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

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

Today, we are going to supplement the brilliant gallery of St. Petersburg ballerinas with three artists who left their imprint on the art and received world recognition during their lifetime.

Tamara Karsavina

The future ‘Firebird of the Russian Ballet’ was born in St. Petersburg into a family of a dancer of the imperial ballet company. Her stage journey - from corps de ballet to world recognition - began in 1902 after graduating from school. 

Karsavina debuted in the pas de deux The Pearl and the Fisherman of the ballet Javotte. Two years later, she was promoted to the second dancer. In another two years, she performed the role of the Tsar Maiden in the ballet The Little Humpbacked Horse and a year later moved up to the category of the first dancers. Tamara Karsavina became the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater in 1910. And the phase of the leading classical roles in such productions as Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake began. 

At the same time, the promising ballerina was noticed by choreographer Mikhail Fokine. However, at first Karsavina performed secondary roles in his productions, while Anna Pavlova was shining in the foreground. Subsequently, Tamara Karsavina also joined the tours of the Diaghilev company, and this period revealed the ballerina's performing talent in a new way. She performed leading roles in Fokine's ballets The Firebird, The Spirit of the Rose, Carnaval, Petrushka, and appeared on stage in productions by Leonide Massine (The Three-Cornered Hat, The Good-Humoured Ladies). Karsavina herself singled out the part of the Queen of Shemakha from the ballet The Golden Cockerel, calling the production “Fokine's masterpiece”.

Ballet dancer and director Sergei Grigoriev, who saw Tamara Karsavina on stage in Diaghilev's Russian Ballet, recalled: 

“Karsavina as the Firebird was incomparable... No doubt, this role was created for her perfectly.”

Galina Ulanova

Her name is rightfully one of the first in the succession of symbols of the Soviet   ballet. Galina Ulanova was born in 1909 into an artistic family. Her father performed at the Mariinsky Theater and worked with Marius Petipa; her mother taught at the choreographic school and later at the Kirov Theater. At the age of nine, Galina entered the Petrograd Theater School, which now bears the name of Vaganova. At the graduation performance in 1928, she danced the waltz and mazurka in Chopiniana, the pas de deux from Harlequinade and the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker. In the same year, she made her debut on the Mariinsky stage: the first role that Ulanova performed was Florina in The Sleeping Beauty ballet. And the “big” ballet parts began immediately after the role of Odette in Swan Lake. During 1930-1940, the ballerina portrayed on stage Raymonda, the Tsar Maiden, Aurora, Giselle and Marie (The Nutcracker). Especially for Ulanova, the performances of The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and Romeo and Juliet were staged: these parts were also considered the pinnacle of the ballerina's skill. 

From 1944 to 1960, Galina Ulanova was a soloist of the Bolshoi Theater. Both in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as on the ballet stages around the world, she created her own unique image, a recognizable style. Composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote about the dancer:

“She is the genius of Russian ballet, its elusive soul, its inspired poetry. In the classical parts, Ulanova is full of expressiveness, unprecedented in the ballet of the twentieth century... "

Even during her lifetime, Galina Ulanova was a cult figure both for the ballet connoisseurs in different countries and professionals - Plisetskaya admired her!

Natalia Dudinskaya

She was born in 1912 in Kharkov into a family of a ballet dancer and a general. Her mother, who performed on stage under the name of Tagliori, gave her the first lessons in classical dance in her own ballet studio. In 1923, Dudinskaya entered the Leningrad Choreographic School and began her stage career at the Mariinsky Theater right after the graduation in 1931. 

A year later, she danced the part of Princess Florine in The Sleeping Beauty and made her debut as Giselle (Giselle) and Odette-Odile (Swan Lake). In subsequent years, leading classical roles followed one after another. Ballet professionals and connoisseurs of that era often praised Dudinskaya's outstanding technical capabilities. However, there were successful dramatic findings in her career too. One of them was the role of Coralie in Boris Asafiev's 1936 production of Lost Illusions. 

The ballerina was dancing on stage of the theater for almost 30 years. During the war, Natalia Mikhailovna continued to perform: in addition to theater venues, she danced in hospitals, orphanages and factories, as well as took part at front-line concerts. Since 1951, Dudinskaya was combining performing and teaching. Over the years, she shared her skills with the artists of the Kirov Opera and Ballet Theater and students of the Vaganova  Choreographic School in Leningrad, taught at foreign choreographic schools. One of her students, the ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater Irina Zhelonkina, recalled the teacher as follows: 

“... there are no little things in our profession, and Natalia Mikhailovna understood this well. She believed that technique is paramount and the choreographic text must be performed accurately and correctly, achieving the ideal shape.

Natalia Dudinskaya lived a long life, shone on stage for decades and devoted decades to teaching. And her duet with ballet dancer Konstantin Sergeev became not only the brightest manifestation of pair ballet art, but also a strong union of two creative personalities.