Great art must never be rejected because it conflicts with the world-view of the reader or reviewer. But what are we to make of pedestrian writing that clothes itself in the reflected glory of an historical person, while distorting history to teach children the lesson that youth is more important than the greatest artistry?
Anna Pavlova, "once the greatest ballerina in Russia," is presented as perhaps in her thirties (to judge from the illustrations) and has retired from the stage, although the author adds in an end-note (which the young children for whom this book is intended will not read), that "if there ever was a time in her [Anna Pavlova's] life when she feared the stage, she hid it well." In fact, she left Russia at the age of thirty-two and went on to give many performances all over the world well into her forties. It is because of these late performances in the West that Pavlova's name is so famous that Maxine Trottier could borrow it to shed glamour on her uninspired narrative.
In Trottier's story, Pavlova dances only before a mirror in her home, where she can see "a graceful shadow of the young dancer she had once been." Suddenly, a messenger comes from the czar, asking the ballerina to dance for his sick son. (There is no explanation of who the czar is-a phrase such as "the ruler of Russia" would be helpful to children reading this book by themselves.) Pavlova hurries out, and on the way her sleigh breaks down close to a gypsy encampment, where a young gypsy woman is dancing. In her, Anna Pavlova sees "herself as she had once been." She sends the gypsy to the czar in her place, saying that "your youth and spirit will do far more for the little prince than I ever could." The czar seems to agree, for he does not notice the deception and is moved by the dancing. Pavlova, meanwhile, has been rewarded for her unselfishness by becoming young for one night and able to dance by the gypsies' fire.
What message is here for the little girls who will form the largest audience for this book? They learn that an untrained girl's "youth and spirit" serve better than the most exquisite art-sometimes true in life, but illogical in the book's own framework, since presumably the czar has plenty of young girls in his court, yet sends special messengers to seek out the famous Pavlova. A little girl might be forgiven for concluding that any difficult art she might be learning-including ballet-is not worth the pain and trouble. Even a five-year-old is capable of announcing, "I don't have to be good, I'm pretty!" And she'd better use her beauty while it lasts (and pay no attention to her middle-aged teacher), since this book clearly implies that women no longer young should stay hidden at home and not in any way perform upon the public stage. True, ballet may be a special case, since many ballerinas do retire in their thirties (although the real Pavlova did not). But the special problems that ballerinas suffer are not hinted at in the story, nor is there any indication that the heroine is actually incapacitated by injuries or even stiff joints-she seems to enjoy dancing in the privacy of her home. No, she is simply no longer fit to be seen. We are not told why and left to draw our own conclusions. The fact that the author knew that the real Pavlova kept on dancing into middle age makes the message all the more sinister.
Victoria Berdichevsky's sometimes stiff but often evocative sad-sweet illustrations use a lovely colour palette of soft greys and glowing oranges. The faces of her figures are perhaps too reminiscent of the drawings made by most teen-age girls in the corners of their schoolbooks, lacking individuality and expression-qualities that appear instead in their clothes and draperies. Nevertheless, a certain lyrical mood is conveyed by the art in Pavlova's Gift. It deserves a better text.
Rasa Mazeika is a scholar of mediaeval Lithuanian history. She has been received by the Pope, though she does not agree with him on everything.