Prima Ballerinas of the Mariinsky Theater: 19th Century

Prima Ballerinas of the Mariinsky Theater: 19th Century

The second half of the 19th century in St. Petersburg was the golden era of Marius Petipa's ballet productions. We are going to tell you about the ballerinas who adorned them with their talent and skill.

Ekaterina Vazem (1867-1884)

Ekaterina Vazem was admitted to the Mariinsky Theater in 1867 and immediately made her debut in the title role in the ballet The Naiad and the Fisherman. The ballerina often danced in Saint-Léon's productions, including The Golden Fish that failed and The Little Humpbacked Horse that was much talked of, but it were Petipa's ballets that made her famous. One of the most iconic was the Pharaoh's Daughter ballet, where she performed solo dances in 1870 and a year later danced the title role of Aspicia, the Pharaoh's daughter. Later, she danced the main parts in The Bandits, La Bayadere, The Daughter of the Snows, Zoraya and Paquita. In 1874, Petipa choreographed The Butterfly especially for Vazem. Spectators, critics and colleagues spoke highly of the ballerina's technique, for example, choreographer Carlo Blasis remarked that "one can see correctness and distinctness in her dances", "her pas terre à terre are lively, brilliant, full of extraordinary speed”.

The ballerina received multiple official invitations to the stages of New York and Philadelphia, but not to let the artist go on tours, the theater management began paying her an incredible salary of 6,000 rubles with a three-month vacation.

Virginia Zucchi (1885-1888)

With her arrival at the Mariinsky, Virginia Zucchi opened a short, but significant period of the theater's cooperation with foreign ballerinas. Zucchi was a very technical dancer; at the same time, she was unusually expressive - Stanislavsky admired the ballerina's acting talent. In St. Petersburg, she debuted in the title role of Petipa's monumental ballet The Pharaoh's Daughter. A little later, the ballerina danced Paquita in his production of the same name. The Italian ballerina worked in Russia for only three years, but managed to make a creative impact on the younger generation of ballet dancers, among whom was young Mathilde Kschessinska. 

Later, Kschessinska wrote in her Memoirs: “It seemed to me that I began to understand for the first time how to dance to have the right to be called an artist. Zucchi had amazing facial expressions. She added an extraordinary charm, an amazing beauty to all the movements of classical dance winning over the audience. I came to life immediately and understood what I should strive for, what kind of artist I should be."

Mathilde Kschessinska (1890-1917)

At the St. Petersburg Theater School, Mathilde Kschessinska was taught by Ekaterina Vazem, who by that time had become a very strict and demanding teacher. Her final exam was visited by Tsar Alexander III, who gave the young dancer a little guidance: “Be the decoration and glory of our ballet!”  The ballerina delivered upon the expectations pinned on her - in 6 years of work with the Mariinsky Theater, she became a prima ballerina and danced all the title roles, most of them in Petipa's ballets. Her success was in no way promoted by her connections to the Imperial Court, which topic is underlying Alexei Uchitel's movie Matilda made in 2017, but by her incredible working capacity. She spent hours at the barre and took lessons from Enrico Cecchetti to deprive Italian stars of leadership and be the first Russian ballerina to do 32 fouettés. Kschessinska developed a unique style combining virtuosity of the Italian and lyricism of the Russian ballet schools.

Her final exam was visited by Tsar Alexander III, who gave the young dancer a little guidance: “Be the decoration and glory of our ballet!”

Pierina Legnani (1893-1901)

In 1893, the leading soloist of La Scala, Pierina Legnani, came to St. Petersburg. By that time, the ballerina had already conquered the European audience with her virtuosity - she possessed a strong toe technique, easily performed triple pirouettes and the number of fouettés that the Russian stage had never seen. At the same time, Legnani accepted invitations to work with the Mariinsky Theater not just to gain recognition of the Russian audience, but also to learn from strong teachers - Legate and Loganson. In her first year at the Mariinsky, the ballerina danced Cendrillon in the Cinderella ballet, showing the audience no less than 28 fouettés, which made a real splash. At that time, Petipa and Ivanov were working on Swan Lake, and Legnani was approved for the part of Odette-Odile. The ballet premiered in 1895. In the third act, dancing Odile, the ballerina repeated her famous fouettés, but if this was expected of her, the poetry of her Odette became a revelation - it turned out that the virtuoso dancer was able to subordinate her flamboyancy to the deep feeling.

In 1901, Pierina Legnani completed her career on the Russian stage with the Camargo ballet. In the history of ballet she remained as the last foreign ballerina to perform at the Imperial Theater.

We’ve told you about the 19th century ballerinas, who danced at the Mariinsky Theater, but there were other prima ballerinas, for example, Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa and Marfa Muravyova, who shone on stage of the Imperial Theaters of St. Petersburg, and we will definitely talk about them later.