6 September 2015

Anna Pavlova

Amazing Grace

The Dying Swan

Anna Pavlova, 1881 - 1931, was my mother's Godmother. Despite having been brought up in the Russian countryside by her grandmother, and being educated at the Imperial Ballet School, in St Petersburg, and despite travelling the world (she performed in over forty different countries), from 1911 until her death Pavlova made her home in London, when work and war permitted (so she was an immigrant - and very welcome too!)

It was at Ivy House, a spacious villa on North End Road in Golders Green, that she established her home in 1912.  

Ivy House and garden on an OS map from about 100 years ago

And it was here that she befriended my Grandmother, Marjorie Cecil Napier Ford, later Marjorie Cecil McMullin.  

In recent times the house was used by the London Jewish Cultural Centre, although a ballet school shared the premises.  In more recent times it was destined to become flats, and the extensive gardens, with their swan lake, were disappearing,

but as I have just discovered the house is now becoming St Anthony's School for Girls (Virtute Adepta) 

which proclaims itself as an exciting Catholic sister school to the highly successful St Anthony's School for Boys in Hampstead.....

Anna Pavlova had been a poor, and slight, child brought up by her grandmother in the country, but she had impressed the admissions board in St Petersburg when she was nine, and, in preference to almost a hundred privileged girls with influential parents, she had gained a place at the the Imperial Ballet School, where she studied until she was eighteen.

Anna was taught by Italian Maestro Enrico Cecchetti, who, after the Russian Revolution and the First World War, was invited by Arturo Toscanini to take command of the ballet school at Milan's La Scala, where Anna later visited him. Cecchetti is reported to have said: I can teach everything connected with dancing, but Pavlova has that which can only be taught by God.....

In London Pavlova rested with her various pets, including several swans, her "husband" (Monsieur Victor Dandré was certainly Pavlova's manager, but there is some doubt as to whether she married him), a Russian cook, and, as personal assistants and friends, my great grandmother, her sister Dorothy, and my grandmother, who was only a little younger than  Madame.

Anna Pavlova made her début with the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, in Pavel Gerdt's Les Dryades prétendues. She went on to become Prima Ballerina in 1906 and then to even greater fame with Ballet Russe, with Diaghilev, when he took them to Paris in 1909. But after one season, recognising that Diaghilev was more interested in male dancers, she formed her own company.  From then on she toured the world, performing in provincial theatres and on grand stages, endeavouring to bring art to the people, in preference to indulging in superstardom and limited galas.

Pavlova spent most of the First World War in the Americas, and by 1920 my grandmother had shipped out to India and, through connections with her brother, who was in tea, had met my Grandfather. They were married in Ceylon in 1921, and Pavlova sent a wonderful cloak to adorn the bride.  In this letter, on Ivy House notepaper, my great grandmother reminds her daughter to write a thank you letter to Madame (Pavlova) but to ensure it was sent through her, as letters via M Dandré were not always delivered.  The letter, by the way, was written after lunch chez La Coupole, in Paris, where they were to visit Pavlova's home for Russian children in St Cloud, among other things.....

Extract from a letter from my great grandmother to my grandmother, Wednesday July 21st 1920

My mother was born in 1923, in India, but was brought to England as a child and met her godmother at Ivy House.  It is now too late to relive those moments, or even to talk them over, but the family hold memorabilia and treasure the connections.  

Anna (standing, left), and Marjorie (standing, right) with Mac, Peter, Eve and Robert: Sussex, c 1930

To close relatives my mother, christened Anna after Pavlova, was known as Anouska, or Anoushka, which may have been given her by her Indian nurse (Anoushka in Hindi means Grace). Annuska, however, is also the Russian diminutive of Anna, and means Princess.

There can be few people around today who met, or saw, Anna Pavlova, and the film clips that exist (some to be found on Youtube) can hardly do her justice, but she was much photographed (hard to believe that a century ago stars were as much photographed as they are today).  Many photo shoots were staged at Ivy House, as Pavlova preferred not to spend her time chasing studios around London, and in some cases my Grandmother availed herself of costumes and sets to have her picture taken too.....  

Marjorie Cecil Napier-Ford, c 1913

Pavlova was a global superstar in her time.  She must have been an extraordinary individual, but she was wary of the film medium (Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford persuaded her to record some dances in their private studio at their home in Holywood, but she was not happy with the outcomes) and she was careful with formal portraits, ensuring that she always looked perfect. A few more informal pictures do exist, however, and these snaps of her in Hamburg Zoo show her in relaxed and playful mode.....

Several of her most famous dances were inspired by the natural world. Apart from The Dying Swan, she danced as butterfly, dragonfly, a rose, Californian poppies, autumn leaves and  a snowflake. 


By today's standards Pavlova may have been an unorthodox dancer, and, as, in her mature career she rarely performed entire ballets, her reputation rested on pieces tailored to her individual style and charisma. She was, apparently, extremely competitive and temperamental at times, and on one occasion slapped her male partner (Michael Mordkin) in front of the audience believing him to be receiving more than his share of the applause.  

But despite such faults, she was universally loved, and, through her desire to perform in small theatres and in countries where ballet was virtually unheard of, her inspiration was felt throughout the world.  Her grace and elegance touched all who saw her, especially in her signature piece, choreographed for her by Mikhail Fokine in 1905.  This was inspired by a poem by Tennyson and set to the music of La Cygne, from Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals.  Pavlova performed this piece over 4,000 times, and her last words, at half past midnight on Friday 23rd January, 1931, were Get my 'Swan' costume ready.....

The Dying Swan

The wild swan's death-hymn took the soul

Of that waste place with joy

Hidden in sorrow:

 The Dying Swan

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Whilst on tour in Europe, in January 1931, Pavlova had been stranded for hours by a train incident not far from Cannes. Weakened by an exhausting programme of touring and rehearsal, she caught a chill, which developed into pleurisy, and she died a fortnight later,  at the Hotel Des Indes in The Hague.  It is a beautiful hotel, and her spirit still lingers in the Anna Pavlova Library Cigar Lounge, on the ground floor, the room where, shortly after asking Victor to lay out her costume for The Dying Swan, she expired.

Victor Dandré's book remains with us, when almost all other traces of the star have faded. Our copy is inscribed to my Grandmother.....

As a tribute to the spiritual beauty of Pavlova's art he quotes, in his final chapter, the speech of the Orthodox Bishop Tikhon at a memorial service for her held in Berlin. The speech explains how the Orthodox Church teaches that the human body indissolubly merges into the higher world of the soul and contains in it the spark of the Holy Ghost.... I am not sure I share these thoughts exactly, but he went on to explore how one is to look upon the disapproval of the Church canons for the theatre and theatrical dances, and his ideas carry a message that humanity does not yet practise as it might....

Rhythm, dance, therefore, like verse, is one of the natural ways of artistically expressing our feelings, thoughts and moods.  Consequently the dance of a true artist is his form of service to beauty.  And as true absolute beauty is God, the dance, therefore, can serve God.  And the service to God, as absolute beauty, is so high and so fruitful, that our writer, F M Dostojevsky, says in a prophetic ecstasy before beauty: Beauty will save the world. And in truth, what lofty and noble feelings, thoughts and moods can be called up in the spectator by a true artist-dancer in a beautiful and dignified dance! And what a high spiritual enjoyment can such a dance be for the spectator.  It transports him out of this vale of tears and vanity to the high heavens, to eternal beauty, to God.....

Verily hers was a pure soul reaching after heaven with such strength that even her body in those marvellous dances, dances in the service of beauty, seemed to spurn the earth in its flight to God, drawing her spectators with her.....

Anna Pavlova (1881 - 1931)

Anna Pavlova had no children of her own, but she cared for and educated many, and inspired many more.  As Godmother to my (I should say our, in respect to my brothers) mother I can not tell what influence she directly had, but as her spirit has permeated our family all my life and more, I can only think that somehow she is still present, and beautiful.

As W B Yeats wrote in Among School Children:  

I dream of a Ledean body.....

O body swayed to music, 
O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Marjorie Cecil McMullin (1887 - 1954)
Inscribed on the back:  
To Momma - Memories of your first visit to 94, High Street Witney - June 1947

From amongst mum's possessions

On the back, in mum's later handwriting

(1923 - )


  1. Hi, I'm writing an article on Percy Cane, who redesigned the Ivy House gardens for Pavlova in the late 1920s. I'd be grateful for any information you have on the gardens, either then or now. Do the 2-acre grounds still exist? With thanks.

    1. I am afraid I do not have much information, but think that the gardens are much reduced now. I have visited, as guest of St Anthony's School for Girls, but did not explore the gardens. I may be mistaken, but I don't think the pond is still there, and my impression was that it was not landscaped as it appears in photos in Victor Dandre's book. I am sorry not to be more knowledgeable, and would be very interested in your findings, but think you may need to visit to see for yourself. Good luck!

  2. Bronda Dossett12 May 2017 at 10:49

    I am a retired dance teacher and am currently researching into Anna Pavlova's life for a speakers test I am working towards. If you have any information that I can use I would be very grateful.
    I was at Ivy House yesterday and I can confirm the garden is now very small and the pond is unfortunately a flower bed, which is no longer part of Ivy House. The original two acre garden seems to have disappeared.
    Bronda Dossett

    1. From all sources I was able to find the book of Pavlova’s “husband” Victor Dandre was the most informative - nevertheless, it left many secrets of famous ballerina unrevealed as back in 1932 when the book was published the ethics guarded the private life details strongly.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing these memories with those who is exploring Anna Pavlova’s legacy. You had added few precious details to the biography of the one of greatest ballerinas ever. We know almost nothing about Ivy House routines when Pavlova lived there and your article helps to envision some of it.. THANK YOU

  4. Thank you for a fascinating blog. An ancestor of mine, Walford Hyden, was Anna Pavlova's musical accompanist from around 1912 onwards. He later stepped in on occasions as her musical director and accompanied her on many of her UK and overseas tours. Walford married Cleo Nordi, one of Pavlova's dancers on her final Australian tour in 1929. I have a copy of Walford's book about Pavlova, written in 1931. He makes some obvious mistakes about when they first met, but I put that down to the passage of time. I do not suppose Walford Hyden (who was christened Clarence Hiden) means anything to you? However, if you were to possess any photographs of him with Pavlova, or do indeed have any recall of him, I would love the chance to hear from you. I hesitate to put my e-mail on a public site, but I will check-in from time to time to see if there is any reply to this comment. Thank you. Geoff Hiden

  5. Thank you Geoff. I am afraid I don't think I have anything on your ancestor, but if you would like to email me directly please feel free to do so: richardpgibbs@aol.com