Tag Archives: laurel snyder

Day 115 – Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

For April 24, the beginning of National Dance Week, we read a beautiful book about one of the most famous prima ballerinas of all time: “Swan – The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova” by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad. With poetic prose and graceful illustrations, “Swan” is less a traditional biography and more of an enchanting ode to Ms. Pavlova’s love of ballet, and to her burning desire to share that love with the world. Ms. Snyder and Ms. Morstad combine words and pictures to create a true work of art befitting of the book’s subject matter.swan

We are first introduced to Anna as her mother is whisking her off on a snow-covered evening to see the ballet, and that is where we see Anna fall in love. As the dancers perform, Anna’s feet “wake up” and “there is a song, suddenly, inside her.” From that point forward, Anna can not stop dancing. Eventually she begins formal training, and when she finally sets foot on a stage “Anna becomes a glimmer, a grace. Everyone feels it…the room holds its breath.” We are told that Anna shouldn’t be this good, her legs are too long and her feet are all wrong, but “Anna was born for this.”

Anna’s career takes off, she performs for years to adoring crowds, and she is wined and dined by royalty, but there is still something missing. Anna knows that “somewhere, there are people who haven’t heard the music,” so she sets out to “feed (the world) beauty.” She travels the globe performing in venues from bull rings to rickety old dance halls…and “when people throw flowers, Anna tosses them back. It’s enough just to dance.” Sadly, on one of her many trips she is caught out in the snow and catches a chill…”a rattle she can’t shake,”…and try as she might, she can not spin away.
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The poetry of Ms. Snyder’s writing paints a beautiful impressionistic picture that hints at specifics of Anna’s life but focuses more on providing a window to her soul. That felt right to us. There is a very helpful Author’s Note at the end that does fill in some of the details, and I highly recommend it. For a Philistine like myself – previously unfamiliar with Ms. Pavlova – it was fascinating to read about how her oddly-shaped feet inspired her to invent her own ballet shoes (shoes which provided the template for the shoes that ballet dancers use today) and how she took what had been an art form strictly to be performed for the wealthy and shared it with everyone, even dancing on the backs of elephants. I also read elsewhere that the title refers to the dance for which she was most known, “The Dying Swan”, which was choreographed just for her in 1905…and then performed by her all around the world.
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I would be remiss if I did not talk about Ms. Morstad’s artwork, which is just as important a piece of the puzzle in “Swan” as the writing. We are big fans of Ms. Morstad’s work (see “This is Sadie” and “When Green Becomes Tomatoes”), and her elegant style is tailor-made for Ms. Pavlova’s story. I particularly enjoy how she subtly captures Anna’s awe upon seeing her first ballet, and the graceful, flowing way that she shows Anna moving through every page thereafter.