Pierina Legnani (1863 - 1923)
The title "Prima Ballerina Assoluta" has only been given to two ballerinas at the Maryinsky Theatre. The first was an Italian, Pierina Legnani. Legnani was a great dancer produced by the La Scala School. Like many of her colleagues, she spent the first part of her career touring Europe, England and the United States. Her greatest success came in Russia, when she introduced 32 fouette turns in her performance of CINDERELLA, which she had done the year before in London. She created the role of Odette/Odile in the revival of SWAN LAKE of 1895. She inserted her fouettes and startled the audience. This feat became an integral part of the ballet. In America we can't imagine Odile without the 32 fouettes, although I have seen Russian dancers substitute piques and chaines for the fouettes.
Legnani's retirement in 1901 ended her monopoly of the Russian ballet stage. After retirement, she was for many years an adjudicator of the La Scala examinations. Everyone agreed that, in addition to being a great dancer, she had been a charming and kind person, liked by all.
(First published April 1994, updated 4/23/06)