Prima Ballerinas of the Mariinsky Theater: the 20th Century, Chapter I

Prima Ballerinas of the Mariinsky Theater: the 20th Century, Chapter I

The renowned talented ballerinas of the St. Petersburg school continue the gallery of the brightest representatives of the "Golden Age" of Russian ballet.  Who did the audience applaud in the first half of the 1900s?

Mathilde Kschessinska

The ballerina was born into a theatrical family: her parents were artists with the Mariinsky Theater. The creative dynasty included Mathilde's grandfather, a musician and dancer, her sister-ballerina and brother-choreographer. In 1880, the girl entered the Imperial Theater School and a year later first appeared on stage of the Mariinsky Theater. In 1890, the graduate Kschessinska joined the ballet company of the theater.

The ballerina danced on the imperial stage until 1917: among her roles were the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, Paquita in the ballet of the same name, Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, Nikiya in La Bayadère, Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Mathilde Kschessinska honed her technical skills under the guidance of the Italian teacher Enrico Cecchetti. This work resulted in a personal record: the ballerina was the first Russian dancer to perform 32 fouettés on stage. 

She received the status of a prima ballerina in the 19th century (1896), and retired from the theater in 1904, but the gallery of brilliant prima ballerinas of the Mariinsky Theater wouldn’t be complete without the name of Mathilde Kschessinska. 

Anna Pavlova 

She was born in St. Petersburg in 1881 into a family of a retired soldier of the Preobrazhensky Regiment. The girl got a dream of becoming a ballerina after she had seen The Sleeping Beauty production; and at the age of 10 Anna entered the Imperial Theater School. In 1899, Pavlova joined the Mariinsky Ballet company and made her debut dancing the major "playbill" parts from the very beginning. For the first time she took the stage in the production La Fille mal gardée, in which she performed the pas de trois. Pavlova's next roles were Zulma in Giselle, Diana in Le Roi Candaule, pas de trois and Snow Variation in Camargo, Candide Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty.

In 1902, she performed the first solo role in her career - the part of Nikiya in La Bayadère. Then, the main characters performed by Anna Pavlova went one after another: Paquita (Paquita, 1904) was followed by Kitri (Don Quixote, 1905) and Odette-Odile (Swan Lake, 1909). 

Anna Pavlova’s stage persona was revealed especially subtly during her work with choreographers Alexander Gorsky and Mikhail Fokine. It was Fokine who staged the choreographic miniature The Swan for Pavlova, that, after being performed in 1907, became one of the symbols of Russian ballet and stayed in the art under the name The Dying Swan. 

The most important period in the stage life of the ballerina was associated with the Diaghilev Seasons. After the premiere of Le Pavillon d'Armide in 1909, the ballet dancer and director Serge Grigoriev wrote in his book The Diaghilev Ballet:

“Anna Pavlova was at her best. She embodied the very essence of the romantic, airy, unearthly, was the personification of a sylph…”

Olga Preobrazhenskaya

Another Petersburger who appeared on stage of the Mariinsky Theater after the Imperial Theater School. The very opportunity to study with the best ballet teachers turned out to be a unique chance for the girl, and she didn’t miss it. As a child, Olga was fragile and, due to her poor health and sickly physique, was denied admission to the school three times. However, the girl loved to dance, and her perseverance won out. Already at the school, it became clear that Preobrazhenskaya had amazing turnout and plastique, along with musicality. Later, the ballerina recalled that she made that weak girl “iron” herself. 

After graduation, Preobrazhenskaya immediately became the main stage competitor of Mathilde Kschessinska. Among the main roles performed by the dancer, we’d like to mention the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, Gulnara in Le Corsaire, Lise in La Fille mal gardée, as well as the canonical parts of Giselle, Odette-Odile, Raymonda, Aurora. The stage repertoire of Preobrazhenskaya was really extensive.

The Mariinsky prima ballerina status, received in 1900, was preceded by successful foreign tours. At the turn of the century, Olga Preobrazhenskaya appeared on stage at La Scala and other theaters in Europe and South America. 

She left the stage in 1920, the dance period was followed by a teaching phase lasting 40 years.