Childhood in Russia

“We were poor—very poor indeed…and yet my mother would never fail to provide on feast days a surprise for me…one day I heard that we were to celebrate Christmas by going to see a performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Marinsky Theater…That very night, I dreamed that I was a ballerina, and spent my whole life dancing….”

–Anna Pavlova, Pages of my Life

Earliest Photo

Historical Information

This is the earliest known photo of “little Niura,” as she was called by her mother and grandmother. This photo appears in Viktor Dandre’s 1932 biography of Pavlova and was probably part of the dancer’s private collection. I could discover neither the name of the photographer nor the photo’s current location. Dandre says she was six years old in this photo, but she looks a year or two younger. Very young girls (and often young boys) were dressed in this type of ruffled smock and bonnet, at least for staged, studio photographs, as this clearly is. Anna’s hair is long and loose with bangs. Very soon after, she would appear without bangs, and the ballerina’s traditional center part and low chignon perfectly enhanced her beautifully high forehead and elegant profile

Earliest Photo, Re-Imagined

This little doll was designed by the late, beloved dollmaker Helen Kish, whose company is still in existence. Standing just 7.5” high, she is the smallest doll in the entire Pavlova Project collection, and brings to mind the Ginny dolls that played such an important part in my own childhood. A sewing pattern by ebay seller House of Biscotti was adapted for the cotton gauze dress, bloomers, and bonnet. I embellished all with ruffles, ribbons, and lace, and placed little Niura beside a large flowery plant.


With Mother

Historical Information

This is one of just a handful of photographs of Anna Pavlova as a child, and the only known image of her mother, Lubov Feodorovna, as a young woman. Note the somber expressions: a photograph at that time was an expensive and serious event!

Lubov was a poor laundress, and the identity of the father of her only child is unknown. It is theorized that he was a wealthy—and married—Jewish businessman. Being both illegitimate and half-Jewish was not a good thing to be in Imperial Russia, so Lubov made up a story about a husband who had died and she brought Anna up in the Russian Orthodox religion.

We have Lubov to thank for leading her daughter to her illustrious calling: When Anna was eight years old, her mother took her to a performance of the ballet, “The Sleeping Beauty”. This experience was burned into the imagination of the young girl and set the course for the rest of her life. Anna would later write: “From that night on I knew I must give the rest of my life to dancing.”

With Mother, Re-Imagined

Somber blacks and dark browns don’t make for the most exciting project, but I tried to liven both dresses up with a bit of lace and lots of round black buttons. Note that in the original photograph, Anna’s dress appears to be too big for her. Such an expensive outfit surely would have been tailor-made and deliberately larger than the child, thus insuring at least two seasons’ worth of use. The mother’s Edwardian dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves, puffed shirt-waist, and flowing double skirt, was adapted from a superbly designed pattern from Oriole at Adams Harris Patterns. It’s a pattern I’ve adapted for several fashions in the Pavlova Project. Little Anna’s dress is from a pattern by Designs from Jude. I am greatly indebted to both of these fine designers for providing me with such excellent sewing patterns.


At The Barre

Historical Information

This is the only known photo of the 10-year-old Anna in her practice uniform at the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg. She was an unlikely candidate from the very beginning: frail and sickly, dark-haired, with poor turnout and spindly legs, she was nicknamed “The Broom” by her classmates, and drank cod liver oil in an attempt to gain weight. But her intense obsession with ballet propelled her forward, and she was recognized as one of the most dedicated and promising young dancers.

The boarding school was run with military precision, with boys and girls strictly segregated. Visits from family were allowed only on Sunday afternoons, and for two weeks in the summer the children were allowed to go home. But the excellent academic education, along with the training for an assured job afterwards, not to mention a warm bed to sleep in and three meals a day, were benefits for a child like Pavlova far outweighing the rigors and restrictions of school life.

At the Barre, Re-Imagined

Practice outfits were not the leotards and tights that we associate with ballet school today. Rather, they were two-piece dresses—blue for younger children, brown for older, and probably linen or wool, along with wool stockings and flat shoes. I used a light blue handkerchief linen for this dress, which would be what Pavlova would wear during her first few years at the school.


Un Conte de Fees (A Fairy Tale)

Historical Information

This one-act ballet was created by Marius Petipa specifically for the students of the Imperial Ballet School, with music probably by Franz Richter. Its premier on April 4, 1891, marked the debut performance of Anna Pavlova on the professional stage. At age 10, she was very recently admitted to the school. In this photo, she is kneeling beside a bird cage, her shoulder supporting one end of the pole on which it hangs. We can see how diminutive she is, in contrast to her plump schoolmates. It is indeed fitting that in this, her first ballet, she was called upon to carry a cage with live birds across the stage. All her life, she loved birds. As an adult, she owned dozens, and famously brought them with her on her voyages around the world.

Un Conte de Fees (A Fairy Tale): Re-Imagined

It’s very hard to tell just what young Anna’s costume looked like from this photo, the only surviving record of her very first performance on stage. I’ve taken some artistic license here and dressed her as a woodland fairy, in a nod to her lifelong love of nature. And I included a bird cage with three birds, one of whom she delicately touches as it sits on the open door of its golden cage.


Anna at Eleven

Historical Information

By the time this photograph was taken, Anna was in her first or second year at the School of the Imperial Ballet. The seriousness of her expression suggests a mindset of determination and discipline. The tightly pulled back hair, the tailored white blouse, and high-waisted black skirt all add to this sense of solemnity. Simple pearl earrings and a small locket are her only jewelry. This outfit was probably worn to Sunday Mass, a requirement for all students. Sunday afternoon was the only time students were allowed visitors. Anna’s mother came regularly, and Pavlova later recalled how precious these few, short hours were to both mother and child.

Anna at Eleven: Re-Imagined

The classic look of this black and white outfit are very much in keeping with the strict regimens of the school, and are in stark contrast to the exuberant, fashion-forward ensembles that Pavlova would later choose for herself. But I’ve taken the liberty of adding lace trim to her collar, fancy pearl buttons set in gold, and a decorative bow in place of the plain black satin ribbon in the original photograph.


In School Uniform

Historical Information

Here is Pavlova at age 15, seated demurely at a table, with long hair neatly plaited. The girls’ uniforms were as simple as the habits of novitiates in a convent, and school routines were just as severe. At 8 AM the students were awakened and escorted to chapel. From there, a breakfast of rolls and tea was served in a cafeteria style dining hall, followed by a full day of academic studies and music, art and dance lessons going into the early evening. Bedtime in a military-style dormitory was strictly adhered to. This exacting training routine for ballet students, established during the era of the Tsars, continued uninterrupted during the Bolshevik upheaval and into the Soviet era. In fact, Russian ballet students to this day go through a rigorous and uncompromising educational experience that would not be endured by most students in the West.

In School Uniform: Re-Imagined

I used the same light blue handkerchief linen that I used for the child’s practice outfit, with a starched white apron of swiss batiste over the dress. The original uniforms, in blue for younger children and brown for older, would have been wool or linen, or, perhaps even cashmere. Though certainly lovely fabrics for a child who had lived in poverty, the uniforms nonetheless were very plain and unadorned, which may explain in part Pavlova’s love for high fashion after her school days were over.


A Graceful Young Lady

Historical Information

The provenance for this captivating photo, most likely taken in St. Petersburg when Pavlova was in her mid-teens, has proved to be as elusive and enigmatic as the young woman it portrays. I’ve only seen it in one book, “Pavlova: Portrait of a Dancer” by the great ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. The book states that the photo was found in an album of press cuttings once owned by Pavlova herself.

Pavlova’s youthful appearance, with her hair worn down, suggests that she was very young and still a student at the Imperial School of Ballet. I place her age at fourteen or fifteen, later on her hair would always be in a braid or up in a ballerina’s bun.

A Graceful Young Lady: Re-Imagined

This photograph was one of the pivotal images of Pavlova that drew me so inexplicably to her and led me to the creation of The Pavlova Project. Who was this young girl, and what dreams of the future were already established in her heart? I don’t know what colors the original outfit were, of course. I have chosen a grey silk for the ruffled, high-necked and mutton-sleeved blouse, which would have been in style in the late 1890’s. For the skirt, which seems to have a woven pattern, I’ve selected a beautiful purple silk damask with matching wide ruffle, over a solid silk underskirt.

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A DANCER & HER DRESSMAKER