Anna Pavlova - Dying Swan and the Making of her Only Film October 28 2022

Anna Pavlova is one of the greatest and most influential dancers of all time, constantly being revered as one of those figures that helped dancing take a much clearer and fascinating form. In that regard, there are a lot of interesting facts and stories regarding her life and work, which is something we are going to address in this article, covering her life from the early days, her struggles over the years and her untimely death.



Anna Pavlova was born prematurely on January 31, 1881, during a cold winter in St. Petersburg, Russia, in a family of low resources and she was baptized on the day of St. Anne according to the calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church which her mother was very devoted to. Due to those connections with the Orthodox Church, she was named after Saint Anne.

Anna Pavlova Photograph

When she was born two months prematurely, it was not certain if she would survive because she was very small and fragile–she was actually wrapped in wool and taken to live with her maternal grandmother a few miles from St. Petersburg in Ligovo where she lived the first months of her life. There are still debates on whether her premature birth had taken a toll on her over the years.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Anna Pavlova in the peak of her career -photograph signed and inscribed by her.

Her mother was Lyubov Feodorovna and it is not known who her real father was, although some biographers hint at the possibility that she was the illegitimate daughter of the banker Lazar Polyakov, even if Anna stated that her father died when she was only two years old since her mother married Matvey Pavloand V, a peasant, and soldier in the reserve of the Tsar's army when Anna was very young and he was the only father figure she knew.

Therefore, she was raised by her mother and they lived in a small apartment with not much money. And she used to spend the summers with her grandmother in the little village far away from the city, surrounded by fields and forests where Anna loved to spend the days among flowers and dark trees where she used to play and eat wild fruits and berries–it was a real thrill for her to go to Ligovo during those months and helped her a lot during her formative years as a child. Despite her poverty and precarious situation, her mother always tried to brighten her days, as it was hard to make her childhood bearable and happy.



So it was during that one Christmas that her mother took little Anna, who was already eight years old, to her first ballet performance at the Maryinsky Theater, which was presenting The Sleeping Beauty. The little girl was amazed because never in her short life had she seen anything so beautiful, the bright and colorful costumes, the music, the dancers telling the story without uttering words on an incredible stage full of majesty.

With each passing act, Anna became more absorbed in the story and it was at that moment that she fell in love with the art of dancing. But her dream had to wait two more years, because of her age she was not accepted into the Ballet School. She spent that time daydreaming about the dances she would do and by the second summer in the woods of Ligovo Anna danced among the flowers and animals she possessed a noble and fair soul, she cared and she even fed the mice in the house, which her mother and grandmother tried to catch, and it took some time to find out why there were so many of them.

 Opening scene of the silent film "The Dumb Girl of Portici" (1916) starred by Anna Pavlova

Returning to the city that autumn at the age of ten, the slender girl was finally able to enter the ballet department of the St. Petersburg Theater School. When Anna took the entrance exams she was very thin but her interest and will were very evident since both health and robustness were fundamental requirements for admission. The examiners were doing various tests ranging from walking and running around a room where they noted the physical condition of the girls trying out for the position and they were evaluating if they moved gracefully, the necessary health tests, and even how they fare with music, reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The school took care of everything; clothing, food, lodging, medical service, and anything else the student needed. It didn't matter if they came from a wealthy family or from a low-income family like Anna, which was a great benefit since her mother didn’t have the money. There she was subjected to iron-clad discipline and a schedule that never changed: her day began at 8 in the morning and ended punctually at 9 at night, an hour after dinner. They could receive visitors one day of the weekend, and her mother went every two weeks since work left her little time to go more often.

At the beginning of their studies, the girls had to wear brown clothes and after finishing each year they had to pass a final exam to continue as students where the uniform changed for blue dresses, they had to bathe every morning with cold water except on Fridays which was a hot bath day, after washing themselves a teacher checked that their hair was well combed, their uniform complete and their nails short and clean, the boys had to attend separate classes from the girls except for the ballroom dancing classes.

Anna Pavlova in Performance

During the day, in addition to classical ballet, they studied Russian folk dances, dances from other countries, and pantomime, and in the afternoons they learned reading, mathematics, languages, music, and fencing, and they were also taught how to make up for the stage. It was mandatory that every day regardless of the weather they went for a walk in the garden for about 15 minutes.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Beautiful photograph of Pavlova in performance, signed by her.

The ballerinas at that time were big and Anna was very thin and was compared to the famous Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni, so for Anna to gain weight, the school directors decided to give her codfish oil. Although she hated the taste of the oil, she endured it and went on with it to obtain the health and strength she needed so much.

Anna considered Marie Taglioni her idol for her graceful and romantic way of dancing and learned all she could but by then the dancers were already dancing differently and doing more technical and almost acrobatic feats like Pierina Legnani for whom Anna and her classmates were amazed as she was able to do 32 turns one after the other on one foot. Despite having a lot of physical obstacles, her dedication and discipline were never questioned as she always aimed to be the best dancer she could possibly be.

She spent weeks practicing even in her free time to dance like Legnani but one of her teachers, Pavel Gerdt, noticed that she was worried because she did not have thick-boned legs and a strong back and could get hurt so he advised her to stop copying Legnani. It was customary for dance students to perform in the three imperial theaters of St. Petersburg in small roles that allowed them to gain stage experience.

As a student, Anna danced as Pharaoh’s daughter and rehearsed a lot the day of the performance at the Maryinsky theater everything was wonderful from her costume to the make-up she danced softly to the front of the stage and when doing the pirouettes her foot hit the prompter's box she fell backward in front of the audience and with a smile on her face she stood up and bowed in apology and the audience applauded her and found her charming. Anna had begun her rise.



She graduated in 1899 from the dance academy, a year after her debut and during the fall. Anna and her classmates presented a dance show in one of the theaters and Professor Pavel Gerdt choreographed a part especially for Pavlova. All the dancers, teachers and critics present that day agreed that Anna was and would be a great dancer who already showed great gifts and individuality in her repertoire.

pavlova anna volinin alexander Signed Photo

All of this allowed her to enter the Imperial Ballet Company as prima ballerina a Coryphée, which was a huge promotion since she had not even begun to work. She continued to study with dedication in special classes where she studied with Christian Johanssen, a famous choreographer at the time. In class, she often danced with Michel Fokine, another important dancer. Anna also regularly attended a class taught by Madame Sokolova, a former ballerina who had danced in many ballets of the Imperial Company and knew all the roles. She shared with Anna the same thinking and love of dance.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Photograph of Anna Pavlova and Alex Volinine in performance, signed by both stars, 1921.

One thing Anna learned from this veteran of the dancing world was how to end a stage performance. Madame Sokolova said it was terrible for a ballerina to walk flat-footed to the front of the stage as she considered it a break with the performance, and years later Anna’s curtain calls were almost as famous as her dances.

Six years later, she made her debut as a principal dancer at the Maryinsky Theater, where she achieved extraordinary success as Nikiya in "The Bayadère." All the journalists wrote about the talented ballerina referring to her as flexible, passionate, subtle, graceful, delicate who with her dance could manage to change the mood of whoever saw her on stage “Pavlova, a cloud hovers over the earth, a flickering flame, an autumn leaf, driven by a gust of icy wind, her talent is superior to everything.”

After that moment she was overwhelmed by fans who called themselves the Pavlovtzi and by suitors who tried to approach her by giving her gifts and presents, but she was quick to reject them all, returning any present since by then she was a devoted to ballet, worked hard and practiced late into the night on the Maryinsky stage whenever necessary.



A few years earlier, by chance and as a favor to her dance partner Michel Fokine who was interested in choreographing and creating his ballets, she met Victor Dandre, who was on the board of directors of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Knowing that this society needed to raise funds, Anna suggested that he ask Fokine to choreograph the ballet. He gladly agreed, creating a ballet called Chopiniana, with music by Frederic Chopin.

They became very close and one afternoon when Anna, Fokine, Dandre, and Dandre's nephew went for a walk in the countryside, Anna stopped the car when she saw a swan, Fokine saw her and the image remained in his head: Anna leaning in her white dress on the shore of the lake with her arm elegantly extended to feed the swan.

Anna Pavlova - The Dying Swan statue

Months later she attended a reading where she heard a poem by Lord Tennyson called the dying swan that dealt with the death of this beautiful bird. In 1907 Anna agreed to participate in a charity show and asked Fokine to create a ballet for her–the latter remembered the poem and the picnic where he saw Anna near the swan and that is how the Saint-Saëns cello solo, Le Cygne, which Fokine had been playing at home with a mandolin, was born and Pavlova agreed.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Statue of Pavlova in biscuit porcelain designed by Stuart mark Feldman, issue by the Pavlova Society of London, in conmmeoration of her 100th birth anniversary in 1981.

A rehearsal was arranged and they worked quickly and intensely in less than an hour, they created a gem that lasted only a few minutes. On the night of the gala, the audience was amazed as she danced Anna's arms almost seemed to become wings pulling her to fly. She danced on pointe moving from one side to the other swaying then bending one leg under her body, and the other outstretched. The bird was trying to lift itself by moving its wings with its strength, but already tired and weak. Her life was slipping away in a breath. She tried one last time and then did not move anymore.

Her love life had begun when she met Victor Dandre and her heart skipped a beat. Her beloved Victor belonged to an aristocratic family, an old noble family, and was a businessman and advisor to the Senate. However, given his family’s status, marrying her was almost impossible. That is why he bought her an apartment and showered her with luxury gifts. They lived their romance clandestinely, in the most absolute intimacy.

Anna waited for a while, but when she realized that Victor would never marry a girl of humble origin, she left him, preferring solitude to the humiliating position of being his concubine. That same year she decided to follow in the footsteps of her idol the Italian dancer Marie Taglioni felt compelled to dance, and she had a goal. "I want to dance for the whole world," Pavlova said.

So she went on tour to Stockholm, Prague, Leipzig, Vienna, and Berlin where she was criticized for her weight, but she was undeterred and the compliments were much more in comparison. At that time she was invited to dance in Paris, but she had to finish her engagements before joining Diaghilev. Anna already had money of her own and could afford anything she wanted, except Victor.

In Paris, she was advertised on a billboard with her in the picture dancing in Michel Fokine's ballet La Chopiniana which had been reworked and renamed Les Sylphides for the new presentation. Friends and artists from the St. Petersburg circle worked on the premiere of the Russian ballet. It was a resounding success and one critic wrote: "Pavlova, in the opinion of all who saw her, was a second Taglioni." No comment could have flattered Anna more.

Meanwhile, things were not going well for young Victor. He had fallen into debt and owed a large amount of money that he could not repay. He was imprisoned and couldn't even raise money for his bail, so he was behind bars until the day of his trial.



Anna Pavlova signed photo postcard

To see the Russian ballet dancers do what they do best, people came from all over Europe. Her future seemed bright and attractive. However, Anna Pavlova suddenly left Paris and moved to London. She had signed a contract with the famous theatrical agency "Braff", under which she had to dance twice a day in three countries: England, Scotland, and Ireland. The dancer received as an advance an impressive sum for those times. She used some of that money to get Victor away from prison.

[IMAGE] Anna Pavlova in performance

In London, with an invitation from the Lords of Londesborough, she danced in front of the kings of England, helping her profile to increase quite a lot in the process. She was known in many places and they talked about her as a young and brilliant dancer. In 1909 she danced again at the Maryinsky Theater for a charity gala, but Anna wanted to continue traveling so in February, with the permission of the Tsar, she went to America.

During one cold February day, Anna and her dancing partner, Mikhail Mordkin, arrived in New York. Although New Yorkers knew of them and their reputation, very few of them had seen the classical ballet. The director of the Metropolitan Opera House decided to place the debut of Anna and Mordkin last since he did not like a classical dance after the opera ended and despite the time, everyone waited for the moment to see the Russians dance before midnight–the lights dimmed and began the ballet Anna danced to the music of the ballet Coppélia the applause was not long in coming.

Anna and Mordkin seemed inexhaustible and danced at charity events in special concerts, apart from their usual performances. In April they finally traveled to England. For Anna, it was the beginning of a pattern she would repeat for many years to come.



Although she had performed in front of the King and Queen of England she was nervous about her debut at the Palace Theatre in London as it was her first appearance in front of the English public. On that huge stage she could see everything from magicians to jugglers, but the audience watching that kind of shows were not used to classical dance so performing there could be a big mistake, but Anna didn’t care because she wanted to dance in front of a big audience. The moment came and she trembled with emotion.

Russian Ballet Diaghilev Nijinsky Pavlova program 1911

What could have been a great failure ended up turning her into a star. From a personality perspective, she was very volatile in the sense that some days she was sweet and calm and in others she would get very upset if she saw her partners dancing without heart and passion. And as she was very hard with them she was just as hard on herself. Her standards were very high and demanded a lot from people, which sometimes led to her being unpleasant.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Program for a performance by the Diaghilev Ballet Company "Ballet Russe" with its star dancers Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinski at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1911.

Because of the war, she could not return to her beloved Russia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo. Germany declared war on Russia. At the time war was declared, Anna was traveling by train through Germany. When she arrived at the Belgian border, which had already been closed, the German police asked for documentation and upon seeing her Russian passport, she was taken.

It is not known for sure how long she was detained and how she managed to be released, although all her belongings were taken away. Anna decided to travel to America, scheduling a tour to raise funds for the Red Cross and for the soldiers who were giving their lives for them. They appeared in towns and big cities traveled throughout America and gave their all to raise money with her art to contribute to those in need. The company reached Latin America in countries such as Chile, Brazil, and Venezuela, although the war was far away from them.

Things were not easy during those times for Anna and her coworkers: they danced for many people, for sick people, in churches, and in every Red Cross of every country they visited.



It was during this time of touring the Americas that Anna developed an enchantment with Hollywood. It was only natural for her to develop a love for silent films considering that what first attracted her to the ballet was the way they could present a story without any words. Not only that, but when she was attending the St. Petersburg Theater School, she had taken pantomiming classes as well. So, when she was approached with the opportunity to take the next step in her career and star in a silent movie, she didn’t hesitate.



In 1915, Universal Studios contacted Anna to perform in a remake of the well-known opera The Dumb Girl of Porticiby Daniel Auber. The film would not only be directed by one of the few women directors in Hollywood at the time, Lois Weber, but would also be one of the most expensive and elaborate movies that Universal had shot up to that point.

They spared no expense for the film, creating sophisticated costumes, gathering an impressive cast and crew, and creating one-of-a-kind movie sets. As a well-established international star, Anna was offered $50,000 for her role. Actors Rupert Julian and Wadsworth Harris starred alongside her in one of the most expensive productions of its time, estimated to have cost around $300,000. It was released in 1916.

Although the film itself wasnt a ballet, the opening scene featured Anna dancing with a partner to please her fans. The film itself follows the plot of the opera by the same name. In the silent movie, the Italian, wordless fisher-girl Fenella falls for a Spanish nobleman during Spains occupation of Naples. He then abandons her, which fuels her brothers push towards a revolution.



Anna Pavlova large signed photo SwanDeath

As previously mentioned, the film was directed by one of the first woman directors in Hollywood, Lois Weber. She, like Anna, was an emigre who had fled Russia in the early 1900s. Because of this, the two were very excited to work together. 

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Fantastic photograph of Anna Pavlova in "The Dying Swan" signed and inscribed by her to Mrs. Smalley with a short sentiment.

Throughout her time in Hollywood, she became known as one of the most influential silent film directors of the time. Lois constantly pushed the envelope with her films by including nude scenes, abortion, birth control, and even prostitution. Not only that, but she pioneered many unique techniques such as split screen and was the highest paid director of the time, man or woman.

Directing the film with her was her husband, Phillips Smalley. The duo had previously produced the silent movie Suspense,where the split screen was first featured. While the couple worked together, many believe Lois possessed the majority of the creativity and directorial skills.



Not too long after the release of The Dumb Girl of Portici,film culture shifted. As silent films fell out of style, Annas movie too seemed to be forgotten. For years the film that captured Annas grace and style was left unseen. Finally, in 2018, Milestone Films was able to remaster the picture and bring her back to life.

With only two copies known to have still existed, a 35 mm nitrate reissue possessed by the British Film Institute and a 35 mm print owned by the New York Public Librarys Performing Arts Library, the restoration wasnt an easy process. Combined efforts from archivists at the Library of Congress, Lori Raskin with An Affair With Film, and Milestone Films managed to create a complete and cleaned-up copy of Annas silent movie.

Thanks to this complicated restoration, people can witness the incredible performance that Anna put on. Throughout the film, she demonstrates a masterful theatrical performance combined with the elegance of a ballerina. Although she only acted in one film in her career, she had skillful control of the stage. It is available on DVD and Blue-ray and includes a new score by John Sweeney and bonus footage that has never been seen before.



During this time, the world began to see international movie stars thanks to the distribution of films across the globe. Anna, however, gained her notoriety through her ballet productions. Thanks to performances worldwide, she earned her fame through each individual one.

Perhaps one of the key reasons for her fame was her signature dance, Anna Pavlovas Dying Swan. She performed the short, four-minute ballet for audiences from Europe, the United States, and even as far as South America and South East Asia. Throughout her career, she performed the Dying Swan more than 4000 times.

Anna Pavlova signed Program-cover-1923

At her request, Anna Pavlovas Dying Swan was choreographed specifically for her by Mikhail Fokine. It is set to Camille Saint-Saëns's Le Cygne from Le Carnaval des animaux. Anna was inspired by the breathtaking beauty of the swans she would see in public parks throughout London, as well as the poem The Dying Swan” by Lord Tennyson.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Signed program with Pavlova portrayed on the cover as the Dying Swan, for a performance at The Boston Opera House, 1923.

While not extremely difficult on a technical level, The Dying Swan captures the audience through the artistic movements that replicate the final movements of an animal trying to escape death. Anna Pavlovas Dying Swan became a symbol of the New Russian Ballet.

The ballet was recorded in a silent film in 1925, carrying Annas legacy indefinitely. Ballerinas from all over the world have been replicating and interpreting the dance, which is comprised mostly of upper body movements, since she first presented in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

After five years of touring, Anna was able to return home to London, but her hectic career did not allow her to stay long in one place. During the aftermath of the war, she found out that there were many children in Russia who were now orphans and she decided to contribute again as she said it caused her great pain not to be able to help.

So she also rented a big house in Paris and fitted it out to receive the orphan girls who were displaced by the war. Although she received help from outsiders, the amount of money that was spent was enormous and Anna covered it with money from her pocket. When eventually the house closed many years later, up to 45 girls had lived there, thus showing the impact of her actions.

Anna never stopped in her dream of dancing for new audiences and taking her art to all parts of the world, so she traveled to Japan, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Burma, and India. She met many celebrities in her travels and important people. She danced The Dying Swan more than 4000 times and performed before kings and other monarchs. She learned from all the places she visited in the company of Victor Dandre, who is believed to be her husband during this time of her way.

 Anna Pavlova Dances "The Swan" 1920's film

On their way to Paris, the train they were on collided with another train and Anna got off in her pajamas despite the snow. Arriving at the tree, what started as a simple cold turned into pneumonia with the little clarity she had left due to the fever, she asked not to cancel the act they were going to present in Brussels for the benefit of poor children. On January 23, 1931, Anna Pavlova died, and her body was taken to London where a funeral service was held in a Russian Orthodox Church for a day and a half and thousands of Londoners came to pay their last respects.

Her company performed in Brussels the following evening. At the end of the last dance, the music of The Dying Swan began to play and the curtain was raised and the lights illuminated the stage while the audience stood in silence.


Anna Pavlova inspired a whole generation and spread her love for ballet all over the world.”



- Anna Pavlova Signed Photograph in "The Dying Swan"

- Anna Pavlova Signed Program "The Dying Swan" Boston 1923

- Anna Pavlova Autograph Large Photograph in Performance

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