Anna Pavlova was one of the twentieth century’s greatest dancers. The popular image of a ballerina is still Pavlova-shaped, from her Russian name to the Dying Swan; her tireless touring introduced brought ballet to audiences across the world.
A hundred years ago, she settled in London at Ivy House, now the London Jewish Cultural Centre. The centenary is being marked with events including an exhibition, a season of films at the British Film Institute and this stage evocation of the ballerina and her life.
It’s an evening of dance, film and anecdotes, making a friendly, well-paced gala. Anthony Dowell, former dancer and former director of The Royal Ballet, makes a genial host, slipping from narrator to actor and even doing a little dancing. There’s a nice sense of atmosphere, with the stage framed by chamber musicians on one side, and a recreation of Pavlova’s dressing room on the other. Dancers of The Royal Ballet perform numbers associated with Pavlova, with Ursula Hageli acting the ballerina in staged scenes from her life.
The film clips are fascinating. Some of the material has dated, but you can still see Pavlova’s flow of movement, her long lines and something of her stage presence. Her one movie, The Dumb Girl of Portici, has plenty of silent film melodrama – including eyebrow-wiggling acting – but gives a sense of her charisma, the big dark eyes and the vivid way she rushes into action. Other film clips show her in home movies, playing with pet swans at Ivy House or with camels and snakes on tour.
Pavlova wasn’t known for great choreography. Some of these numbers are slight but fun. Romany Padjak flourishes and flashes her eyes in a Spanish Dance, while Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani manipulates the gossamer wings of Pavlova’s famous Dragonfly solo. Padjak is delicately precise in The Fairy Doll.
More imaginatively, the programme includes new versions of lost dances, and works that have some link with Pavlova. Liam Scarlett’s Bacchanale recreates a Pavlova duet, but also recalls the onstage quarrel she had with her partner Mordkin, complete with audible offstage slap. Meaghan Grace Hinkis is a winsome-but-steely Pavlova, while Valentino Zucchetti soars through his jumps and seethes when he realises she’s still getting more attention.
Scarlett’s version of Autumn Leaves is wispier, with poets and the north wind pursuing the same ballerina. A reconstruction of Frederick Ashton’s Foyer de danse, a delicate dancing-class work, suggest the ballet studios of Pavlova’s era.
For more events in the Pavlova 2012 season, see www.ljcc.org.uk