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Robert Walser and the Russian Ballet

Susan Bernofsky

In the spring of 1909, thirty-one-year-old novelist Robert Walser, then living in Berlin, saw a performance by one of the greatest ballet dancers of the twentieth century. Anna Pavlova wasn’t yet the international star she would later become, though she was already a lead dancer with the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, which had sent its ensemble to Berlin on tour. Walser published a review of their performance (signed “R.W.”) in the newspaper Berliner Börsen-Courier and also collaborated with his artist brother, Karl, on a spread for the June 1909 issue of the journal Kunst und Künstler (Art and Artists): Robert wrote an essay, and Karl contributed a lithograph depicting a scene Robert had described. Karl’s illustration shows Anna Pavlova seated on a little balcony wearing a pink and green harlequin-patterned tutu. He paints her as a blonde—which she was not—perhaps to achieve a visual contrast with the little burgundy-colored cap on her head. As the corps de ballet dances beneath the balcony, she is serenaded by a male harlequin playing some sort of long-necked lute or tamburica. Oddly, this lead male dancer is depicted en pointe—highlighting the strangeness of this art form as Karl perceived it.

In his review, Walser writes: “Among these Russians there is one great artist, Anna Pavlova, a very conscious, very intelligent, and up to certain limits doubtless also brilliant artist. Local papers have dubbed her the queen of dance, and apparently that’s what she is. She’s just marvelous.” He goes on to speak of the magnificence of Pavlova’s art and the awkward reticence of the Berlin audience members—including himself—who are perhaps embarrassed to find themselves so charmed by so unironic a presentation of grace and beauty. A bit of irony creeps in anyhow in his description of the “perfectly ridiculous piece” sketched by Karl: “Anna Pavlova sits like a youthful regent upon a rickety, implausible, small balcony, gazing with wonderful gestures upon the crowd below—Italians apparently—who apparently are indulging in all manner of nocturnal, adventuresome, serenading, troubadourish pastimes.” He invests a bit too much attention in the description of the balcony for it to be plausible he’s swooning as hard over Pavlova’s performance as he insists. Well, “[b]eauty has caught us off our guard once more,” he explains, and then goes on to reveal, more or less, why he’s written this essay in the first place: “We owe thanks,” he writes, “to the people who had the idea of inviting these talented Russian dancers to try their luck once more in the capital of the Reich. After all, last year we virtually snubbed the noble Pavlova along with the rest of her band of artistes, or in any case heaped on them the frost of halfhearted accolades.”

The identity of the people he’s thanking is clear: wealthy art dealer Paul Cassirer (cousin to Walser’s publisher, Bruno Cassirer) and actress Tilla Durieux, who would marry Paul in 1910. In Durieux’s memoir, she takes credit for getting the dancers invited to perform in Berlin a second time. Pavlova and her troupe had come through on tour the year before, and the city’s fashionable set proved so uninterested in seeing their performance that Cassirer had given Durieux his ticket, since he didn’t feel like using it. Durieux, finding the performance stupendous, dragged Cassirer back to see the ensemble the following night, with a handful of painters in tow. Impressed by the dancers’ artistry, Cassirer persuaded the manager of the Russian company to cancel the rest of their clearly unsuccessful run and return the following year with the proper publicity. Cassirer then turned the ensemble’s 1909 premiere into an invitation-only soiree at which celebrated dramatist Gerhard Hauptmann, watching Pavlova dance the dying swan, was observed to shed a tear. Then all of Berlin came to see the performance at the Kroll Theater; the Walser brothers were roped into possibly reluctant service documenting the evening (with Cassirer probably arranging Robert’s anonymous appearance in the Börsen-Courier); Cassirer hosted a fancy banquet honoring the dancers at Hotel Esplanade; lots more reviews appeared; Berlin Secession artist Max Slevogt painted Pavlova’s portrait; and Durieux and Pavlova became lifelong friends.

This episode provides an illustration of some of the ways different spheres of artistic endeavor (writing, dancing, visual art, theater) and business—in particular the art business—intersected in early-twentieth-century Berlin.

Susan Bernofsky is associate professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts and director of the literary translation program in Columbia’s MFA Writing Program. She has translated over twenty books.

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