Dark-eyed, O woman of my dreams,
There is none like thee among the dancers,
None with swift feet..
From: Dance Figure by Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
There are lots of mysteries surrounding the most famous classical dancer of all time – her parentage, her age, the man who may or may not have been her husband, her last words… So let’s stick to what we do know. She was born in St Petersburg in the daughter of a laundress and her dark exotic beauty hinted at an interesting but unknown and unknowable ancestry.
She herself said that she was determined to become a dancer after seeing a ballet performance at the age of eight in the Mariinsky Theatre. She could not have been better placed in time and space to achiever that ambition. Physically however she was not suited to be a classical dancer, she was much taller than was usual, she had thin delicate ankles and highly arched feet – not the physical traits that the dance schools looked for.
However she had the looks and the determination and an enormous capacity for hard work. After completing the rigorous training of the time, her ethereal charm and fluid style meant she quickly graduated to prima ballerina. She had a short period with Dhiagalev and the Ballet Russe but unlike her exact contemporary Isadora Duncan, she preferred the classical roles and to be the central figure in a ballet company.
Pavlova was caught outside Russia when World War One broke out and never returned to live there. She made her home in north London, in Ivy House which had once belonged to the painter Turner. She had considerable artistic talent as a painter and sculptor herself and she filled Ivy House with a menagerie of birds, animals and her personal flock of swans. She lived with Victor Dandre who was her manager and possibly her husband, although she never gave him that status publicly. Their union was childless but in 1920 she founded an orphanage in Paris for Russian orphans.
From 1913 until her death she toured the world. She went to America, Australia and New Zealand and all over Europe. She performed as the centre of a company of her own making and specialised not in full-length parts but in short and accessible vignettes such as ‘The Dying Swan’ choreographed especially for her by Fokine.
Her considerable beauty, skill and iron will made her one of the first world wide celebrities. She became ill with pleurisy in 1931 and having refused an operation because it might affect her dancing, she died at the Hotel des Indes in The Hague. She was barely fifty years old. Her remains were interred in London and despite a move to return them to Russia in 2000 they are still there.
Which brings us to the Pavlova. This frivolous meringue confection as light as a ballet dancer's tutu was created about 1926, maybe in New Zealand maybe Australia – that is a source of dispute to this day. Because you can vary the fruit there are lots of versions, I like it with passion fruit and kiwi - very conventional, but there were no ripe passion fruit today so I used a mix of raspberries, blueberries and kiwi.
A Corps de Ballet of Pavlovas
4 egg whites
1 cup caster sugar
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tablespoonful of cornflour
A baking tray covered with parchment on which you have marked eight circles of 8cm (about the circumference of a smallish mug)
Make sure your mixing bowl is grease free - I wiped mine with a vinegar-soaked piece of kitchen paper. Whisk the egg whites in your mixer until soft peaks form, starting slowly then speeding up. Now add the sugar slowly at the highest speed, take your time and ensure each spoonful of sugar is really well whipped in before adding the next. Add the vanilla, cornflour and vinegar and beat on high for 2 more minutes. Spoon onto your prepared tray. The pavolvas should be much higher than you think – about 6cm - I did measure mine (sad).
Bake at 130c for about 75 minutes – check after an hour. They should be no more than barely coloured and you want them slightly squidgy in the middle. Whip double cream for the base on which to put the fruit. I marbled some of it through with Seville Orange Curd courtesy of Hugh F-W.
( See http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/jan/29/seville-orange-recipes-fearnley-whittingstall) - or you could mix it with creme fraiche if you're feeling the need to cut the fat - it just doesn't hold its shape so well. Decorate with fruit of your choice. Enjoy!
She beat the happy Pavement
By such a Star made Firmament,
Which now no more the Roof envies;
But swells up high with Atlas ev'n
Bearing the brighter, nobler Heav'n,
And in her, all the Dieties.
From: ‘Gratiana Dancing and Singing’ by Richard Lovelace (1618-1657)
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