Anna was born on February 12, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The place and time of her birth could hardly have been better for a child with an in born talent for dance. Under the rule of the Czar, Russia maintained magnificent Imperial schools for the performing arts. Entry into the Imperial schools was by examination only. She was accepted at the Imperial School of Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1891.
Anna’s love for the ballet was sparked when her mother took her to a performance of Marius Petipa’s original production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Imperial Maryinsky Theater. The ballet made an impression on Anna, and at the age of nine she was taken by her mother to audition for the Imperial Ballet School. Because of her young age, and what was considered to be a “sickly” looking appearance, she was not chosen, but in 1891 she was finally accepted, at the age of 10. She appeared for the first time on stage in Marius Petipa’s Un Conte de Fees, which translated means A Fairy Tale. Marius Petipa staged this ballet for the students of the school.
The young Anna’s years of training were difficult, as classical ballet did not come easily to her. Her severely arched feet, thin ankles, and long arms and legs, clashed with the small and compact body in favor for the ballerina at the time. The other dancers teased her with names like The Broomstick and The Little Savage. Anna, regardless, continued to train and improved her technique. She took extra lessons from the noted teachers of the time such as Christian Johansson, Pavel Gerdt, Nickolai Legat and more especially from Enrico Cecchetti, who is considered the greatest ballet virtuoso of the time and founder of the Cecchetti method. In 1898 she entered the Classe de Perfection taught by Ekaterina Vazem, Prima ballerina of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres.
She graduated the Imperial Ballet School in 1899 at the age of 18, and was allowed to enter the Imperial Ballet Company a rank ahead of corps de ballet called coryphée, a dancer above the rank of corps de ballet but beneath the rank of soloist. When the prima ballerina assoluta of the Imperial Theaters, Mathilde Kschessinska was pregnant in 1901, she coached Anna in the role of Nikya in the ballet La Bayadere Kschessinska, not wanting to be upstaged, was certain that Anna would fail in the role, as she was considered technically inferior because of her small ankles and thin legs. Instead audiences became enchanted with Anna who had fit the role perfectly.
Her feet were extremely rigid, so she strengthened her pointe shoes by adding a piece of hard wood on the soles for support and curving the box of the shoe. At the time, many considered this “cheating”, for a ballerina of the era was taught that she, not her shoes, must hold her weight on pointe. In Anna’s case this was extremely difficult, as the shape of her feet required her to balance her weight on her little toes. Her solution became, over time, the precursor of the modern pointe shoe, as pointe work became less painful and easier for curved feet. Anna did not like the way her invention looked in photographs, so she would remove it so that it appeared she was using normal pointe shoes.
Anna is most known for creating the role of The Dying Swan, a solo choreographed for her by Michel Fokine, in the ballet, The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens., created in 1905. By the mid-20th century she founded her own company and performed throughout the world. Cyril Johnson, a ballet writer of the time described that “her bourrees were like a string of pearls“.Anna was introduced to audiences in the United States at the Boston Grand Opera Company from 1914 to 1917 and was featured there with her Russian Ballet Company during that period.
In 1927, while touring in Netherlands, Anna was ill with pneumonia and was told that she had 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, inflammation of the membrane surrounding the lung, three weeks short of her 50th birthday. She was holding her Dying Swan costume when she spoke her last words, “Play the last measure very softly.” In accordance with old ballet tradition, on the day she was to have next performed, the show went on as scheduled, with a single spotlight circling an empty stage where she would have been.