3 Best Ballerinas According to Maya Plisetskaya

3 Best Ballerinas According to Maya Plisetskaya

“All over the world, they were asking me over and over again, which of the ballerinas was at the top of the ballet Olympus for my taste...” - Plisetskaya wrote. Who did the prima ballerina name?

In 1994, the ballerina immortalized her unexpected answer in the memoir: "And all my life I’ve been saying three names: Semyonova, Ulanova, Shelest. I will name them today too. I have never seen better ballerinas in my life.”

Each of these dancers is a phenomenon in the world of ballet, not only in the opinion of Plisetskaya. We are going to tell you about their talent and creative destiny.

"And all my life I’ve been saying three names: Semyonova, Ulanova, Shelest. I will name them today too. I have never seen better ballerinas in my life.”

Marina Semyonova

At the Leningrad Choreographic School (now the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet), Marina Semyonova was one of the favorite students of Agrippina Vaganova herself. In 1925, Semyonova’s graduation year, the choreographer resumed The Spring ballet specifically for Semyonova to dance the part of Naila. Debut of the young dancer on professional stage was triumphant and she was immediately employed into the ballet company of the Kirov State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater (now the Mariinsky Theater).

From the very beginning, Semyonova was given the central roles in the theater, stepping over the corps de ballet stage. This violated centuries-old traditions, but no one could object, since her technique was impeccable - no one had ever jumped so high and no one could flew over half a stage in one jump. 12 roles in 4 years, but at the peak of her outstanding career, Semyonova moved to Moscow with her husband and stage partner, Viktor Semyonov, her namesake.

In 1930, career of the talented ballerina continued on the Bolshoi Theater stage in the roles of Nikiya in La Bayadère and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty that she had already known from the Mariinsky Theater. In the same year, Semyonova danced Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, it was this part that became her favorite and the main one in her career.

Top officials of the Soviet government attended the performances of the prima ballerina; in her time, ballet was proclaimed one of the most significant cultural values of the USSR. Semyonova was often called "diamond of the Russian ballet". Director of the Paris Opera Ballet Serge Lifar, having heard about the phenomenal dancer, invited her to dance Giselle with him, and the Soviet authorities miraculously allowed the ballerina to accept the invitation. After the performance, French audiences and critics unequivocally recognized the rare talent of the Russian prima ballerina.

In 1937, Semyonova's career suffered a significant blow as the ballerina was married to Lev Karakhan, the Ambassador to Turkey, who was executed during Stalin's Great Purge. The prima ballerina escaped her husband’s fate, but she was banned from foreign tours, although she was appearing on the Russian stage until 1952. In 1953, Semyonova began teaching at the Bolshoi Theater and in 44 years raised dozens of star ballet dancers, including Maya Plisetskaya, Rimma Karelskaya, Marina Kondratyeva, Nadezhda Pavlova, Galina Stepanenko.

Galina Ulanova

Galina Ulanova was a shy child, she was afraid of the stage but had excellent ballet skills. Her teacher Agrippina Vaganova and even Ulanova's mother, ballerina Maria Romanova, who also taught ballet at the Leningrad Choreographic School, considered the student to be "lifeless" in dance. But talent won over timidity and in 1928, during the Chopiniana graduation performance, Ulanova was noticed and recruited to the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theater, where she made her debut as Florina in The Sleeping Beauty and a year later danced Odette in Swan Lake.

To overcome her stage fright, Ulanova learned to look as if through the audience, and this aloof look became her distinctive feature. Ballet connoisseurs often mentioned that none of the ballerinas had such an “unearthly” look.

Her dance seemed perfect, harmonious and incredibly soulful. Ulanova was a real perfectionist and treated ballet without any excessive romanticism - she was just doing her best.

The ballerina worked with her native theater until the evacuation in 1941, during which time she danced 17 parts, including Giselle, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Masha in The Nutcracker, Nikiya in La Bayadere. In 1944, the Soviet authorities transferred the ballerina to the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow - she did not dare to object.

Galina Ulanova was the first ballerina after Anna Pavlova, whose Dying Swan fascinated the viewer with its realistic plastique and dramatic experience of death. On the first tour of the Bolshoi Theater in London, Ulanova danced The Swan when she was already a mature ballerina of 46 years old, and her performance delighted both spectators and critics.

The ballerina finished her stage career in 1960 with the ballet Chopiniana, which was once her graduation performance, after that she worked with the Bolshoi Theater for 37 years as a teacher.

Alla Shelest

“Ulanova and Semyonova left legends about themselves. There was no need to comment on their names. As for Alla Shelest, her name is not known in the world. They always asked me again. Who’s the third one? Shelest? From the Kirov Theater? Could you spell the name, please? Sh? e? l? e? s? t?? Right?" - says Plisetskaya in her book. It was the name of the third ballerina that made Plisetskaya's answer so original. In conversations with colleagues and interviews, she reminded the world over and over again of Shelest's unique, but somewhat wasted talent.

When studying at the Leningrad Choreographic School, Alla Shelest got into the class of Agrippina Vaganova only in her last year. The strict teacher and the student found it difficult to get used to each other, though Vaganova couldn’t help but appreciate Shelest's outstanding capabilities and entrusted her with the role of Diana in Esmeralda.

“Ulanova and Semyonova left legends about themselves. There was no need to comment on their names. As for Alla Shelest, her name is not known in the world. They always asked me again. Who’s the third one? Shelest? From the Kirov Theater? Could you spell the name, please? Sh? e? l? e? s? t?? Right?" - says Plisetskaya in her book.

In 1937, Alla joined the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theater, where Ulanova and Dudinskaya were shining on stage. Shelest rarely got the lead roles or spots in the main cast, but her talent was able to turn a supporting part into the main one, so the ballerina quickly had her own devoted audience, who came specifically to those acts in which she danced. 

In Perm, where the theater was evacuated during the siege of Leningrad, Shelest finally had a chance to dance Odile in Swan Lake and Gayane in Khachaturian's ballet of the same name, but upon returning to her hometown, the ballerina was again pushed into the shadows. Her talent was undeniable and annoyed some of her rivals. It was believed that Dudinskaya was unbeatable in the Laurencia ballet, however Shelest managed to overcome her and made herself an enemy in the person of the star prima ballerina.

The ballerina received the long-awaited part of Giselle only after 20 years of work with the theater.

The most successful period in Shelest's career was the time when she was working with the ballet master Leonid Yakobson, then the ballerina felt in demand at last. Especially for her, the choreographer created the part of Aegina in the Spartacus ballet, and later - The Eternal Idol miniature.

“I can’t forget many of Shelest's roles. Giselle, Aegina, and Zarema. Her Blind Girl in Yakobson’s production made me cry. And it’s hard to squeeze a tear out of a colleague. Shelest had an extraordinary gift of transformation. On stage, she was incredibly beautiful. Divinely beautiful. After the performance, she faded out, took off her makeup, got into the shower. And when she was going through the crowd of fans electrified by her performance and blocking the small artistic entrance, they didn’t recognize her,” - Plisetskaya shared in her memoir.

Alla Shelest was retired when she was only 44, which was painful for the ballerina, who didn’t manage to fulfill herself to the extent possible with her talent. But she continued her career as a stage director with the Kuibyshev Opera and Ballet Theater.