Library of Congress)

Pavlova had long been known for her emotional portrayals, often being compared to the lyric Romantic ballet dancers of the nineteenth century. She had been a principal dancer with the Russian Imperial Ballet since 1905, graduating from the Imperial Ballet Academy in 1899 and working her way up through the ranks of the company. (She was allowed to bypass the corps de ballet, however, achieving the status of soloist from the start.) Although her technical ability was limited by a frail body and weak ankles (often documented by critics as “her extreme femininity”), her reputation as a character dancer was established immediately. Clearly, she compensated for any technical deficiencies by developing and maximizing her expressive powers.

Michel Fokine was one of her childhood classmates, frequently partnering her in the traditional nineteenth century classical ballets. Typically, the choreography was designed to show off Pavlova’s pirouettes (turns) and Fokine’s grand jumps. This rigid formula, which emphasized fixed poses and stereotypical plots, generally lacked dramatic unity. As in most ballets of the time, the music merely signaled the starting and stopping of the dance. Rarely did it provide impetus or support for the movement itself.

Pavlova loved the applause that their duets invariably received, but Fokine was less than satisfied with the content of their performances. Gradually he began to choreograph for the Imperial Ballet on a regular basis, and his new ideas about the dance unfolded. In particular, he contemplated expressive over simply impressive movement and a more purposeful relationship of the dance to music. Whereas Fokine’s reforms were the products of careful deliberation, Pavlova instinctively unified movement and music when she danced. Because of this intuitive understanding, she was the perfect instrument to communicate Fokine’s emerging ideas.

The premiere performance of The Dying Swan was the first of many. Pavlova continued to dance until her death from pneumonia at the age of forty-nine, presenting The Dying Swan to audiences throughout Europe, Australia, South Africa, Asia, and North and South America. Her signature piece became one of the most famous solos of the century and symbolized a new era in ballet. Although this new era began in Russia, Pavlova’s inexhaustible tours introduced possibilities for expression through dance to people well beyond her homeland. For this, Pavlova is included among the pioneers of twentieth century dance.


In Russia, The Dying Swan was instantly recognized as a departure from traditional ballets. Its unadorned movement, its expressive use of the arms, and its use of classical, rather than made-for-ballet, music set the dance apart from well-known favorites such as La Bayadere or Giselle (two ballets with which, incidentally, Pavlova also had tremendous success in Russia). The Dying Swan represented a new direction for the Russian ballet, one that sought to elevate the dance to the level of symphonic music.

It is probable that these changes were inspired, or at least helped, by modern dancer Isadora Duncan’s performances in Russia during the same period. Pavlova and Duncan had met and observed each other at work as early as 1904, the time of Duncan’s first visit to Russia. It is likely that Pavlova and Fokine both were influenced by the American dancer’s unrestricted, emotion-filled movement. In fact, writer Gennady Smakov has described the improvisatory and expressive nature of The Dying Swan as “Duncanism on pointe.”

The Dying Swan unified all aspects of its production, from music to movement, from Pavlova’s costume to her hairstyle. As Fokine intended, it managed this while staying within the confines of classical technique (a difference between Pavlova’s work and Duncan’s). Pavlova supported Fokine’s stance against the classical formula of nineteenth century ballet; more than anyone else, she was responsible for presenting his ideas of reform to early twentieth century audiences through her countless performances of The Dying Swan. She was less enthusiastic about the innovations of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, however, and spent only one season with that company in Paris, although Fokine was then its principal choreographer. She returned briefly at that time to the Imperial Ballet, only to resign in 1913. Her real ambition was to travel alone.

Pavlova’s influence ultimately extended across an estimated 350,000 miles and into the imaginations of millions of observers through some four thousand performances. In 1914, she organized and trained a small company of dancers who became her personal corps de ballet. The group toured regularly from then on; Pavlova’s mission was to reach as many as possible with her art. “I want to dance for everybody in the world,” she declared. Historian Arthur H. Franks has calculated that during one American tour in 1925, Pavlova’s company appeared in seventy-seven towns during twenty-six weeks, performing a total of 238 times.

Between 1913 and 1925, Pavlova’s group was the only dance company regularly touring the United States. This constant visibility greatly contributed to the popularization of ballet in America. During the early years of Pavlova’s travels, the United States was only beginning to accept dance as a legitimate pursuit, let alone an art form. Acceptance came only following tremendous resistance. Partly because of the country’s conservative Puritan origins and partly because of the relatively recent rise of cities and towns (with their reputation for roughness and corruption), Americans were likely to associate dancers with saloons, gambling, and even prostitution.

Pavlova herself wrote that she had never realized how protected dancers were in Russia. She was astonished to discover that in the United States when people spoke of a woman becoming a dancer, “they used the same tone they would have whispered of her entrance into the oldest profession in the world.” Without doubt, Pavlova stirred an appreciation and interest in ballet that contributed to a gradual change in its professional and artistic image. This paved the way for further developments in the dance of the twentieth century.

American impresario Solomon Hurok promoted Pavlova in the United States, where she eventually commanded large fees for her performances. At first, however, she danced for meager crowds. Her American debut took place at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House with partner Mikhail Mordkin in 1910. Metropolitan Opera House (New York City);Anna Pavlova[Pavlova] Fearing little interest or even scorn, promoters advertised her performances as bringing “an art new to America” rather than stating outright that it was a ballet presentation. In other cities, Pavlova often performed in vaudeville houses on the same programs with trained animal acts, jugglers, and comedians.

Despite this indignity, she persevered, certain that Americans would eventually respond to the ballet’s enchantment. In many cases, Pavlova provided the first glimpse of ballet that her audiences had ever experienced. She was the first significant female ballet dancer to tour the United States since Fanny Elssler in 1841, and Pavlova’s travels encompassed more ground. Whereas Russian observers recognized a radical departure from nineteenth century ballet in The Dying Swan, audiences in the United States and other parts of the world saw first and foremost the magic of ballet dance performed by a fairylike creature. Pavlova can be credited with sharing this magic with countless people who previously had little, if any, experience with theatrical dance. Certainly, she inspired the next generation of American ballet stars.

Pavlova changed the concept of the dance and the image of the dancer. Her ability to express the pathos of creatures such as The Dying Swan, her dynamic stage presence, and her compelling desire to share her dance even to her death made her one of the most famous dancers of the twentieth century. In her depiction of The Dying Swan, she demonstrated the expressive powers of an art form that was just beginning to be recognized in the United States, and she heralded a new era of Russian ballet to those who had long loved the old. Dying Swan, The (ballet)
Ballet;The Dying Swan[Dying Swan]

Further Reading

  • Fonteyn, Margot. Pavlova: Portrait of a Dancer. New York: Viking Press, 1984. A beautiful book featuring passages of Pavlova’s own writing interspersed with historical commentary by dancer Fonteyn. Lavishly illustrated with photographs, performance programs, and drawings from throughout Pavlova’s career. Also includes a selective chronology of the dancer’s life.
  • Franks, Arthur H., ed., in collaboration with the Pavlova Commemoration Committee. Pavlova: A Biography. London: Burke, 1956. This small volume contains ten selections about Pavlova written by, among others, her promoter Sol Hurok, critic Arnold Haskell, dancer and choreographer Michel Fokine, and one of her partners, Laurent Novikov. Includes a useful introductory biographical sketch of Pavlova’s life (although some dates are inaccurate).
  • Garafola, Lynn. Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2005. A selection of essays and reviews by one of the most influential scholars of the history of dance. Covers the transformation of dance, especially ballet, since the early twentieth century. Includes many photographs.
  • Ivchenko, Valerian. Anna Pavlova. Translated by A. Grey. Paris: Brunhoff, 1922. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1974. This elegant book describes Pavlova’s life and repertoire in detail and provides lengthy quotations about Pavlova by various observers. Includes seventy-five photographs and drawings, some in color.
  • Lazzarini, John, and Roberta Lazzarini. Pavlova: Repertoire of a Legend. New York: Schirmer Books, 1980. Written by the founders of the Pavlova Society, this book describes each dance in Pavlova’s repertoire and briefly explains its historical significance. Includes a biographical sketch, an essay discussing the use of photographs as historical evidence, and an extensive bibliography.
  • Smakov, Gennady. “Anna Pavlova.” In The Great Russian Dancers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. Offers a valuable historical perspective on Pavlova’s life and art. The author, a Russian émigré critic, places Pavlova in the context of other Russian dancers and achievements.

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