Pavlova's passion for the art of ballet was ignited when her mother took her to a performance of Marius Petipa's original production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Imperial Maryinsky Theater. The lavish spectacle made an impression on the young Pavlova, and at the age of eight her mother took her to audition for the renowned Imperial Ballet School. She was not chosen due to her age and for what was considered to be a "sickly" appearance, but she was finally accepted at the age of 10 in 1891. She appeared for the first time on stage in Marius Petipa's Un conte de fées (A Fairy Tale), which the ballet master staged for the students of the school.
The young Pavlova's years of training were difficult, as classical ballet did not come easily to her. Her severely arched feet, thin ankles, and long limbs clashed with the small and compact body in favor for the ballerina at the time. Her fellow students taunted her with such nicknames as The broom and La petite sauvage (The little savage). Undeterred, Pavlova trained to improve her technique. She took extra lessons from the noted teachers of the day -- Christian Johansson, Pavel Gerdt, Nikolai Legat and more especially from Enrico Cecchetti, considered the greatest ballet virtuoso of the time and founder of the Cecchetti method, a very influential ballet technique used up to this day. In 1898 she entered the classe de perfection of Ekaterina Vazem, former Prima ballerina of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres.
During her final year at the Imperial Ballet School, she performed many roles with the principal company. She graduated in 1899 at age 18, being allowed to enter the Imperial Ballet a rank ahead of corps de ballet as a coryphée. She made her official début at the Mariinsky Theatre in Pavel Gerdt's Les Dryades prétendues (The False Dryads). Her performance drew praise from the critics, particularly the great critic and historian Nikolai Bezobrazov.
Photographic postcard of Anna Pavlova as the Princess Aspicia in the Petipa/Pugni The Pharaoh's Daughter, Saint Petersburg, circa 1910
Anna Pavlova in the Fokine/Saint-Saëns The Dying Swan, Saint Petersburg, 1905