Mathilde Kschessinska: A Jewel of Russian Ballet

Mathilde Kschessinska: A Jewel of Russian Ballet

A virtuoso dancer, the first Russian ballerina to perform 32 fouettés, a talented teacher and an emigrant - we are talking about the creative life of a ballet star.

Ballet childhood

Mathilde Kschessinska was born on 31 August 1872 into a family of ballet dancers from the Mariinsky Theater. Malya (this was a term of endearment they called Mathilde at home), her brother Joseph and sister Julia entered the Imperial Theater School, and, unlike many other students, the children didn’t live in the boarding school, but only came to classes. 

Ekaterina Vazem, Lev Ivanov and Christian Johansson were Malya’s teachers. At the age of 9, after only a year of training, Mathilde made her debut in the ballet Don Quixote. By her senior years, Kschessinska began to lose enthusiasm, but the dance of the virtuoso Italian Virginia Zucchi inflamed the young dancer's passion for ballet. Kschessinska recalled: 

“I felt that I was beginning to understand, for the first time, how one should dance in order to deserve the title of a great dancer. The inspiration was like a crack of the whip and I understood what I should now try to attain.

At the final exam, Mathilde brilliantly repeated Zucchi’s dance from the ballet A Vain Precaution, which attracted the attention of the tsar. Alexander III invited her to the imperial table and said: “Be the glory and the adornment of our ballet!” This early recognition and the responsibility entrusted to Kschessinska determined her ambition, vanity and self-exactingness for many years: 

“To be worthy of the Emperor's confidence, such would henceforward be my task, a task to which I determined to devote all my power.

The Mariinsky Theater

In her first year with the Mariinsky Theater, Mathilde danced in 22 ballets and 21 operas. In 1892, the dancer, "light as a butterfly", debuted in the lead role in The Sleeping Beauty ballet by Marius Petipa. Since then, the great choreographer was staging productions specifically for Kschessinska. 

Her competitors were the Italian prima ballerinas Emma Besson and Pierina Legnani, who were distinguished by the highest dance technique. Kschessinska was not used to giving in, so she took private lessons from the choreographer Enrico Cecchetti. She was the first Russian dancer to perform 32 fouettés on stage. Petipa altered the choreography of his ballets for the prima ballerina, taking into account her strong technique. 

In 1900, after only ten years of work in the theater, the prima ballerina had a special benefit performance, although, according to tradition, dancers could have such concerts only after 20 years of service. On this occasion, Petipa staged the ballets Harlequinade and The Seasons for Kschessinska. At the gala dinner on the occasion of the benefit performance, the ballerina met the cousin of Nicholas II, Prince Andrei Vladimirovich, and two years later gave birth to his son, Vladimir. Mathilde returned to the stage two months after giving birth. 

The entire theatrical repertoire was built up to fit Kschessinska, she "owned" about half of the best ballets - she decided who could replace her in her own roles. Power, unprecedented for a ballerina, allowed Kschessinska to get the roles of Legnani in The Little Humpbacked Horse and Camargo, forcing the theater management not to renew the contract with the Italian dancer. Eventually, the influential prima ballerina stopped the practice of inviting foreign women to the company. 

At that time, great changes in the art of dance were about to happen. New talents arrived - Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, as well as ballet revolutionaries: Diaghilev and Fokine. The ambitious Kschessinska didn’t give up here either - she mastered Fokine's uncharacteristic, spiritualized, non-academic choreography. The prima ballerina took part in his productions of Eunice, Butterflies and Eros. 

Contract job

In 1904, after another benefit performance, the ballerina resigned willingly and switched to contract jobs for unprecedentedly high fees.

In 1911, already a mature dancer, Kschessinska performed in Russian Seasons in London, where she danced solo in Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Carnival. On the part of Diaghilev, this was a diplomatic invitation, he hoped to make contact with St. Petersburg, to get a reprieve from army service for Nijinsky, and Mathilde was interested in making acquaintances with the European nobility. In 1912, the ballerina joined the enterprise again, this time in Vienna and Monte Carlo.

In 1917, the prima ballerina performed in Russia for the last time - she danced her favorite number Russian on stage of the Petrograd Conservatory. 


After the Revolution, the mansion of the richest Russian ballerina was captured by the Bolsheviks, and she, together with Andrei Vladimirovich and their son, settled in Provence, where, after the registration of marriage, she received the title of Princess Romanovskaya. 

For many years, Kschessinska taught at her own ballet studio in Paris, where the future stars of English and French ballet - Margot Fonteyn, Yvette Chauviré, Pamela May - studied. 

On December 6, 1971, the great Russian prima ballerina died far from her homeland. She passed just a few months before her centenary.