A quiet group of young teen-age girls in green wool overcoats, knee socks, and brown shoes stood studying an old-fashioned tutu decorated with goose feathers.

These ballerinas of the future, all students of the Royal Academy of Dancing here, were face to face with the faded white ballet costume that had been worn by the most famous ballerina of the past, Anna Pavlova, in one of her legendary performances of Saint-Saens "The Dying Swan."

The tutu was the focal point of an exhibit in the Museum of London -- one of a number of events staged by the international ballet world this year to mark the 100th anniversary of Pavlova's birth in Petrograd (now Leningrad) Jan. 31, 1881 (and, as it happens, the 50th anniversary of her passing, Jan., 23, 1931, in The Hague).

The teen-age girls, future soloists and members of the corps de ballet of the Royal Ballet Company, also studied a beautiful Russian costume, heavily embroidered, in which she once danced for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. It hung in a tall glass case beside the tutu, an orange and bronze Gypsy dress worn in the ballet Amarilla, several pairs of her pink satin ballet shoes, medals from world leaders, a presentation folder with signatures of the staff at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1918, and a sash from the year 1913 "to a lovely genius of magical dreams -- Grandpa."

Also in London, the museum staged a week of lunchtime lecturers, including Alicia Markova talking about her memories of the dancer, and Dame Ninette de Valois on "Pavlova's Legacy to British ballet." The museum screened two rare and flickering films: "The Immortal Swan," made of up sequences recorded on silent film in Hollywood and elsewhere in 1924-25, with a musical soundtrack dubbed later, and "The Dumb Girl of Portici," her one feature film, made by Universal Studios in California and Chicago in 1916 (for which she was paid the unheard of sum of $66.66 per minute).

In the large country home she owned in Hampstead in northwest London, Ivy House, an elite gathering of ballet luminaries including Sir Anton Dolin, in apricot shirt and white suit, Dame Markova in a fluffy white fur coat and Dame Marie Rambert, petite, vivacious and 93, launched the British printing of the new and handsome book "Pavlova," released in the United States in January and now in its second printing there).

The house is now used as a school and is operated as a museum by the Pavlova Society only on Saturdays from 2 to 6 p.m. Copies of the new book were scattered on low tables, in among such Pavlovian memorabilia as a set of mother-of- pearl games counters each engraved with the dancer's outline and presented by the Emperor of Japan . . . her mirror and dressing table . . . a black travelling trunk, its drawers hidden behind rose and green hanging curtains, plastered with laels: "Capetown," "Johannesburg," "urgently needed at once" . . .

Marie Rambert, one of the founders of British ballet and a former member of the famed Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, sat in an armchair watching a fragment of "The Immortal Swan," calling out "Bravo" at intervals, while the rest of us ate smoked salmon on brown bread and -- what else? -- Pavlovas for dessert: meringue, strawberries, and cream.

In Moscow, the Soviet ballet world also remembered. On Feb. 13, her birth date under the old Julian calendar (which gave way to the modern Gregorian calendar after the 1917 revolution), Soviet national television showed film fragments; Natalia Bessmertnova and Mikhail Lavrovsky of the Bolshoi performed a pas de deux from Giselle; the Kirov Company in Leningrad was shown in Les Sylphides (Chopiniana) and the funeral march from "La Bayadere," and the program ended with "The Dying Swan" -- not Pavlova's own version, but with the reigning queen of Russian ballet today, Maya Plisetskaya.

Soviet publications brought out articles and photos. A large exhibit is being held in Leningrad this summer.

In the United States, two rival companies have been formed to pay homage to the Pavlova legend: "Tribute to Pavlova," directed by George Daugherty, and "A Pavlova Celebration," by Douglas Wassell. Both are touring the US this year. And "Exhibit Pavlova!" is scheduled for the Dance Collection, Lincoln Center Public Library, New York City, Sept. 30 to Nov. 6, and Northwestern University, March-April, 1982. Later it may go to the Jackson International Ballet Competition, in June 1982.

Meanwhile "Exhibit Pavlova!" has appeared at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. In this initial form the exhibition was a reflection of three devoted admirers of Pavlova.

One was the sculptress Malvinia Hoffman, for whom Pavlova posed a number of times and who has caught her likeness with striking spirit. A second was the dance lover and art patroness, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. The nucleus of the Spreckels collection was given to the Legion of Honor in 1957 and included a number of original costume and set sketches from the Diaghilev era -- as well as sculptures of Nijinsky, Karsavina, Fokine and Bolm, plus a number of Asian and Indian dance figures.

The third figure in this triumvirate was the late Berkeley- based balletomane , J. Paget Fredericks, whose education at the University of California, Berkeley , led him to will a collection of photographs and four costumes -- plus numerous special memorabilia of Pavlova's -- to the Bancroft Library. Fredericks and his mother used to entertain Pavlova in their hillside garden whenever the Pavlova Company danced in San Francisco. The costumes and the Fredericks memorabilia were also on display during the 1970 Joffrey Ballet residency at the University of California, Berkeley.

the great charm of the exhibit is conveyed by the Hoffman sculptures and one or two of the photographs, such as the still from the silent film "The Dumb Girl of Portici." Hoffman's "La Govotte," and her small bronze study of Pavlova and Michael Mordkin in "Bacchanale," catch movement and emotion to marked degree. The "Bacchanale" is a small version of the larger one which Hoffman created for the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. This statue was melted down by the Germans during their occupation of Paris in World War II.

As part of the exhibition program there was a print of "The Dumb Girl of Portici" as well as San Francisco Ballet demonstrations of dances linked to Pavlova in some special way and set by the Diaghilev era premier danseur Anatole Vilzak.

Perhaps the most catching part of the action was one which linked Pavlova and popular culture -- the singing of the Cole Porter tune "When I Used To Lead the Ballet." Also displayed were pages from the Ladies' Home Journal in which Pavlova posed for three social dances with Ivan Clustine in 1915. Pavlova, who was frequently called upon to judge ballroom dancing contests, deemed them suitable for "home use."

Since the local showing, the exhibit has acquired four photographs of Pavlova dancing with the late Uday Shankar. The New York showing may also include items from the collections of New Yorkers.

What should emerge is a testimony to the magic Anna Pavlova's name still conjures up for lovers of the dance.

In other countries, the Vienna Staatsoper, The Hague's Hotel des Indes, and Australia's Sydney Opera House are all staging commemorative programs.

But why should a Russian ballerina born 100 years ago, whom very few of today's audiences have ever seen dance, command such attention, such devoted followings? What made her unique? How was she able to project such a lasting image of wonder and ethereal beauty?

The short answer is that she was a genius: She so lived her dancing that she could not rest until she had shared it with as wide an audience as possible. She was the first prima ballerina to take her art around the world. She was a star, a solo performer who impressed all who saw her with her virtuosity and the dramatic skills she brought to ballet.

Her audiences included czars and dressmakers, kings and shop assistants; once she wrote, "[a ballerina's] reward will be the power to help those who come to see her to forget a while the sadness and monotony of life."

Sir Frederick Ashton, founding choreographer of the Royal Ballet, met Pavlova when he was 26 and described her as "the most plastic dancer I have ever seen; every movement was felt through to the tips of her exquisite fingers; through to her large and luminous eyes. She could give life and individuality to the most trite of classical solos; she danced with a passionate abandon and intensity I have never seen equaled."

After seeing the film image of Pavlova flat across the screen in the fragment "Dragonfly," Dame Marie Rambert remarked at Ivy House: "She absolutely weightless. She had a irresistible desire to dance, an ecstasy the minute she was on stage."

One of her partners, Mikhail Mordkin, once said, "She swooped into the air like a bird and floated down. She never dropped. At times she seemed to defy the laws of gravitation."

At the same time, Pavlova, like many another star, was by no means always easy to work with. She feuded with rival ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Another dancer once called Pavlova a "viper" for what she felt was jealousy of Karsavina. Fellow-dancers said she had a flaring temper as well as a sense of humor. She was not always praised: A Japanese reviewer in October 1922 said her "Amarilla" was "Disagreeable, exaggerated, voluptuous, even hysterical . . . decadent."

But she was also the ultimate professional, driving herself and her traveling company on extended tours and demanding the utmost from everyone, not least from herself.

Anna Pavlova was an only child whose father passed on when she was young. Although extremely poor, her mother took her at the age of 8, as a Christmas treat, to see "The Sleeping Beauty" at the Marinsky Theater: entranced, the little girl said, "One day I shall be the Princess and dance upon the stage of this very theater."

She had to wait two years before she was old enough to enter the Imperial Ballet School, "where," as she wrote later, "frivolity is banned and where merciless discipline reigns."

At 16 she left the school and danced with the company "upon the stage of this very theater." Balletgoers quickly picked her out as a coming star. Among her teachers was the maestro Cecchetti: She kept on trying to improve her technique.

By the age of 25 she had reached the peak of her career, prima ballerina at the Marinsky. That was in 1906; in 1908, she led a group of dancers to Western Europe: Stockholm, Berlin, Copenhagen, and other cities. She continued to travel extensively, in programs designed to appeal to popular audiences. Everywhere she went she tried to understand the local dance -- in Japan for example. She would perform these dances, but audiences wanted only to see her in classical roles, and above all, in "The Dying Swan."

Today, her memory lives on, especially in the Pavlova Museum, in Ivy House in Hampstead, founded and lovingly tended by John and Roberta Lazzarini.

It is the Lazzarinis who produced the book "Pavlova." Most ballet fans will never see the film fragments. Most will never find their way to Hampstead. But they can buy the new book and find a stunning chronology of photos from 1892 to 1930, along with detailed accounts of some 90 performances, with newspaper comments of the time.

To me, the book was the highlight of celebrations here in London -- and the small gathering to launch it at Ivy House. Pavlova was often photographed in the large garden (where she kept two pet swans on an artificial pond). Standing on the rear balcony in the late afternoon sunshine of a February day, as she often must have done, and looking out at the peace and calm of the garden she loved, I could almost see her posing gracefully in ballet slippers and white flowing tulle, by the Grecian urn which still stands by the lake.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.