Anna Pavlova at the BFI: ballet and silent film

Dance and silent cinema have a natural affinity. Many of the earliest films were records of serpentine dances: mesmerising, rainbow-tinted swirls. And these days, when choreographer Matthew Bourne discusses his blockbuster productions with grand sets inspired by German Expressionism, he says: ”it’s almost like pure cinema. It’s like a silent film.”

It’s no surprise then that silent film-makers pointed their camera at the dance stage and the best ballerinas of the day. And the ballet world was fascinated by cinema too. This intriguing article by Henry K Miller relates the thwarted ambitions of Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes, to make a colour film of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Princess. A short season at the BFI this August celebrates one of the greatest ballerinas of all time, Anna Pavlova, who arranged for many of her dances to be filmed and appeared in a feature film too:

‘Next to seeing Pavlova in person, there is no better substitute than seeing her through the mechanism of the kinema.’ So noted a critic in The Guardian following the release of her American feature film, The Dumb Girl of Portici, in 1916. As a ballerina, Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) was as an inspiration; she was also an independent career woman and mega-star loved by the media and her audiences throughout the world. She was also the first major ballerina to truly investigate the medium of film during the 1910s and 1920s. Not only did she star in a Hollywood feature film, but also had a number of her solos filmed. At the end of her life, Pavlova travelled with two movie cameras to record her productions and travels. This season includes documentaries, recordings of dance and features indicating the range of ballets she performed and placing her screen career in context with contemporary recordings of dance.

The BFI will be showing that film, Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), which features this beautiful sequence of Pavlova dancing with an “invisible” partner. The film will be screened with live piano accompaniment and an introduction by dance historian Jane Pritchard.

The Dumb Girl of Portici is an adaptation of the French opera of the same name. Watch out for the character Masaniello, who is played by Rupert Julian, the same man who directed The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, which opens with this gorgeous ballet scene:

You can see The Phantom of the Opera at the Volupté Lounge on 19 August with a live score by electronic duo Cipher.

In the BFI’s Pavlova season, there will also be a chance to see Evgeni Bauer’s The Dying Swan (1917), in which Vera Karalli, a Russian silent film actor and dancer with the Bolshoi ballet, performs the famous routine from Swan Lake. The film will be shown alongside an Omnibus documentary about Pavlova, and with a score by Joby Talbot.

Click here for more details of the BFI’s Anna Pavlova season.

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2 thoughts on “Anna Pavlova at the BFI: ballet and silent film”

  1. Dumb Girl of Portici features a superb reconstruction of the original score by John Sweeney which not only drives the film at amazing speed but is one of the most exceptional pieces of virtuoso piano accompaniment I’ve ever heard.

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