Anja Pavlova: From Russia with Love, a 1920s Burlesque Dancer in Berlin
By Victoria Linchong . November 10, 2016
Maybe you’ve seen her on burlesque stages in Berlin, looking like she emerged from one of Jay Gatsby’s legendary parties: all kinetic arms and flailing legs, a 21st century embodiment of a gin-soaked, high-kicking, rouge-kneed flapper. She’s Soviet sensation Anja Pavlova, internationally known for burlesque routines that are part bump ‘n’ grind and part Savoy kicks. We’ll be seeing a lot more of Anja since she just moved to Berlin, so we thought it would be interesting to get the inside scoop on this effervescent ecdysiast.
You grew up in an academic family in Moscow. So how did you go from Tchaikovsky and ballet to hot jazz and Charleston?
I was probably in my early teens and you know how you are when you hit puberty. Your whole life suddenly becomes about being different from everyone else. My rebellion wasn’t about dyeing my hair pink and excessive drinking. Instead, I started to dress in my grandmother’s clothes, use way too much rouge and lipstick, and listen to sentimental Soviet pop music (and obviously a lot of Tchaikovsky). And then I stumbled upon a CD compilation of Count Basie and couldn’t stop listening to it. It was a new wonderful emotion, this music so full of life and rhythm. It took me a couple more years to find the courage to attend my first jazz dance class, but I was hooked from day one.
So was Charleston and swing dance the gateway drug to burlesque? The two scenes overlap but they rarely intersect.
I discovered burlesque while researching female solo jazz dancers of the 1940s and it felt like something I was born to do. Among modern swing dancers, very few are good performers, and the opportunities to professionally develop this side are rather limited, but performing happened to be the thing that excited me the most. So I decided to explore combining swing dance and Charleston with burlesque. I still go out dancing and sometimes perform for swing dancers, but it always feels a bit like performing to my family – thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
How do you get your inspiration for your 1920s burlesque numbers? Do you watch films or look at photographs? Is it a song that gets you twitching? Or is it more of a story or an idea that gets your creativity flowing?
There’s always a picture. I spend hours researching 1920s fashions and theatre costumes, watch a lot of period movies, and then, when the critical mass of inspiration is reached, I have a very clear idea of what my next number is going to be. I make all my costumes myself, and with every new act, I also try a new technique, or material, or pattern, something.
And then I always seem to have to have a story. Like, for my newest LED moon number, a couple of years ago I had this dream where I was holding a moon disc in my hands and it was the purest, most beautiful dream. It took me two years to make it happen, but now it’s my favourite number of all, especially since for centuries, the moon has been a symbol of femininity.
Ah, so you weren’t inspired by Sally Rand’s famous bubble dance?
No, not at all, since my balloon is a light source. Initially I was going to make it out of plexiglass or something similar, but I ended up with a lighter and smaller solution involving an actual balloon. It’s still heavier than the one that Sally Rand used, so however much I enjoyed her famous bubble dance, there wasn’t much for me in terms of inspiration.
When we first met, you were all about moving to Berlin. Why is Berlin the place for you?
I came to Berlin for the first time nine years ago and instantly felt like this was the city where I could easily spend the rest of my life. I was reading a lot of Nabokov at the time, and knowing that he also lived in Berlin gave me this feeling of immediate connection to the place and its culture.
And then there is the burlesque aspect. The Berlin burlesque community is wonderful – very welcoming, very creative, very helpful, and also full of world-class performers. We Russians always have very big ambitions, whatever we do, and where else can one grow if not among the best in business?
Some people view burlesque as an assertive expression of feminity that confronts the male gaze. While you certainly evoke the glamor and hedonism of the 1920s, your burlesque routines seem to be less about sexuality and more about freedom and the joy of movement. Would you agree?
I believe that sexuality is a very different thing for all of us. For me, sexuality is the freedom and the joy of being in your own body; the magic of being naked and enjoying it. A lot of my acts are about taking off my rather shapeless 1920s-style clothing to reveal the form inside, which is my body, a female body, which I believe is the most beautiful thing in the natural world, no matter what size or skin colour or age.
What are your favorite vintage places to shop in Berlin?
I’m obsessed with the flea market at Boxhagener Platz. The first time I went there, my head was spinning from all the opportunities to spend money! Old Fleas Vintage Market at Ballhaus Berlin is also a great place to look for authentic vintage dresses and cute bowties. There aren’t so many vintage shops and flea markets where I come from so I’m still developing my taste.
What’s next for you in Berlin? Where do we catch you?
I’m going back to Russia in 10 days, but before that please come and see me at The Full Moon Cabaret on Sunday, November 13th. I’ll be bringing my new LED Moon!