How does legendary status evolve in the world of ballet? Are the most brilliant dance figures simply bound to be recognized by the public and discerning critics alike? Or does historical importance depend on specific strategies? Or on the serendipity of circumstance? Joan Acocella notes that genius owes much to “ego strength” as well as luck (2007, xii). Perhaps the element of fame is always interlocked with market forces, even in the dance world, where artists are affected by what is written about them, whether it appears in influential places, and how much can be gained by selling an image. But how does history arrive at the consideration of a dance legend's substance and contributions? Being respected in the long run might inevitably depend on a combination of circumstances, including whether the popular imagination or the attention of academics can be captured. In the case of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, a legend has grown around a particular set of glorifying associations. My question here is whether or not these associations, while celebrating Pavlova as a dance “star,” have also limited consideration of her as a significant figure in dance history. Often categorized as “old-fashioned” and “conservative,” Pavlova was in fact an innovator, I suggest, in terms of the way she combined ballet and dance influences from around the world, as well as her role in revivals of neglected dance forms, and, lastly, in her rhetorical framing of ballet as a serious endeavor and an empowering pursuit for women.
Jennifer Fisher is the author of Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World (Yale University Press, 2003), which won the Special Citation of the De La Torre Bueno Prize, and co-editor, with Anthony Shay, of When Men Dance: Choreographing Masculinities Across Borders (Oxford University Press, 2009). Currently an associate professor in the dance department of the University of California, Irvine, she holds a Ph.D. in dance history and theory from the University of California, Riverside, and a master's degree in dance history and ethnology from York University in Toronto. A former dance critic, she is currently the founding editor of Dance Major Journal, a new publication of student writing based at UCI.