Spotlight: Pierina Legnani

This week's Spotlight Saturday focuses on an often forgotten legend of the dance world, Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani.

In costume as the White Pearl in Petipa's ballet 'The Pearl', 1896

Legnani was born on 1 October 1868, in Milan, Italy. Not much is known about her personal life, as unlike other ballerinas of the period she was rarely involved in gossip. She began dancing at the age of 7, and after a year of tuition was accepted into the La Scala School in Milan. She trained there for ten years, acting as the understudy for Prima Ballerina Maria Giuri in her final year.

Above: Legnani dressed for Act 1 of 'Raymonda', 1898; Below: Legnani as the Sugar Plum Fairy with partner Sergei Legat as the Nutcracker Prince in 'The Nutcracker'

Legnani had a successful career in Italy at the Teatro alla Scala (La Scala Theatre) before going on to tour Europe and America. She appears as Prima Ballerina at the Alhambra Theatre in London in 1890, in Eugenio Casati's ballet Salandra. She returned to the Teatro alla Scala in 1892 as its Prima Ballerina. Her last appearance in London came in 1893, as the Princess in the ballet Aladdin.

Legnani as the Princess in 'Aladdin', 1893

Not long after, she was invited to St. Petersburg to join the Imperial Ballet. She made her debut on 17 December 1893, in Ivanov and Cecchetti's Cinderella. She stunned audiences with her dramatic acting and incredible technique, but the highlight of the night was her performance of 32 fouettes in the final act. No one had ever performed such a feat before; the audience made her repeat them for her encore. Soon the Russian ballet master and choreographer Marius Petipa made Legnani the first of the only two Prima Ballerina Assolutas of the company - the other being ballerina Mathilde Kchessinskaya.

Legnani dressed for Act 1 of 'Cinderella', 1893

Legnani had an incredibly successful career in Russia. In addition to Cinderella, Petipa revived many of his ballets for her, adding new variations to showcase her technique. She danced Swanhilda in Coppelia (1894), Niriti in Le Talisman (1895), Galatea in Pygmalion (1895), the Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse (1895), Theresa in Cavalry Halt (1896), Medora in Le Corsaire (1899), and Camargo in Les Eleves de Dupre (1900). In addition to these revived ballets, Legnani created the lead roles in new ballets by Petipa, including the White Pearl in The Pearl (1896), Ysaure in Bluebeard (1896), and Raymonda in Raymonda (1898).

In 'Raymonda', 1898

But Legnani's starring role was Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. She was the first to add the now famous 32 fouettes to Odile's variation. Apparently, she kept this so under wraps that when she performed the turns on opening night, her partner Michel Fokine forgot he was on stage and applauded with the audience. The feat is now an internal part of the ballet.

Dressed as Odette in 'Swan Lake', 1895

Legnani retired from the Imperial Ballet in 1901 and left Russia for good. Apparently, this was because she had given up on the escalating yet one-sided rivalry between her and Mathilde Kchessinskaya. For her farewell benefit, she performed Camargo, in which she danced the role of leading 18th century ballerina Marie Camargo. The ballet told the story of how Marie and her sister Madeleine were abducted for one night by the Comte de Mulen. Lev Ivanov revived the choreography and Drigo composed a new pas de deux specifically for Legnani. Her benefit performance is now legendary.

Above: As the White Pearl in 'The Pearl', 1896; Below: As Marie Camargo in 'La Camargo', her benefit performance of 1901

After leaving the Imperial Ballet, Legnani continued to tour Europe, especially Italy, France and London, until 1910. She then retired to her villa at Lake Como in Italy, and served on the examination board of the La Scala Ballet School until four months before her death. Her colleagues were Enrico Cecchetti and Virgina Zucchi.

Above: As Ysaure in 'Bluebeard', 1896, accompanied by partner Sergei Legat as Bluebeard; Below: Legnani and ballerina Olga Preobrajenska in the 'Le jardin anime' section of 'Le Corsaire', 1899 - Legnani as Medora on the left, and Preobrajenska as Gulnare on the left

She died on 15 November 1930, at the age of 62, and is buried in the Cemetery of Pognara Lario at Lake Como.

Legnani's gravestone in Pognara Lario

Thanks for reading! Next week, the Spotlight will be on Rudolf Nureyev.

- Selene

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