THE GUILLOTINE: No 8: ANNA PAVLOVA

Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last

When an acquaintance asked me recently which of the century's luminaries was next for The Guillotine, I answered, "Anna Pavlova". He stared at me. "But surely that isn't playing fair," he said. "Why isn't it playing fair?" "Because you never saw her dance." To which objection I was then able to reply, "Precisely!"

Naturally, I never saw Pavlova dance. Indeed, given that she died in 1931, there can be very few balletomanes still around who did. Given, too, that although she continued dancing right up to the end, her heyday had been in the teens and early Twenties of the century, there can be next to no one left who was privileged to have witnessed her in her orchidaceous prime. Nor, at least to my knowledge, were any of her performances ever filmed. Even if such footage did exist, though, it would be unlikely to do anything like justice to her genius and charisma - certainly, if the risibly snippety odds and ends of film that we do possess of, say, Bernhardt and Duse are anything to go by.

Does the same, then, apply to Nijinsky? He too, after all, excelled in a medium, the ballet, whose impact is by definition ephemeral. There is a difference, however. As both dancer and choreographer, Nijinsky's name will be for ever linked to a cluster of revolutionary modern ballets, whereas Pavlova remained throughout her career a ballerina of the old, conservative school, commissioning such now forgotten choreographic trivia as Autumn Bacchanale, Californian Poppy, Dragonfly and, most famously, The Dying Swan, whose insignificance she would then transcend by her supernatural grace and beauty.

She was the work of art, not the ballet, which served her less as text than as pretext. And when she died, she left nothing behind her but memories. And, of course, when those who had the memories themselves died, nothing was left at all but the name.

Even that name has already begun to fade. As final corroboration of the fate reserved for Pavlova in the new century, I recall that another, rather younger acquaintance asked me the same question as that which I mention in my first paragraph. When, as before, I answered, "Anna Pavlova", his eyes glazed over. "Don't you even know who she was," I enquired. "Yes ... yes, of course," he said vaguely. "Wasn't she the scientist with the slavering dogs?"

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