AMERICA'S infatuation with Russian dancers began more than 75 years ago when Anna Pavlova and her partner Mikhail Mordkin arrived in New York for the first time. Advance notice of their successful sweep through Europe had prepared the press, who could hardly wait to meet them. Reporters and photographers turned out en masse for an initial press conference, with more interviews scheduled for the following day. Ballet was practically an unknown art in the United States in 1910. The glories of the Romantic era of the mid-19th century that had brought the famous ballerina Fanny Elssler from the Paris Opera to America in the 1840s had long since degenerated into exhibitions by overstuffed ladies in drab tutus with ankles turned over their pointe shoes. These faded lovelies served as decoration for the beloved stage spectacles or as one more novelty on a vaudeville bill.
The journalists who interviewed Pavlova and Mordkin wrote reams of print about their appearance - her headgear, two feet high and covered with black net bows, and his black silk hat - instead of commenting on the ballets that the pair would be dancing. There was little information about the art form other than a vague expectation of virtuosity.
Pavlova fit no usual standards of artistry. She was small and unprepossessing offstage, except for her sense of fashion. Onstage, however, her performance transcended any technical faults by its luminescence, her intensity, and her belief in the transforming power of the dance. She became every character - a glittering firefly, a windblown poppy, the heartbroken Giselle, or her signature emblem, the dying swan - and her audiences believed totally in the illusion she created.
Pavlova was 28 years old when she landed in New York. She had been elevated to the status of prima ballerina four years earlier in the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, an honor shared only by four other dancers who had been with the company a decade longer. She first left Russia in 1907 at the head of a troupe of dancers under the banner of the czar, then again in 1908 and 1909, returning each autumn to perform at her home base at the Maryinsky Theater. Mordkin was a star of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, where Pavlova had appeared as a guest in 1906.
At the first press conference in the US, one reporter asked Pavlova if she were in love or married. The dancer replied, ``Jamais,'' then added through the translator, ``You ask interesting questions a little different than those in other countries.''
The opening night program at the Metropolitan Opera House on Feb. 28, 1910 included all four acts of Massenet's opera ``Werther,'' before the ballet portion even began. It was 11:30 p.m. when the curtain went up on the two-act version of ``Copp'elia'' and 1 a.m. before the curtain calls finally ended. Amazingly, most of the boxholders remained to the end.
By next morning, all New York could follow the triumph of the Russian dancers in the headlines: ``Anna Pavlova a Wonderful Dancer'' and ``Little Russian Captures Metropolitan Audience in First Waltz.''
The excitement of that opening night faded into legend, but the Russian ballet invasion has never ended. Pavlova and Mordkin had to leave after a month in New York, with time for only short side trips to Baltimore and Boston, but they returned the following autumn for a five-month coast-to-coast tour that included 81 dates in one 2-month period. They traveled with a company of their compatriots - dancers and musicians - in a seven-car private train that allowed them to sleep while traveling to the next one-night stand. In their wake, Americans grew to know and love the ballet.
Pavlova with her various partners brought companies to America every few years until her final tour in 1925. Between 1910 and 1925, Pavlova and her company toured more than 300,000 miles and gave nearly 4,000 performances, in an age of journeys by train and steamship.
Mordkin returned to Russia in 1912 where he continued to perform until 1923 when he again came to the US - this time to remain. He performed and taught in New York and Philadelphia, forming his own company in 1937. This company became the nucleus for Ballet Theater when it was founded in 1939 (now American Ballet Theater).
Ballet in America owes its existence to the Russian exodus that followed Pavlova. Adolph Bolm, Theodore Kosloff, and most important George Balanchine of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes settled in this country and trained the first generations of American ballet dancers.
In our own time, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov have come to stay. Visitors such as the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad, the Soviet descendant of Pavlova's own company, and the Bolshoi Ballet, currently on tour, have renewed the Americans' love affair with Russian ballet.
These thoughts came to mind for this viewer at the Metropolitan Opera House this past summer as the curtain went up on Act I of ``Raymonda.'' The ballet's sumptuous settings mirrored the trappings of the Imperial Palace where the art form was fostered by an indulgent czar. The dancers seemed to bring perfection to the technique, thus furthering the illusion. I recalled that Pavlova and Mordkin also performed an excerpt from ``Raymonda'' on their first tour. American audiences embraced them no less than we have welcomed the Bolshoi company this year.