A portrait as poised as a dance; Pavlova: Portrait of a Dancer, presented by Margot Fonteyn. New York: The Viking Press. 160 pp. 200 black-and-white photographs. $25.
This beautiful collection of photographs, reviews, and interviews from Pavlova's own albums of press cuttings is an act of homage from Margot Fonteyn, the permiere danseuse of our time, to ''the woman and artist I hold above all others in the long history of ballet.''
Like Nijinsky, like the great ballerinas of the 19th-century Taglioni and Elssler, like so many of the greatest performing artists throughout history, Anna Pavlova is legendary in two senses of the word: because of her extraordinary, unparalleled artistry, and because later generations, unable to witness this artistry, have had to rely upon the testimony of her contemporaries.
The photographs in this collection, for all the obvious limitations of a still-shot in conveying the poetry of motion, provide a clear glimpse of Pavlova's legendary grace, that mixture of fragility and strength which was the essence of her style.
''Of course,'' as Pavlova tells an interviewer in 1910, ''you must have contempt for weariness and pain. To float so lightly about the stage is the hardest of labor.''
A thin, highly strung child, the Russian-born, Maryinsky-trained dancer rose above her own physical limitations to master the technical difficulties of her art and to develop a style uniquely her own.
In the case of a painter, writer, or composer, whose art remains as available today as on the day after its creation, we may look to biography for the story of the man or woman behind the work of art. Dame Margot's tribute to Pavlova is the opposite of exhaustive biography. Rather than unearth the private life behind the public image, the aim of a book like this is to present an image: not a candid snapshot, still less an X-ray, but a posed portrait. Because the most elusive aspect of a dancer's uniqueness, of Pavlova's special magic, was the artistic illusion she was able to create, this ''posed'' aspect is perhaps the most important one to preserve for future generations.
The word ''pose'' summons up the idea of unnaturalness. But pose can also be a form of poise, the appearance of utter naturalness that dancers (and human beings in general) acquire through the training and self-discipline associated with any art.
Pavlova delighted in the natural grace of the swans and gazelle she kept at Ivy House, her London home. Yet she preferred the more difficult grace and the ''intellectual ecstasy and joy that (come) from hard work. ... Nature,'' she proclaimed, ''is greater than art, but the mind is greater than all things else.''
Pavlova exemplifies the dancer's ideal of discipline and total dedication to one's art. Recently, some who have taken a hard look at the world of dance have observed that the mystique of self-sacrifice has sometimes been used to obscure a reality of poor working conditions and shoddy treatment. Such exploitation mocks the very ideals it pretends to uphold. The example of artists like Pavlova should serve as an inspiration for artists to give freely, but not as an excuse for taking advantage of this need to give.
Although Pavlova's ephemeral art endures through time only as a legend and as part of a tradition nourishing dancers who follow in her footsteps, during her lifetime Pavlova made every effort to triumph over space, as she traveled the world over to bring her art to audiences in America, Chile, Argentina, Egypt, South Africa, Australia, India, China, Japan, Cuba, Brazil, Peru: ''The original defector,'' Dame Margot humorously calls her.
A traditionalist rather than an innovator like her fellow countrymen of the Ballet Russe, Pavlova was a popularizer in the finest sense of the word, winning countless new admirers for ballet by giving audiences what she felt was the best rather than offering watered-down, popularized versions. In the absence of an established company, performing on all sorts of stages from opera to music hall, she had only the magnetism of her person and the quality of her art to sustain each performance.
Dame Margot's charming commentary interspersed among the press cuttings achieves the heights of true enthusiasm without overstepping the boundary between admiration and adulation. She brings to her writing (as to her dancing) a lightness of touch that is sweet but never saccharine.