The World's Most Famous Russian Ballet Dancers

The World's Most Famous Russian Ballet Dancers

These graduates of the Russian ballet school have been winning over audiences all over the world with their dance. They are the embodiment of strength and beauty of Russian ballet.

Anna Pavlova

For more than a century, Anna Pavlova had been one of the most famous Russian ballerinas in the world: audiences in over 40 countries applauded her performances.

Pavlova's first foreign tours took place in 1908. But it was her participation in Diaghilev's Russian Seasons in Paris in 1909 that brought her world recognition. By that time, she was already a prima ballerina with the Mariinsky Theater, and Mikhail Fokine had already staged for her the choreographic miniature Swan that became the symbol of Russian ballet of the 20th century.

In Paris, the ballerina danced in the premiere performances of Le Pavillon d'Armide, Les Sylphides and Cleopatra. It was Anna Pavlova in arabesque that was depicted on the famous poster advertising those tours, created by the artist Valentin Serov. The weightlessness and airiness of her performance amazed both spectators and critics - it is not surprising that the lightest meringue-based dessert would later be named after her.

Pavlova established her own company and toured with it all over the globe. The hallmark of each of her performances was The Dying Swan, which invariably made the audience freeze and then burst into a storm of applause. 

Tamara Karsavina

Tamara Karsavina was a soloist with the Mariinsky Theater, one of the first performers in Mikhail Fokine's productions and a star of Diaghilev's Russian Seasons. Her duet with Vaslav Nijinsky was a signature of Diaghilev's enterprise. The ballets The Firebird and Petrushka, where the star couple shone, were an enormous success in Paris. Dancing in the Russian Seasons made the ballerina famous in Europe.

“Karsavina looks like a dancing flame, in the light and shadows of which languid bliss lives ... her dances are the most delicate tones and drawing of airy pastels,” wrote a Parisian reviewer.

Rodin, Saint-Saens, Cocteau, Marcel Proust visited the ballerina's performances. Later, the ballerina joined the company of Diaghilev's Russian Ballet. But in 1913, she focused on her work with the Mariinsky Theater, where she danced the main parts of the classical repertoire, including the ballets Giselle, Swan Lake, Raymonda, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty.

In 1918, Karsavina left Russia for good. In exile, she starred in several silent films, such as Ways to Strength and Beauty (1925), performed at La Scala and the British troupe Ballet Rambert, and from 1930 to 1950 was vice-president of the Royal Academy of Dance. 

Galina Ulanova

Galina Ulanova was the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater for 16 years, and then, for the same period of time, she was the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi. To this day, she remains the most titled Soviet ballerina. During her career, she danced almost all the main parts in the repertoire of both theaters. 

In 1928, Ulanova graduated from the Petrograd Theater School, and it was already in 1929 that she danced the first part in Swan Lake. Such a short way to Odette is a sign of great talent. 

The legend of great Ulanova reached London and Paris much earlier than she appeared on stage of the Grand Opera and Covent Garden. The English magazine The Dancing Times wrote about the ballerina's performance in Italy: 

“There could be no doubt that she was a great ballerina.  Her greatness consists of two elements - outstanding individual lyricism and the noble, stately manner of the Russian school."

During the first tour of the Bolshoi Theater in London, Ulanova was already 46 years old. For the first time after Anna Pavlova, the audience saw The Swan on stage - it was different in its “dying", even more heartfelt, leaving no doubt that Russian ballet was a world value. In 1957, Mary Clarke's book Six Great Dancers was published in London. Ulanova was included in it along with Pavlova, Nizhinsky and Karsavina. 

Maya Plisetskaya

Maya Plisetskaya became the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater after Galina Ulanova, who was her idol. The young ballerina was glorified by the role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, which she performed when she was only 22 years old. A unique feature of her performance was free, as if boneless, wing-like arms. It was a discovery back then, but today these arms are a model for all Odettes in the world. These very arms made iconic her performance of the miniature The Dying Swan, in which Plisetskaya “floated out” from behind the curtains with her back to the audience. The amplitude of the ballerina's jumps was considered phenomenal even by professionals. 

Other ballets with Plisetskaya's participation were also resounding success, among them were Don Quixote, Raymonda and Carmen Suite, staged especially for her by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso to the music by composer Rodion Shchedrin, the ballerina's husband. Carmen was made into a film twice, in 1969 and 1978.

Plisetskaya's going abroad was approved by the authorities only in 1959, when they allowed her to join the Bolshoi Theater company on a tour of the United States. This began a new stage in her career - she became not only the face of Russian ballet, but also set the new highest standards for the world classical choreography. 

Plisetskaya always had a bold and innovative taste, for example, she was fascinated by the production of Bolero by Maurice Bejart, and after a personal letter to the choreographer she was invited to dance in a video version of the ballet. 

Ekaterina Maximova

The prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater Ekaterina Maximova was a star of the Soviet ballet. Thanks to her and her partner and husband Vladimir Vasiliev, the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet brand was formed. She was called "the smartest legs" in the world. Teachers of the Moscow Choreographic School staged numbers especially for Maximova. In 1959, right after her graduation, Ekaterina went on her first tour to the USA and Canada, where she absolutely charmed the audience. She was then nicknamed "the wonderful little elf" and "baby of the Bolshoi Ballet". In the same year, she won an international competition in Vienna, then won over China, Denmark, Norway and Finland with her talent. In 1966, Maximova and Vasiliev became the first performers of the main parts in Yuri Grigorovich's The Nutcracker that was revolutionary for that time. The part of Phrygia in the Spartacus ballet was created especially for the ballerina. In 1976, Vasiliev staged the ballet Icarus for Maximova.

In 1982, the couple played in Franco Zeffirelli's La Traviata. Today, you can see Maximova dancing in such ballet movies as Anyuta, Galatea, Creation of the World, Old Tango.  

Ulyana Lopatkina

The Mariinsky Theater's prima ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina is often called the "second Plisetskaya". Her Odette-Odile and Swan in the miniature to the music by Saint-Saens became outstanding examples of Russian ballet. She is still often called the "main Russian swan" in the West. Some ballet experts and critics believe that the depth of Lopatkina's dramatic transformations is second to none. 

When Ulyana was just studying in the seventh grade of the Vaganova Academy of  Russian Ballet, the world-famous choreographer John Neumeier gave her a number Cecchetti and Pavlova. In 1991, Lopatkina graduated from the school, and already in 1992, she was entrusted with the part of Giselle, which was the beginning of her great fame. Very soon the name of Lopatkina on the posters became the guarantor of a full house.

The peak of the ballerina's career fell on the period of Balanchine's first productions at the Mariinsky, Lopatkina showed an unattainable level of talent in them. In 2006, the ballerina was awarded the title of the People's Artist of Russia.

Lopatkina was the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater from 1995 to 2017, after which she left the stage, but to this day she is believed to be a model of the highest ballet standards. 

Polina Semionova

Polina Semionova, a graduate of the Moscow Academy of Choreography, a winner of gold medals at the Moscow Ballet Competition at the Bolshoi Theater and the Vaganova Prix, at the age of 18 made a fateful decision and, at the invitation of dancer Vladimir Malakhov, joined the Berlin State Ballet company. With her departure, Russia might have lost a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi, because even Maya Plisetskaya, after seeing Simeonova's performance at the competition in Nagoya, admitted that "there is a great future to be expected." 

In Berlin, the ballerina received the status of a principal right away and for ten years was a star there. In 2011, she became a principal of the American Ballet Theater and La Scala in Milan. A year later, the Russian audience got a chance to see the ballerina's live performances - Semionova danced as a guest soloist of the Mikhailovsky Theater. During her career, Polina danced the most of the "Golden Fund" parts - she performed the lead roles in The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Coppelia, Romeo and Juliet, ballets by Fokine and Balanchine. Her professional dream of the lead role in La Bayadere came true too. 

Since 2012, the ballerina has been teaching at the Berlin State Ballet School, and in 2013 she has become a professor there. 

Diana Vishneva

Diana Vishneva received her first international recognition while still a student of the Vaganov Academy. A gifted girl, she was sent with a number Carmen and a variation from Coppelia to the prestigious international competition Le Prix de Lausanne, where she won the Grand Prix. While still in the graduating class, Diana was dancing Kitri in Don Quixote on stage of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi Theaters, toured the USA, Great Britain and Japan. 

In the early 2000s, Vishneva danced at the Mariinsky Theater in ballets by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, William Forsythe, Alexei Ratmansky, Angelin Preljocaj, as well as in foreign productions: in The Sleeping Beauty at La Scala and in Don Quixote at the Grand Opera. In 2002, the ballerina became a soloist with the Berlin State Ballet, and from 2005 to 2017 - a guest soloist with the American Ballet Theater, where she managed to perform the long-awaited roles of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake and Raymonda in the ballet of the same name.

In 2013, Vishneva became the first Russian ballerina after Plisetskaya to perform the solo part in the ballet Bolero with the Maurice Béjart company. Vishneva's projects have been staged by such outstanding choreographers as John Neumeier, Alexei Ratmansky, Carolyn Carlson, Moses Pendleton, Dwight Roden and Jean-Christophe Maillot. 

Svetlana Zakharova

After taking part in the Vaganova-Prix competition, a student of the Kiev Choreographic School, Svetlana Zakharova was admitted, at the age of 16, to the Vaganova Academy for the last year, which had never happened before in the history of this educational institution. From 1996 to 2003, Svetlana danced at the Mariinsky Theater both in the classical ballets, such as Giselle, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadere, Don Quixote, and in the contemporary production by great John Neumeier Now and Then. Over the years, she has repeatedly received invitations to become a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Theater. In 2003, she agreed and has been dancing there to this day. At the Bolshoi, Zakharova shone together with Nikolai Tsiskaridze in Neumeier's ballet A Midsummer Night's Dream, was the first performer of the lead parts in many premiere performances of the Bolshoi Theater. In 2008, the prima ballerina signed a parallel contract with La Scala, and soon became an etoile there. During her career, the ballerina has danced Swan Lake, La Bayadère and The Sleeping Beauty on all major stages in the world and in almost all existing versions.  

Ekaterina Kondaurova

A prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater, Ekaterina Kondaurova is known today as a universal dancer. However, at the beginning of her career she was not given a classical repertoire, but modern productions have ensured her worldwide recognition. In 2003, the ballerina was discovered by choreographer William Forsythe - that year the St. Petersburg company gave his ballet In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated in Frankfurt. Soon the ballerina received the lead roles in three of his ballets, which the choreographer staged at the Mariinsky. This secured her the role of a ballerina in modern productions, which ensured a high demand among other iconic choreographers of our time, such as Alexei Ratmansky and Kirill Simonov. 

Kondaurova possesses not only incredible technique, but also a talent for deep dramatic transformation. The audience and critics praised her Anna Karenina in Ratmansky's ballet and Carmen staged by Alonso. 

Today, the prima ballerina shines not only in innovative, but also in academic ballets. Kondaurova toured with the Mariinsky Theater in Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, China and the USA - she is known and loved by foreign audiences.