Dances of Life and Death is an intimate portrait of Anna Pavlova as she prepares for the role in which she became most closely associated, The Dying Swan.
Anna Pavlova was a Russian ballerina of the late 19th and the early 20th century. She is widely regarded as one of the finest classical ballet dancers in history and was most noted as a principal artist of the Imperial Russian Ballet and the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev. Pavlova is perhaps most renowned for creating the role of The Dying Swan, a solo choreographed for her by Michel Fokine. The ballet, created in 1905, is danced to Le cygne from The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns. Pavlova was purported to have studied the movements of swans in depth before attempting her performance. In 1912, she bought a home in London called Ivy House, which had an extensive garden and a pond. Several pictures were taken during this time showing her entwined in an embrace with her favorite swan, Jack.
While touring in The Hague, Netherlands, Pavlova was told that she had pneumonia and required an operation. She was also told that she would never be able to dance again if she went ahead with it. She refused to have the surgery, saying "If I can't dance then I'd rather be dead." She died of pleurisy, three weeks short of her 50th birthday. She was holding her costume from The Dying Swan when she spoke her last words, "Play the last measure very softly."