Saturday, April 14, 2012

Five Prima Ballerina Assolutas Who Influenced the Art of Dance

The word ballerina describes the female dancer who occupies the top position in a ballet company. Historically, attempts to rate the best of these soloists has created the rank of prima ballerina, which means the first dancer in Italian. It is believed that less than 100 ballerinas have achieved this rank.

There’s even a higher title, 'Prima Ballerina Assoluta'(absolute first dancer), which has been bestowed only upon a dozen performers. It is unclear who has the authority to award this title, which is more recognition than official rank, and why Anna Pavlova, still regarded by many as the most famous ballerina ever, is not among the 11 ‘assolutas.’ The 5 names selected here are all legendary artists. Their selection is not intended as a “top 5” list, but my personal choice of the greatest, most influential ballerinas in history.

List of Prima Ballerina Assolutas in Chronological Order

Pierina Legnani - Imperial Russia, 1893

Mathilde Kschessinska - Imperial Russia, 1906

Alicia Markova - United Kingdom, 1933

Galina Ulanova - USSR, 1944

Alicia Alonso - Cuba, 1959

Maya Plisetskaya - USSR, 1960

Eva Evdokimova - USA, 1976

Margot Fonteyn - United Kingdom, 1979

Anneli Alhanko - Sweden, 1984

Phyllis Spira - South Africa, 1984

Alessandra Ferri - Italy, 1992

My List of the 5 Most Influencial

Anna Pavlova(1881 – 1931)  Although not an Assoluta, Anna was the first great ballerina of the Russian school of classical ballet and the first worldwide star. Born in St. Petersburg, she studied at the Imperial Ballet School, making her debut in 1899.  She became Mariinsky Theatre’s prima ballerina in 1906 and the following year made her first tour abroad. In 1908, Pavlova danced briefly with Diaghilev’s itinerant Ballets Russes. In 1911, she moved to London, where she lived the rest of her life.

Pavlova started her own company and toured extensively on all continents. Before air transportation was available, she was seen by millions in Brazil, Australia, China, Japan, India, South Africa, Egypt or the United States (five tours). She died of pleurisy three weeks before turning 50 while on tour in The Hague, Netherlands. Pavlova changed the perception on how a ballerina should look — from the strong, muscular, compact body popular at the turn of the century, to the delicate, frail look required by romantic roles like Giselle. Her masterpiece, The Dying Swan brought audiences to tears everywhere.

Anna Performing The Swan(Starting at 1:18 in the video)

Galina Ulanova(1910 – 1998)  is regarded as one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. Composer Sergey Prokofiev called her “the genius of Russian ballet, its elusive soul, its inspired poetry.” Dame Margot Fonteyn said, “Ulanova's dancing is so marvellous, I am left speechless. It is magic.” Rudolf Nureyev described her as ‘the world's Number One ballerina,’ and Maya Plisetskaya, perhaps her equal, raved, ‘She was an angel and she danced like one.’
Ulanova was born in St. Petersburg and she studied there under renowned teacher Aggripina Vaganova. In 1928, she joined the Mariinsky Theater. An intellectual, a perfectionist and a wonderful actor inspired by the great Constantin Stanislavsky (of the Method school of acting fame), Ulanova created ravishing, complex performances that made one British critic claim: ‘My memories of Ulanova are, to me, a part of life itself, bringing a total enrichment of experience. To me, hers are not theatrical miracles but triumphs of human spirit. She is so completely identified with the character she impersonates that nothing outside exists.’ Brought by Stalin to the Bolshoi in 1944, Ulanova danced until 1962. Because of World War II, then the Cold War, the West couldn’t see Ulanova in her prime. She was 46 when she performed in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in London, receiving, according to the British press, ‘the greatest triumph of any individual dancer since Pavlova.’

Dame Margot Fonteyn de Arias DBE (1919 – 1991), née Margaret Hookham, had a career that spanned over 40 years, highly unusual for a ballerina. The reason could be a late heavenly onstage partnership with Soviet defector Nureyev, which created perhaps the most famous couple in the history of ballet, or the cost of the medical bills for her quadriplegic husband, a Panamanian diplomat shot by a political rival.

Fonteyn (stage name changed from Fontes, her mother’s father name) joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, the precursor of the Royal Ballet School, at 14, studying with Ninette de Valois, the ‘godmother’ of English ballet. At 20, she was already a prima ballerina, with principal roles in ‘Giselle,’ ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘The Sleeping Beauty’. Her performances with the Royal Ballet during the 1949 tour made her a star in the US. Fonteyn, then 30 years old, stunned the audience in the Metropolitan Opera House with her performance as Princess Aurora in ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ her most memorable classical portrayal, wrote the New York Times.

Margot is known worldwide as the greatest ballerina ever. Others have had better technical skill, but Margot had amazing timing, precision and a quality that cannot be taught - presence. atching her, you can notice the way she becomes the role, not just dances it and the joy of performing.

Cinderella, 1953. Watch as she magically appears to float across the room at 1:15 in the video.

Knighted in 1956, Fonteyn was 43 when she first danced with Nureyev in 1962, who was 24. Instead of retiring, as people expected, she made the second part of her career a smashing international triumph. The onstage chemistry and ‘almost tangible sexual tension’ between the two produced memorable performances of ‘Marguerite and Armand,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘Les Sylphides,’ which inspired repeated curtain calls and bouquet tosses and resulted in critical acclaim and box office success. She retired as the grand dame of British Ballet, its greatest homegrown superstar.

Alicia Alonso (1920)  is a Cuban ballerina highly regarded for her convincing portrayals of leading roles in the great works of classical and Romantic ballet. She was best known for her lively, precise ‘Giselle’ and for her sensual, tragic ‘Carmen.’ Alonso is a miracle not just for her exceptional qualities as a ballerina, but because she was practically blind throughout almost her entire career, the result of a detached retina. Born in Havana, she took flamenco lessons in early childhood in Spain, then started ballet at eight with Sophie Fedorova, a former dancer with the Bolshoi and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Married early to a fellow ballet student, she moved to New York where she trained at the School of American Ballet and took private classes with Alexandra Fedorova. She danced with George Balanchine's company and the American Ballet Theatre, then toured as a guest dancer forming a great partnership with Igor Youskevitch. In 1948 she founded the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company in Cuba, which was renamed Ballet de Cuba in 1955, then National Ballet of Cuba in 1959, after Fidel Castro took power.

In the late 1950s Alonso was the first ballerina from the West to dance with the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets in Moscow and St. Petersburg (Leningrad). She did not perform again in the US until 1975, when she was still in exceptional shape. In 2002 the United Nations Educational,, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named her Goodwill Ambassador for ‘outstanding contribution to the development, preservation and popularization of classical dance.’

Maya Plisetskaya (1925)  is a name that belongs in any discussion about ballet’s ‘greatest ever.’ Intelligent, charismatic, seemingly eternally young, unique in the surreal fluidity of her arms and the height of her jumps, Plisetskaya is a megastar that shone with unequaled brightness, grace and durability in ballet’s galaxy.  Russian critic Anatoly Korolev called her ‘the true queen of the Bolshoi’ who brought her Latin sensuality to the cool, rational, classical style of the prestigious company. That’s no small praise because, remember, she took over the Bolshoi stage that Ulanova had owned for 16 years.

Plisetskaya’s signature part was ‘The Dying Swan,’ created in 1905 for Pavlova by Michel Fokine to music by Camille Saint-Saens. Plisetskaya danced this role more than 20,000 times in 50 years. Watching her on, a viewer exclaimed with more eloquence than any critic: "she’s the only dancer who has wings, not arms!"

Plisetskaya was born in Moscow in a Jewish family with theatrical and ballet heritage on her mother’s side. Maya was 9 when she entered the Bolshoi Ballet School, 12 when her father was arrested and executed, victim of Stalin’s purges, and her mother was sent to a gulag in Kazakhstan. Adopted by an aunt, Plisetskaya returned illegally to Moscow to continue her studies,and, in 1943, joined the Bolshoi, where she rehearsed some roles with the great Vaganova.

Because of her background, Plisetskaya wasn’t allowed to travel abroad when the Bolshoi went to London in 1956, or Japan and Argentina in 1957. Apparently she was cleared to travel to the West after Aleksandr Shelepin replaced Ivan Serov as KGB chief, and she became instantly an international star when Sol Hurok brought the Bolshoi, with Plisetskaya, to the US for the first time in 1959. The year before she had married composer Rodion Schedrin, with whom she worked on several productions beginning in 1967. The rest of her career is a triumphal march — she received all the honors, at home and abroad, an artist can get. At 87, she remains one of ballet’s biggest names.

Maya as The Dying Swan, age 61 This performance is more physically and emotionally taxing than almost any other to me. Not only do you have to remain n pointe, but express yourself as a swan who is living her final minutes. Maya captures that beautifully, 2nd only to Pavlova in my opinion.


  1. This is a great list! I learned some things I didn't know reading it! Thanks for posting....

  2. awesome facts! where did u learn this

  3. Learned some new things. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Yes. I would say they are the big five. Legnani is the only other one I would include.

  5. Thank you for this interesting and informative write up! Fond memories of seeing the video of Maya Plisetskaya. I was in my teens when I saw her dance Swan Lake and was mesmerized then as I am now seeing this video.
    Thank you!

  6. Long shot, my great great grandmother, I wa told was a prima ballerina, her married name was margot or marguerite horwitz, and her maiden name was wind, can't find out any info about her, 1912 maybe or later, any info would be deeply appreciated

  7. Great post, always lovely to see recognition for Alicia Alonso! I would also add Paris Opera Ballet's Yvette Chauvire to the list, here's a video of her coaching a young Sylvie Guillem: An exemplary exponent of that effortless French style!


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