Here, from John Hall‘s invaluable YouTube channel, is Anna Pavlova in her signature role:
What more to say about Anna Pavlova? No one can surpass her in The Dying Swan (as her solo is known; The Swan is the name of the Saint-Saëns musical piece). This is her role. Other dancers when performing the solo may move in a slow, hesitant manner (as if afraid to challenge Pavlova’s memory?), or they will twitch, wriggle, writhe, flap, angle, bend, stretch, dip, twist—are they thinking of snakes or squids? I know swans have these long necks, but those appendages are not the entirety of the creature.
What Pavlova does in her performance is flow. She’s not trying for a conscious bird imitation as do some successors; though she does do a bit of wing-flapping towards the end in this 1925 film. Pavlova doesn’t indulge herself that way. She just…moves, simply, without embellishment, skimming across the ground, raising her arms, her eyes also raised to follow the gesture, as her wrist, hands, and fingers, also reach up—she finishes off each arm motion with such, a kind of flourish at the end of the motion impulse. I think that’s how she holds your attention: As she flows, you follow her flow, right to the end of her body and limbs, and beyond.
The thing about Pavlova’s Swan is that you don’t notice the individual steps and gestures. It moves in all of a piece. You’re not aware, as, for example, with Makarova or Plisetskaya, how the arm muscles curve and ripple to simulate bird wings in flight; it’s as if they’re conscious, in a meta-sense, of what they’re performing, and that they are performing. But Pavlova moves not by simulation or by outer show, but by an inner spirit—a realization of the soul in a final, fading struggle, its loss already accepted. There’s nothing frantic or defiant in her Swan. It’s tender, almost resigned, gripped by a vision of the world to come, life shed away with each step. You may not, as you watch, be in awe of her technical facility or flexibility. You’re just caught up in her eloquence, her completeness of gesture, the sense of body, motion, and soul entwined.
Oddly, she seems almost happy when performing the piece…
Here’s a second film of Anna Pavlova dancing, also courtesy of John Hall (try to ignore the opening narration):
Watching Pavlova in Night (La Nuit)—I can’t ever get over her performance. I can’t ever fully take it in, the sheer greatness of her dancing here. It’s not about technique nor choreographic stunts. As in The Swan, Pavlova moves simply, the steps basic and uncomplex. No doubt, any beginning ballet student today could perform the same steps, with more speed, precision, and jaw-dropping pyrotechnics. Big deal, they might say.
But they couldn’t live them. Pavlova throws herself into an arabesque, or into a twirl, or into a bend to the floor, with utter abandonment to the movement—as an awakening to ecstatic experience, beyond bounded human knowledge. Her body, in its propulsion, is as open to the music and movement as a river is to rain. She’s carried away by what she’s doing, and nothing else, nothing else, is present for her in that moment of performing. She lives only for the dance, of moving and breathing within it. As Arlene Croce once wrote of her, this was Pavlova’s life. In the most literal sense.
I think criticisms of Pavlova’s technical lack, or of her being past her prime in these films (from the 1920s)—those critics ignore what’s going on. Pavlova is not attempting technical perfection, but a unity of her body, her spirit, with the rhythm, the motion, the impulse of dance itself. There’s no barrier between her and her motion; flesh and bone and muscle are merely her transport to transcendence. She aims to become what she moves. She stops my heart when I watch her; it’s dancing that’s beyond words and too deep for tears. La Nuit is the greatest recording of dance there is.