FAMOUS RUSSIAN BALLET DANCERS

FAMOUS RUSSIAN BALLET DANCERS

Matilda Kshesinskaya was a great ballerina and the great love of Tsar Nicholas II before he got married. She lived in St. Petersburg in house bought for her for by the tsar until he had her own mansion built. It was later taken over by Lenin, who gave speeches from the mansion's balcony.

Great dancers who distinguished themselves at the Bolshoi included Maya Plisetskaya, Yekaterina Maksimova, Nina Timofeyeva, Vladimir Vasiliev, Gedimanis Taranda and Olga Lepeshinskaya.

Great dancers who distinguished themselves at the Kirov included Mikhail Fokine, Maria Danilova, Natalia Dudinskaya, Tamara Karsavina, Irina Kolpakova, Ninel Kurgapkina, and Natalia Makarova.

In 1995, ballet lovers paid as much as $500 a ticket to witness legendary ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, make a comeback at the Bolshoi at the age of 70. She performed the Dying Swan from Swan Lake and said the her secret to staying young was "good health."

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova (1882-1931) is regarded by some people as the best ballerina that ever lived. Known as the "incomparable Pavlova," she was a contemporary of Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Nijinsky. One of he devoted fans said, "She does not dance; she soars as though on wings."

Pavlova was an only child born into in a poor family in St. Petersburg. Growing up she was weak and frail and suffered from a string illnesses. When she eight she was taken to see Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty by her mother. Enchanted by the dancing and music, she decided at that moment she wanted to be a ballerina. "I was plunged into a world that surpassed my wildest imagination,” she later recalled. "With the first notes of the orchestra I was literally entranced. I could scarcely breath."

At the age of 10, Pavlova was one of six youngsters chosen from nearly a 100 applicants to enter the Imperial Theater school. At the age of 17, Pavlova graduated from the Imperial Theater and entered the Imperial Ballet. After seven years she became the company's prima ballerina. Audiences loved her not only for dancing but for her dramatic flair.

Pavlova was invited by Diaghilev to dance in the Les Ballet Russes in Paris. She accepted but only danced for one season because of a rivalry with Nijinsky. In 1909, Pavlova formed her own company and toured all over the world, performing at a pace of or 9 or 10 performances a week for 20 years.

Pavlova made her permanent home at Hampstead Heath in London, where she lived in a large house with her collection of birds, which included flamingos, peacocks, parrots and off course swans. But she spent little time there because she toured so much. Her marriage to her manager and accompanist Victor Dandré was kept secret for many years.

Pavlova's Dancing

Pavlova danced famously in Coppélia, Autumn Leaves, Les Sylphides and Glow Worm. She was famous as the dying swan in Swan Lake arranged for her by Michel Fokine. Describing her version of the dying swan, the London critic C.W. Beaumon wrote: "The emotion transferred was so overpowering that it seemed a mockery to applaud when the dance came to an end, our souls had soared into empyrean with the passing of the swan; only when the silence was broken could we feel that they had returned to our bodies."

Pavlova was small and slender. Even at the height of her fame she often practiced and danced 15 hours a day. She danced all her life even though she was dogged by a painful knee. She had a reputation for surrounding herself with mediocre dancers so that she looked good. She often changed partners and had many run ins with her directors and male partners.

In January, 1931 she arrived in Holland for a performance and collapsed and died of pneumonia a few days later. A few minutes before died she reportedly said, "get my swan costume ready." She was only 49.

Isadora Duncan in Russia

In 1921, four years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the famous American-born, Paris-based dancer, Isadora Duncan was invited to Russia to open a dance school. Describing his impression of 1905 Duncan performance, Diaghilev remarked, "Isadora gave an irreparable jolt to the classic ballet of Imperial Russia." Excited by the opportunity "to meet my destiny" in Russia, Duncan was soon frustrated when the financial support promised by the Communists failed to materialize and she had to operate the school on her own.

In Russia, the 45-year-old dancer fell passionately in love with Yesenin. Praising his hands and sensitivity, she called him the greatest lover she ever had. Even though neither could speak the other's language the two were married, in part so it was easier to secure him a visa to get out of Russia.

Duncan and Yesenin went to the United States, where Duncan was welcomed with hostility for bringing along a "Bolshevik agent." On a spectacularly unsuccessful tour, in which she performed mostly solo because her students were not allowed to leave Russia, she spent nearly as much time answering hecklers and lecturing how she was a "revolutionist" not a "Bolshevik" as she did dancing.

Yesenin kept himself busy on the tour getting riotously drunk, chasing after other women, beating up his wife and running around nude in hotel corridors, smashing furniture. Yesesin beastly behavior and drunkenness lead to the break-up of the marriage. In 1923 Duncan returned to Paris and he went to Russia. Two years later, Duncan received a telegram that he had committed suicide.

Alexander Godonov

Alexander Godonov, a famous Bolshoi dancer, defected to the West in 1979. He died from alcohol related illness in 1996 at the age of 45. His former girlfriend Jacqueline Bisset said, "His dancing could be mesmerizing and, in spite of his unhappiness at not making more good films, he was in a kind of ecstacy at becoming an American. Godonov played a bad guy in one of the Die Hard films.

Godonov joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 1971, deputing as the prince in Swan Lake and became the Bolshoi's youngest principal dancer. He wowed audiences in a 1973 world tour and defected to the United States in 1979, and caused an international stir when his wife tried to return to the Soviet Union. He was a star at the American Ballet Theater until he was sacked by its director Baryshnikov. He also appeared in the film Witness and died in West Hollywood.

Galina Ulanova

Galina Ulanova (1910-1998) was a great Russian ballerina. Michael Specter wrote in the New York Times she had an "uncanny blend of unabashed emotionalism and lyrical restraint" that "made her one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century.” Known for her performances as Juliet and Giselle, she made her debut at the Maryinky Theater in Leningrad in 1928 and captivated Western audiences at the age of 46 when she toured with the Bolshoi Ballet. Prokofiev wrote Romeo and Juliet and two other ballet specifically with her in mind.

In 1959, New York Times dance critic John Martin wrote: "To see a legend assumes the dimensions of reality before us and in the process lose nothing of the quality of the legend, is a rare and wonderful experience." She reportedly switched from the Maryinky to the Bolshoi in 1944 after a personal request from Stalin.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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