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This may be one of the curioser monuments I have written about. I use Alice’s diction because this statue honoring the great Russian-born ballerina Anna Pavlova, rather like Alice, disappeared for many a year before making its return in 2006.
Why Pavlova and why the Victoria?
Well, it’s a rather long story that begins around 1832 when a hotel and tavern were built on this spot. It was turned into the Royal Standard Music Hall in 1850 which was then demolished and rebuilt a couple of times. We are interested in the year 1911 when the new owner Alfred Butt engaged the architect Frank Matcham to build the fabulous new Victoria Palace Theatre here for the princely sum of ₤12,000. In honor of Pavlova, whose first London performances were produced by Butt, the impresario erected a gilded statue on a pedestal atop the theatre’s cupola. Pavlova, who began her career in St. Petersburg and danced a short while with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Europe, left Russia and settled in England in 1912. Thereafter she traveled the world tirelessly, bringing truly great ballet to places that had never seen it, including Australia and South America. She often performed in concert-like revues, the likes of which would have been popular at Butt’s Victoria Palace.
If several websites are to be trusted, Pavlova so hated the idea of the statue on top of the theatre that she refused ever to look at it. So did it offend her superstitious nature that she insisted on closing the curtains in her cab whenever she would pass by.
Really? Not just one little peek? One little drawback of the curtains, just once?
The original statue, created, as far as I can determine, by the architect Matcham, stood atop the theatre for 28 years. It was still there even as Pavlova, who was born in 1881, died of pleurisy while on tour in The Hague in 1931. She was three weeks short of her 50th birthday at the time. The story is that doctors said she would not survive without an operation, but they added that she would never dance again should she agree to surgery. Famously, she told her doctor, “If I can’t dance then I’d rather be dead.” And die she did, shortly thereafter.
When World War II began in 1939, fears of what might happen to the statue during a bombing raid caused it to be removed from the top of the Victoria Palace Theatre – and it was promptly lost. Or, at least, it was by the end of the war. I rather like a comment on one web page devoted to the statue: “It is not known whether it is in someone’s garden or was turned to wartime military use, such as bullets.” The latter sounds more probable, but the former is more intriguing.
The Victoria stood forlorn, without its gilded decoration for 63 years, when, in 2006, the sculptor Hary Franchetti was commissioned to create a replica of the original. He did so based on a photo or photos of the original.
As for Anna not wanting to see the statue, in fact, she would have had a hard time catching even a passing glimpse of herself. You can see from the longer shots here that the statue is anything but readily visible. What you see first are rays of sun glinting off of it as you approach from the direction of Buckingham Palace. It’s only when you approach the building, and when you train a zoom lens on the golden object up there, that you really begin to see the statue.
This entire area, not only the space where many theatres have stood, seems to have a tradition of reconstruction, and that is surely being honored these days. Everything around Victoria Station (for the Victoria Palace stands directly across from the great railway station) is an utter and total mess at present. You can’t get anywhere without detouring four or five times. Long tunnels of construction pathways guard your head and body as you meander through mazes of cross-paths. Cranes, construction sites and scaffolding tower over your head at every step. Signs with arrows pointing every which-way make it fairly certain that you have no idea where to go to get anywhere. The theatre itself is blocked off by construction and I never did figure out how to approach it. It is up and working, however, so some people are figuring that out. It is the home to Billy Elliot the Musical, and has been since 2005.
The Pavlova statue is frustrating, though intriguing. The reality is that you really cannot see it. Not in any detail, anyway. Even if all the construction were to disappear overnight, you would still be very, very far away, no matter how close you come to the theatre. It is said that the statue is approximately twice life size. For one, like me, who wandered around peering up at the statue from various angles for at least a half an hour, that comes as astonishing news. One thinks of the statue as a tiny, toy-like thing. Sure, you understand it’s not a toy way up there, but I was not the least prepared to hear that it is twice life size.
As any source that knows its dance can tell you, the statue depicts Pavlova in a classical tutu while standing in the arabesque position. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about that:
“In dance (particularly ballet), arabesque (French: [aʁabɛsk]; literally, ‘in Arabic fashion’) is a body position in which a dancer stands on one leg (the supporting leg) with the other leg (the working leg) turned out and extended behind the body, with both legs held straight. In classical ballet, an arabesque can be executed with the supporting leg en pointe or demi pointe or with foot flat on the floor.”
If you wish see the statue for yourself, the official address is: Victoria Palace, Victoria Street, London, SW1E 5EA. Or just find Victoria Station, turn around in the other direction and look up. That is assuming they haven’t erected a new skyscraper since I was there.