Cuba’s National Dance Museum opened last March 13 an exhibition in memory of the centennial of the first presentation in Cuba of the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931). The ballet star made her debut here in Havana’s Payret Theatre, to later go on to Cienfuegos and Matanzas. The dancer already was, more than a celebrity, a veritable myth of the stage. Several intellectuals of the time left proof of their fascination for the art of the dancer, who returned to the island in 1917 and 1918.
The 20th century did not seem to be under the aegis of such classical ballet and as the Russian artist conceived it. Isadora Duncan, from the United States, broke off with certain prejudices and conventions and, enveloped in her Greek tunic, spread to all and sundry her philosophy of absolute human freedom. In her Memoires, though she praised the talent of the Russian ballerina she also expressed her stupor and certain sarcasm in the face of the strict diet and rehearsal regimen the Pavlova imposed on herself. To the Duncan, Pavlova’s art seemed more like a curiosity than something human and enriching. Mary Wigman, Marta Graham and all the long series of cultivators of modern dance continued increasing the distances with respect to ballet, but it showed a rare capacity to survive only comparable to opera. Today, the renewed interest for the almost forgotten repertoire of the 19th century and the review of the classic period with its technical and stylistic contributions have awoken again the shadow of Pavlova. Every so often art needs to be enriched by a myth.
Born in Estonia in 1881, Anna studied in the School of Ballet annexed to the Marinski Theatre of St. Petersburg. After seven years of study she was able to enter the company which had its stable venue in that coliseum. There she got to be named a soloist in a very short time. From that stage she would meet very diverse figures: the young virtuoso Vaslav Nijinsky, whom she got to be jealous of, since she defended the romantic idea that the exclusive centre of a performance had to be the ballerina; choreographer Mikhail Fokine, her admirer and the creator of a very short solo: Death of the Swan, with music by Camille Saint Saëns, with whose masterful interpretation she would win world fame. She also won the admiration of Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, who around that time was the lover of the star of the Matilde Chessinskaia Company, to whom he gave a palace and a famous collection of gold cutlery. The monarch dedicated his portrait to Pavlova and she took it with her around the world and made it preside over her dressing room, many years after the disappearance of the autocrat.
The ballerina was among those who lived the great adventure conceived by Serge de Diaghilev of taking the Russian Ballets to the West. On a memorable night in 1909 she won over the Parisian public when she danced Les Sylphides by Fokine together with Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky, but she did not stay long in the company; she, who had a 19th century notion of what it was to be a star, could not stand that her name could be in the billboard under that of others and when she undertook the most daring project of those years, The Rite of Spring (score by Stravinsky choreographed by Nijinsky), she abandoned the troupe affirming that she would not dance “those ineptitudes”.
Starting then and until her death, the Pavlova would have her own company, centred on her, with some partner subjected to her will and a handful of dancers to form a beautiful and mediocre frame where she had to shine. Victor Dandré, her husband, prepared everything according to her taste, from the rehearsal room in the mansion where she lived, to a train adapted to transport the troupe with the wardrobe, decorations and everything. Europe and America were able to contemplate for two decades the splendour of the star.
Curiously, a woman who felt so far above the common world became fragile when it was a question of performing for a monarch; that’s what happened in 1911, according to her dresser Helen Lieberg:
We travelled to London, where she would dance in the Covent Garden in the presence of Queen Mary and her court. She was very nervous because she had to dance Death of the Swan, a ballet created especially for her. Before going on stage a panic attack made her hold on to the hangars. I had a hard time taking her down, since two stage calls had already been made. When I was able to achieve my purpose she went out, not before repeatedly threatening me. While she danced I looked behind the scene and, of course, the success was so resounding that she had to come out several times on the stage. The Queen and the public stood up and tirelessly applauded.
Pavlova arrived In Havana for the first time in March 1915 and on the 13th she danced in the Payret Theatre, together with her partner Alexander Volinine, in a concert performance that included ballets like Death of the Swan, Papillons and Autumn Bacchanal.
The success was immense despite the fact that the Cuban public barely had knowledge of that genre. From El Fígaro, the most important cultural publication at the time, poet Federico Uhrbach (1873-1932) wrote in a voluntarily romantic tone:
When you dance, when you drift, when you turn, do you descent to the ground or do you rise from it? No one can say. Your dominion is the air. You are the air, because like the atmosphere, you bring perfume, light and harmony to the souls. You descend to earth because you bring us a bit of heaven’s grace, of its impalpable charm. You ascend from the ground because you purify it and idealise it with your art that is idea and purity.
Pavlova remained two weeks in the country, performed in Cienfuegos’ Luisa Theatre and in Matanzas’ Sauto. She received a rousing welcome everywhere.
She returned in 1917. On that occasion she would perform in the National Theatre, between February 8 and March 3, with Giselle, Coppelia, Les Sylphides, a version of Carmen and some short pieces. Poet Mariano Brull (1891-1956), the future founder of the poetic vanguard in Cuba, would write a 12-stanza poem dedicated to the artist for El Fígaro, which appeared on February 11. The text was evidently inspired on the choreography of Autumn Bacchanal and tried to imitate its classic fervour.
The public’s enthusiasm was similar to the previous occasion.
Pavlova’s last visit to Havana took place in the winter of 1918-1919, when she joined the opera company organised by Italian impresario Adolfo Bracale to interpret dance parts of operas like Rigoletto, Mephistopheles, Traviata and Aida. There wasn’t a shadow of the previous successes. As it was common for the period, an effort was made to get stars to attract the attention of the public, but the production was careless, the extras barely rehearsed, the wardrobe and decorations were rented from certain European theatres that had gotten rid of them after having used them a great deal, in short, the artistic result was rather pathetic and the ballerina could not make up for it with her presence. A journalist wrote with sarcasm: “The intelligent public does not forget that minuet, with its respective white wigs and red heels that the impresario forced Madame Pavlova’s army to dance in, in the halls of the Duke of Mantua.” The spectators seemed like they were giving their backs to the artist. Around those days the Santos y Artigas circus was having great success. However, the star did not show bitterness because of the season’s setbacks – not even when the lapdog that accompanied her everywhere was stolen. Interviewed by El Fígaro by the very cosmopolitan Nicaraguan journalist Eduardo Avilés Ramírez, then in Havana, she referred to the long and tiring trip to dance in Santiago de Cuba’s Oriente Theatre and affirmed she had enjoyed that tour: “I have truly loved the lively perspectives, the towering palm trees and the sun.”
Pavlova performed for the last time in Cuba on January 11, 1919, in the dancing parts of the opera Faust. She would never return to the island.
Death, due to a galloping pleurisy, caught the star in The Hague, Holland, in 1931, before performing in Brussels’ La Monnaie Theatre. A Cuban, José M. Valdés Rodríguez, recalls in a chronicle that on the following night the hall was full of spectators and the orchestra played Death of the Swan:
On the stage, in the midst of a spectacular silence, many cried seeing the bright ray of a reflector come and go over the tableaux, lighting the spots in which she should be instead of being rigid in a coffin full of flowers, if she were alive and harmonious and divine before our eyes….
It is just to commemorate the centennial of Pavlova’s visit. She was the first ballet star to dance for Cubans in the 20th century. Her presence not only served as inspiration for numerous poems but also contributed to motivating the most cultured ladies of Havana society to found the Pro Arte Musical Society that decades later would serve as the cradle for the teaching of the art of dance on the island. A century after that first function in the Payret, Cuba appears, on its own right, in all the current ballet panoramas. That would have been an authentic reason for the Russian artist to be surprised. (2015)
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