When Anna Pavlova came to town … and also went bush.
As we head towards the hundredth anniversary of Anna Pavlova’s tours of Australia, it is almost impossible to imagine the excitement caused by her two visits in 1926 and 1929.
Back then Australia was a remote corner of the world with a population of less than six million, but just about every one of those six million knew the world’s prima ballerina had come to tour our cities and – as it turned out – the bush.
Both tours were masterminded by theatrical powerhouse, the J.C. Williamson organisation. Monte Luke, who had earlier been a successful stage actor and film-maker, had an on-going relationship with Williamson’s and worked as their official photographer. He took these classic shots of the Russian star – billed in the tour publicity as ‘The Greatest Dancer of All Time’, as she certainly was back then – during the 1929 tour.
The 1926 visit had been confined to the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide and was such a hit that the 16 week return in 1929 took on epic proportions. As well as revisiting the same state capital cities and including Perth this time, the tour wound its way – principally by special train laid on by the Queensland government – through the Sunshine State’s regional centres including Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton, drawing sell-out crowds and extraordinary interest. Before her entourage’s much-anticipated arrival in Bundaberg for example, the local newspaper breathlessly reported that Pavlova kept her thin figure by never eating red meat, bread or potatoes. According to their sources, they confided, Russian tea with milk, dry toast and biscuits were all she had for tea and supper.
There was no mention of the famous Pavlova dessert, the meringue, whipped cream, strawberries and passionfruit confection that has since become the subject of a food fight between Australia and New Zealand over who invented it. The Kiwis claim a recipe for a similar dessert first appeared in one of their rural magazines as early as 1929, while the Pavlova as Australians know it today was said to be concocted by a chef in Perth in 1935 and named in her honour.
None of that came to mean much to the great dancer, who fell seriously ill while touring Holland in 1931. She was advised that she needed an operation to have any chance of survival, but that even if the surgery was successful it was unlikely she would ever dance again. The story goes that Pavlova replied ‘If I can’t dance I’d rather be dead’. And so it came to pass. She died there of pleurisy, three weeks before her fiftieth birthday.
Archival quality reproductions of the above photographs are available for purchase through