Prima Ballerinas of the Bolshoi Theater: 19th century

Prima Ballerinas of the Bolshoi Theater: 19th century

The stage demands not only outstanding talent from an artist. Work and dedication are behind every success story - this is what allows you to win over the stage and the audience. Every story is unique and instructive.

In this article, we will introduce you to those who conquered the main ballet stage in this country - the prima ballerinas of the Bolshoi Theater.

Praskovya Lebedeva (1839-1917)

Praskovya Lebedeva debuted at the Bolshoi Theater in 1854, when she was 15 years old. The ballerina danced the title role in the ballet Gitana, a Spanish Gypsy. Three years later, the dancer became the principal ballerina of the major theater in Moscow. She danced Giselle, Esmeralda, Paquita and other leading parts, went on tours to St. Petersburg on a regular basis.

Throughout her dance career, Lebedeva never stopped improving: she took additional lessons from such teachers as Ioganson, Hugue, Blazis, Saint-Leon. Her technique was impeccable for those times, but most of all viewers and critics appreciated her acting talent. There were people who believed that such expressiveness was excessive for ballet, but most adored Lebedeva for her dramatic presentation.

Anna Sobeshchanskaya (1842-1918)

Anna Sobeschanskaya danced her first title roles in the Bolshoi Theater ballets while still a student of the Moscow Theater School, her teacher was the Italian choreographer Karl Blazis. After graduation in 1862, the dancer finally established herself in the position of a prima ballerina. For 20 long years, she served at the Bolshoi Theater, although her annual salary of 600 rubles was considered very modest for a performer of title parts. For comparison: the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater Yekaterina Vazem was paid over 6,000 rubles a year at the same time.

However, this didn’t prevent Sobeshchanskaya from behaving like a star, which is well illustrated by the story of her conflict with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The ballerina refused the part of Odette-Odile in the first production of Swan Lake, because the composer didn’t write a single solo number for her in the third act. As a result, Sobeschanskaya was replaced by a less experienced dancer. The parties reconciled only when the prima nevertheless achieved her goal - Tchaikovsky wrote the music for her solo dances in the third act and Petipa choreographed them. The new numbers were literally owned by Sobeschanskaya and other performers of the role of Odette were not allowed to dance them.

Polina Karpakova (1845-1920)

Polina (Pelageya) Karpakova was born into a family of artists of the Imperial Ballet Company and, according to family tradition, connected her life with ballet. Among the performers of the leading parts, she was distinguished by her specific plastique shapes, tenderness and fluidity. The ballerina was very popular with the audience, and her career could have been brilliant, but not everything went smoothly. It was Karpakova who was that inexperienced ballerina replacing Sobeschanskaya in Swan Lake. And since the first production was recognized as unsuccessful for various reasons, this cast a shadow on the reputation of the dancer herself. 

Lydia Geiten (1857-1920)

Like many other ballet dancers of that time, Lydia Geiten graduated from the Moscow Theater School, class of classical dance by Gustav Legat. On stage of the Bolshoi Theater, she was noticed as a child: Lydia played the role of a scullion in Don Quixote. Soon, the future soloist was approved for the main roles in the ballets Trilby, Esmeralda and Katharina, the Robber's Daughter.

In 20 years, Lydia Geiten danced almost all the leading female parts. Her performance technique was rated by many critics as virtuoso. Geiten's loyalty to the Moscow ballet school didn’t allow her to move to the theaters of St. Petersburg after the downsizing of the Bolshoi Theater troupe in 1883.

Lyubov Roslavleva (1974-1904)

Lyubov Roslavleva came from a noble family and was the wife of the actor and theater director Prov Sadovsky. One of the teachers of the future prima ballerina at the theater school was the Spanish choreographer Jose Mendes.

In 1892, the talented graduate was admitted to the Bolshoi ballet company, where she quickly got the leading parts in performances. Thanks to the acting plastique of the ballerina, all her heroines looked completely different on stage.

Roslavleva became the first ballerina in Moscow to perform the part of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty ballet, which appeared on stage of the Bolshoi Theater 9 years after the premiere at the Mariinsky.

The ballerina amazed the audience with her diagonal fouettes, which even Pierina Legnani couldn’t do, although it was she who first did 32 fouettes.