Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes Dancers Part 2

Dame Alicia Markova (1910 – 2004)

Markova was born Lilian Alicia Marks on 1 December 1910. Her family lived in a two bedroom flat in the Finsbury Park district of London.  Markova began to dance on medical advice to strengthen her weak limbs and began studying ballet with Princess Serafina Astafieva, a Russian ballerina living in London. Astafieva was a retired dancer of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  She established the Russian Dancing Academy at The Pheasantry on King's Road in Chelsea and was responsible for teaching a number of notable British dancers including, Margot Fonteyn and Anton Dolin.   Markova made her stage debut at the age of 10, performing the role of Salome in the pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat, for which she was billed as Little Alicia, the child Pavlova.

At the age of 13, Markova was observed in class by Diaghilev who was visiting London in search of new talent for his ballet company. He invited her to join the Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo, which she did in 1925, one month after her 14th birthday. Due to her young age, she performed a number of roles which were specially choreographed for her, also performing in a varied repertoire of new and establis hed ballets.  Following the death of Diaghilev in 1929, Markova returned to England where she became the founder Principal Ballerina of The Ballet Club. The Ballet Club was the first professional ballet company in the United Kingdom.  In 1931 Markova joined Sadler Wells theatre in London.  In 1933, Markova was appointed as the first Prima Ballerina of the company, which is now the internationally renowned Royal Ballet.

In 1935, Markova and Dolin left the Sadler Wells ballet to form their own touring company known as the Markova-Dolin Company. The company toured extensively for two seasons.  Later in 1938 Markova joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, touring the world as the company’s star ballerina. The company was the first to tour ballet throughout the United States, taking the art form to audiences who had previously never seen ballet before. During this time, she was also a key figure in the formation of today's American Ballet Theatre, dancing with the company during it's early years and further establishing her reputation as one of the world's most famous ballerinas of all time.

Alicia was the first British dancer to become the Principal Ballerina of a ballet company, the first British dancer to be bestowed the title of Prima Ballerina Assoluta and is widley considered to be one of the greatest classical ballet dancers in history. She was a founder dancer of today's The Royal Ballet and was co-founder of the English National Ballet, a leading European ballet company based in London. In 1950, Markova and Dolin became the co-founders of the Festival Ballet. Anton Dolin was the company’s first Artistic Director, with Markova as Prima Ballerina. Markova remained the Prima ballerina of the company until 1952 after which she continued to appear regularly as a guest dancer until her retirement from professional dancing. In 1989, the Festival Ballet was renamed English National Ballet. Dame Alicia died on 2 December 2004 in a hospital in Bath, Somerset, one day after her 94th birthday.

Lubov Tchernicheva  (1890 - 1976)

Lubov studied at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg with Fokine and later with Enrico Cecchetti. She graduated in 1908, and was asked to join the Maryinsky Theatre.   In 1909, Lubov married the Maryinsky Ballet Regisseur, Serge Grigoriev. Both of them Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company in 1911. Lubov became a principal dancer with Diaghilev and stayed with his company until it folded due to Diaghilev's death in 1929. Lubov garnered  great success dancing Fokine roles of Zobeide, Thamar, and Cleopatra.  She also danced new roles in Leonide Massine's ballets; The Good-Humoured Ladies (1917), La Boutique fantasque (1919), Pulcinella (1920), Zéphire et Flore (1925), and Le Pas d'acier (1927), Nijinska's Les Noces (1923) and Les Fâcheux (1924), and Balanchine's Jack-in-the-Box (1926), The Triumph of Neptune (1926), Apollon musagète (Calliope, 1928), and The Gods Go a-Begging (1928).  In 1926 she was appointed Ballet Mistress to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company.

Three years after Diaghilev's death, in 1932 she and her husband joined Col. de Basil's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.  Lubov was Ballet Mistress.  She remained with the Col. de Basil's company, until it folded in 1952. Lubov came out of retirement to create the title role in Davide Lichine's Francesca da Rimini (1937). In 1952 she settled in England. Thereafter she and her husband staged productions of the Diaghilev repertoire, including Firebird for Sadler's Wells Ballet in 1954 and Petrushka for The Royal Ballet in 1957. She worked as a teacher for both Sadler's Wells Ballet and London Festival Ballet. She made her last stage appearance in 1957 as Juliet's mother in Cranko's Romeo and Juliet.

Olga Alexandrovna Spessivtzeva (1895 - 1991)

Olga was born in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. She was the daughter of an opera singer. After her father's death, she was sent to an orphanage in St. Petersburg with theatrical connections. She entered St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet Academy in 1906, where she was a student of Klavdia Kulichevskaya and later of Agrippina Vaganova. After graduating in 1913, she joined the Mariinsky Theater, where she was promoted to soloist in 1916. An exquisite romantic dancer with perfect technique, ideally suited for roles such as Giselle and Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, she quickly became one of the most admired dancers in the company.

In 1916, Diaghilev invited her to tour with his Ballets Russes in the United States.  Olga  danced with Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose, Les Sylphides and the Bluebird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty. In 1918 she returned to the Mariinsky, and was promoted to ballerina. In 1921, Olga performed with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as Aurora, in his revived The Sleeping Princess in London.  She continued to perform with the Ballets Russes abroad, at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in 1923. With the aid of her ex-husband Boris Kaplun, a Bolshevik functionary and lover of the arts, she left Russia for the last time in 1924, accepting an invitation to dance as an étoile (prima ballerina) at the Paris Opera Ballet, where she remained until 1932.

In 1932 she made another memorable guest appearance in London, dancing Giselle with Anton Dolin. From 1932 to 1937 she toured with a number of companies throughout the world, performing roles from both the classical repertoire and contemporary ballets by choreographers such as Michel Fokine and Bronislava Nijinska.   In 1939, Olga moved to the United States where she taught and served as an advisor to the Ballet Theatre Foundation. She suffered a nervous breakdown in 1943, and she was hospitalized. She remained institutionalized until 1963 when, with the help of her friends Anton Dolin and Felia Doubrovska, she was discharged and settled in Valley Cottage on the Tolstoy Farm.  The Tolstoy Farm is a Russian community run by the Tolstoy Foundation in New York's Rockland County.  It was founded by Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, daughter of the novelist, as a rest home for Russians. Recovered, she lived there in peaceful retirement for nearly three decades, dying at the age of 96.

Mathilde Kschessinska (1872 – 1971)

Mathilde was born in Ligova, Russia. She studied at the St Petersburg Imperial Ballet School with Ivanov, Johansson and Cecchetti. She Graduated into the Mariinsky Theatre in 1890 and was named Prima Ballerina Assoluta in 1895. She was a dancer of brilliant technique, dramatic gifts and great personal charm and beauty. She had close links with the Imperial family and later she married the Grand Duke Andrei, nephew of Tsar Nikolai II.  Mathilde was also known as Her Serene Highness Princess Romanova-Krasinskaya since 1921.

She was the first Russian Aurora and the first Russian dancer to perform the 32 fouettés in Swan Lake. She created Kitri in Gorsky's 1902 production of Don Quixote. She danced mainly in Russia, but also performed with the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1909 and with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1911-12.  After the Russian revolution she left Russia for good and settled on the French Riviera. In 1929 she moved to Paris where she opened a ballet school and taught many famous dancers.

Vera Trefilova (1875-1943)

Vera Trefilova was born in Vladikavkaz in 1875. She studied at the Imperial Ballet School and graduated in 1894.  She joined the Mariinsky Theatre in 1894 and was promoted to soloist in 1901. She became prima ballerina in 1906 at the Maryinsky, known for her 32 fouettés. She was triumphant as Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, but resigned in 1910 due to a rivalry with ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska's. 

In 1917 Vera left Russia during the revolution and opened a school in Paris. In 1921 Diaghilev invited her to dance Princess Aurora in the London performances of his Ballets Russes’ Sleeping Princess.  She alternated the role with Olga Spessivtseva.  She danced Odette-Odile with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1924. She was almost 50 years old, but she still amazed the audience.


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