Mathilde Kschessinska (1872-1971)

I said in an earlier Newsletter that the rank of prima ballerina assoluta had been given to only two ballerinas. Pierina Legnani, from Italy (1901) was the first to achieve this honor, and the second was Mathilde Kschessinska. She like her father, brother, and sister were all members of the Maryinsky company.

Mathilde was one of the first Russian dancers to challenge the visiting Italian, at the end of the nineteenth century. She danced Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty" and the Sugar Plum Fairy in "Nutcracker." She was most famous as a demi-caractere dancer and her favorite role was "Esmeralda" in the ballet of the same name.

Kschessinska rise to fame took five years to accomplish. She joined the Maryinsky in 1890, became ballerina in 1892, prima ballerina in 1893, and in 1895 was appointed prima ballerina assoluta.

After Legnani amazed the audiences with her 32 fouettes, the native ballerinas struggled to discover her secret. Kschessinska learned that by spotting her head, she could keep her balance and finally, conquer the fouettes. It is said that she fixed her eyes on the medals decorating the chest of a baron who occupied the same seat every night and never missed a performance.

Mathilde, a great beauty, was first the mistress of Tzar Nicolas II, and later the morganatic wife (a Morganatic wife is not of royal blood and can not acquire the rank of her husband, and her children are not in line to succeed to the title) of his cousin, the Grand Duke Andrei (who she married in Paris in 1921). Her elegant house became famous-- from its balcony Lenin addressed the crowds when he returned to Russia from exile to take power in 1917.

Kschessinaka also danced with Ballets Russes in 1911, but most of her dancing was in Russia. In 1920 she left her homeland for Paris, and in 1929 opened a school. When she was 64 she performed for a charity event at London's Covent Garden Opera House. Many of her students went on to become the great dancers of a new generation.

(First published July 1994)

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