Pavlova and The Woman Behind the Name…

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“To tend, unfailingly, unflinchingly, towards a goal, is the secret of success.” – Anna Povlova [1]

My memories of Anna Pavlova revolve around myself as a ten-year-old child sitting at home, flipping through a 1980’s version of Collier’s Encyclopedia (it was a little blue release filled with biographies). At the time I recall stumbling upon the above image and thinking ‘this is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.’ I’d heard of Anna Pavlova before, at school they’d told us that she was the inspiration beyond the iconic dessert, but up until that point I’d never actually known what she’d looked like.

Though I was fascinated by the image, I read on and soon became just as amazed by the woman herself. The name Anna Pavlova probably doesn’t register on most people’s radar these days, but you have to remember that back in the early 1990’s, back when skill was a huge component behind being a famous – even scientists were considered celebrities, imagine that – this ballerina was one of the biggest stars on the planet. And she was the reason behind the existence of a dessert whose origins are still argued by many Australian’s and New Zealander’s alike… But I’ll get to that later.

Anna Matveyevna Pavlovna Pavlova was born on February 12, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her mother was a washerwoman by the name of Lyubov Feodorovna and her stepfather was Matvey Pavlov, a reserve soldier. The identity of Anna’s biological father is largely unknown, but some say her mother may have had an affair with a banker named Lazar Poliakoff. Anna herself, insisted her father was a man named Pavel and that he’d once been married to her mother (though no evidence of this has been found).

What is most captivating about Anna’s story is the many hurdles she had to go through for the sake of her art.


  “I always wanted to dance; from my youngest years…Thus I built castles in the air out of my hopes and dreams.” [2]

It was while watching the original performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg that an eight-year-old Anna became inspired to follow her dream. Because if this performance and despite the fact that she was poor, she auditioned for a place at the Imperial Ballet School. Her age and her “sickly” appearance, meant that initially she was turned down, but she did not give up at this first rejection. In 1891, at the age of ten (a good two years later) she was finally accepted.

Her years at the Imperial Ballet School were not easy ones, the schedule was tough and Classical ballet did not come naturally to Anna. Her arched feet, long limbs and thin ankles did not compliment the ideal compact frame for a ballerina at the time and as remedy for the rigidity of her feet, she invented a means of strengthening her pointe shoe. This came by way of adding a piece of hard wood to the soles to give support and added curve to the box. Anna’s approach was considered cheating as Ballerina’s during the era were taught that they, not the shoe, must carry their weight. Though interestingly enough, her unique invention later became a precursor for the pointe shoe used by Ballerina’s today.

Regardless of these numerous factors she persevered, taking extra lessons from her teachers at the school. One of these teachers included the legendary Enrico Cecchetti, founder of the widely used Cecchetti method and later on when she went on to graduate to the Imperial Ballet itself at the age of 18, she was chosen to enter as a coryphée, skipping ahead of those in the corps de ballet.

Of her work ethic, Anna said:

“No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent, work transforms talent into genius.” [3]

Pavlova’s signature role became that of The Dying Swan, a solo choreographed for her by Michel Fokine. Although she was not the most acrobatic dancer, it was her subtly and fragility of movement that cemented her in the hearts and minds of audiences around the world, and it is likely that ‘The Pavlova’ dessert was created in her honour, during one of her world tours in 1926.

pavlova cake

“Keith Money, a Pavlova biographer, wrote in his 1982 book Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art that a chef at a hotel in Wellington, New Zealand created the dish when Pavlova visited there in 1926 on her world tour. The hotel chef invented was inspired by her tutu, draped in green silk cabbage roses.  The basic shape of the tutu was provided by a meringue case, while the froth of the skirt’s net was suggested by whipped cream.  To achieve the effect of the green roses the enterprising chef used slices of kiwifruit, then known as Chinese gooseberries.” [4]

Unfortunately, at the relatively young age of 50 and as a result of being stranded for 12 hours on a train platform, Anna developed a double pneumonia. At the time her train, en route from Cannes to Paris, had been involved in an accident and although she was uninjured, she was wearing little more than a thin jacket and silk pyjamas. In 1931, after a struggle with the illness, she died. Anna Pavlova’s ashes were placed at Golders Green Cemetery, near the Ivy House where she had lived with her manager and husband, Victor Dandré, in London.

Her last words were:

“Get my swan costume ready… Play that last measure softly.” [5]

I’ve included two beautiful video’s of Anna dancing. The first is her famous role as The Dying Swan and the second is her performing The California Poppy in 1923.  


Hope you enjoyed today’s post. I love reading and responding to everyone’s comments, so feel free to leave a comment of your own.

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Quote sources:  [1] Womenshistory, [2] & [3] Biography, [4] Whatscookingamerica, [5] Goodreads Image Sources: michaelminn, 2.bp.blogspot, justwannacook.

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