Pavlova for Christmas

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As every balletomane knows, Christmas is the time for endless repetitions of The Nutcracker—how many versions of this ballet are there? (try here, here, and here, for starters)—with now an occasional balletic foray (as seen here and here) into A Christmas Carol territory.  It’s a real mania.  I recall once seeing, on YouTube, a ballet combining both A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker, which seems a bit excessive, even for a holiday known for excess; but at least the ballet was charming, in a homespun sort of way (sadly, the video of it seems to have disappeared).  All so holly jolly and all that.

Well, none of that here.  Give me something short and sweet.  So, here, via The Huntley Archives YouTube channel, is Anna Pavlova in a short piece (ca. 1920s) known as Christmas.  Just over a minute long:

I know what the first reaction will be:  She doesn’t dance.  She doesn’t even get off that couch.  And where does Christmas come in?

The short answer (a snarky one), to that first, non-dancing, point, is:  Who cares?  This is Pavlova.  As to the second, Yuletide-questioning point—I’m just going by the title.  It says “Christmas,” so I’m presenting it in a Christmas post.

Well…I do have a bit more info on it.  Per Keith Money’s in-depth, coffee-table-plus-size biography, Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art, Pavlova introduced the ballet (choreographed by herself) when she appeared, during a 1916 American tour, at a Christmas Week Bazaar at the New York Armory (proceeds to go to Russian war relief).  The ballet was a divertissement (music from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons), about a “carefree beauty” who flirts with five young beaus at a Christmas party.  Money compares this dance to an earlier Pavlova piece, Invitation to the Dance, albeit noting that the newer one was “high-spirited instead of poignant.”  He also describes Pavlova’s costume, “a glamorous rose taffeta cloak with a swansdown trim,” beneath which was a “hooped dress of filmy white point d’esprit with little garlands of forget-me-nots and pink roses.”  Pavlova did perform the ballet at other times (some photographs of her in the piece are dated 1926, in Berlin), but, as per its nature (and title), it seems to have been a seasonal offering; a slight if pleasing trifle, highlighting the ballerina’s sophistication and charm.

Yet Pavlova apparently thought enough of this bonbon to have it, or at least a segment featuring herself, filmed.  Given the date assigned by the Archives, would this have been one of the films she made for Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in mid-1920s Hollywood?  But why film only a snippet (and a seated one at that) and not the entire piece?  At a guess, I would say she filmed what was basically a solo because five young danseurs were not available for the other roles; plus, the entire ballet may have been too elaborate (just note that costume) for a brief film.  The movies Pavlova made for Pickford/Fairbanks were solo showcases anyway, a means for “capturing [her] art on camera.”  So this brief, seated sequence would have been a chance for Pavlova to display, if not necessarily her dancing, then her grace, her charm, her personality, her miming and acting skills (as well as that killer cloak and gown).

And Pavlova is graceful and charming, indelibly so, as we watch her.  She does move—she’s not stationary even though sitting, nor is she ever still—but she moves luxuriously, as if her limbs were cushioned in plush, as if the motion itself afforded her a sense of sybaritic pleasure.  Note also how she contrasts her movements, between the slow, sensual stretching of torso and arms, and then the sudden, sharp shrug as she sheds her cloak (something I marvel at each time I watch).  Throughout, Pavlova’s body impresses itself on the camera’s (and our) eye, filling, occupying, the frame; she’s wispily delicate yet solidly present in space, as if she had left the film’s two flat dimensions to enter our three-dimensional one.

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As mentioned above, the (complete) ballet was said to be “high-spirited,” in its portrayal of a coquette teasing several men at a holiday gathering.  Given the ballet’s Yuletide setting and lighthearted interactions, it presumably was not a dirge-like affair.  But how much of what Pavlova does in this minute-long film was a part of the actual ballet?  Was this a stage solo, or was it performed (when onstage) with other dancers?  Or, finding herself with a minimal set and an immobile camera, did Pavlova just improvise for the lens?  We probably have no way of knowing at this point.  So much of the history of this most fleeting of art forms has been lost to us.

But whatever the original dance was like, my point is that Pavlova, for the camera, does emphasize the “poignant” in her performance.  Her face is pensive, dreamy at the start, as if caught up in a vision, her eyes following something unseen across her sightline—could this have originally been one of the adoring swains?  She stretches back, her head reclining to one side, then she reaches for a rose, pressing the blossom to her face to absorb its perfume.  It’s a picture of romantic abandon, the woman giving herself, as it were, to a fleeing memory of pleasure, the blossom recalling, perhaps, the young man who gave it to her.  Then, swiftly removing her cloak, she stretches out her arms as if in greeting, her face transported by an all-absorbing joy.  With a convulsive gesture, she brings her hands to her breast, before slowly dropping her head to the sofa, a hand covering head and face.  Has she surrendered herself to her rhapsodic vision?  Or has the memory faded, and she remains alone, in a present moment of grief?

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Granted, Pavlova’s eloquent gestures here—her smiles, her outstretched arms, the use of her eyes—may have been motions directed to other dancers in the (staged) ballet.  But, as performed for the camera, by Pavlova alone, with only a rose, a couch, and a cloak for company, the emphasis is changed.  It becomes not a public interaction but a private enactment—of a woman remembering, perhaps a past love, to which, so enthralled is she by its memory, she yields herself.  Her final pose, with her face hidden from us, is…ambiguous.  She could be overcome by happiness or overwhelmed by pain.  Without the context of the full ballet, it seems left up to the viewer to decide.

I’m curious about Money’s comparison of Christmas to Invitation to the Dance, the dance made for Pavlova in 1913.  Granted, it may not be all that curious; in that earlier, similar-themed piece, incorporating Weber’s same-named music, Pavlova portrayed a young girl at her first ball, who, as in Christmas, flirts with young men.  But the year before (1912), Fokine had choreographed Spectre de la Rose to the same Weber music, wherein a young debutante recalls, in the rose she holds, a young beau she met at a ball she’s just attended.  The ensuing ballet is, in essence, the Girl’s memory of this suitor, his presence embodied in the spectral title flower.  Is Pavlova’s embracing of the flower in the Christmas film (noticeably a rose) a harkening back, not to Invitation, but to Fokine’s ballet?  A dream of a recalled encounter?

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I’m calling such a ballet scene the ‘phantom lover’ trope.  The Rose in Spectre, for instance, isn’t real, only the Girl’s dream of a lover, and (significantly) through much of their dance her eyes are closed—she literally doesn’t see him.  Another example is in Ashton’s version of Cinderella, in which the heroine dances with a broomstick, pretending it’s a young man, but ends by collapsing into tears—it’s only a broomstick, after all.  The trope’s most evocative appearance, at least for me, is in the “Rosenkavalier” section of Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes, which begins with the ballerina dancing alone on stage; yet clearly she’s dancing with someone, if only in her mind.  Many viewers interpret the ballerina’s (corporeal) partner, who repeatedly runs onstage to dance with her briefly, then runs off again, as her embodied dream lover, but I’ve never thought of his presence that way.  I’ve always viewed him as a secondary, flesh-and-blood suitor, desperate to attract this woman’s attention; yet she persists in preferring her unseen lover to him.  Her dream, or memory, of this imagined love seems, for her, to more than suffice.

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Hence what I call the poignancy of Pavlova’s performance in the Christmas ballet film.   Whatever the ballet may have been on stage, the way it’s done on celluloid makes it into something else.  We see a woman in solitude, her movements, gestures, facial expressions, all directed to empty space.  For a bemused viewer, with no knowledge of the stage version (whatever that looked like), the only conclusion is that…this woman is imagining someone.  Or she’s remembering him, and, so caught up in her memory, she finds herself re-enacting (like the Girl in Spectre) their past moment together.  Yet what she enacts, what we see, are fragments—a recalled gesture, a momentary embrace, a rose’s fragrance.  The poignancy is that her memories—such imperfect vessels of these departed moments—are themselves transitory, soon to be gone.  But they’re all she has.  No wonder the film ends, if I interpret it correctly, in implied tears.

This trope, as I call it, of a phantom lover, a fleet memory of love—I think of it also on a meta level, as a symbol that reifies the transitory nature of dance itself:  How a dance, once done, exists, like past love, in recollection only.  We may try to capture dance on film, or to write it down—those descriptions of ephemera, whose impressions can’t be penned fast enough, no matter how quickly we scribble.  What we remember of a dance, a performer, an evening of ballet, is, like this film, a re-creation, not the thing itself.  The very existence of dance depends on memory—what dancers remember to teach, what reviewers remember to write.  Even the deceptive permanence of film can inscribe only one performance.  It cannot give us the core, the ur-text, of a ballet.  What we see of Pavlova on film in Christmas is not what this ballet really was—it’s only a fragment, to begin with.  What was the rest of it like?  What was she like?

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All that now remains of Christmas are a few photographs, a few descriptions—and the cinematic presence of Anna Pavlova:  Brief, transitory, etched onto an imperfect celluloid medium.  Yet, imperfect as it is, Pavlova in Christmas is still here for us, nearly a hundred years after it was first filmed—her ephemeral art preserved as permanently as we can ever hope to have, for us to view, and marvel at.

Now that’s what I call a Christmas present.

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