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Spotlight: Mathilde Kschessinskaya

This week's Spotlight Saturday focuses on the Russian ballerina Mathilde Kschessinskaya.

In costume as Camargo in 'La Camargo'

Mathilda-Marie Feliksovna Kschessinskaya was born on 31 August 1872, near Peterhof, Russia. She was part of a Polish family who had traditionally danced in St. Petersburg for decades. Her father, Feliks Krzesinski, and her brother continued that tradition, and Mathilde followed suit.

In costume as Princess Aspicia in the under-water scene of 'The Pharaoh's Daughter'

She made her debut with the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg in a pas de deux from the ballet La Fille Mal Gardee, at a graduation performance in 1890 attended by the royal family. After the performance, the Emperor, Tsar Alexander III, sought out Kschessinskaya and pronounced her to be 'the glory and adornment of our ballet'.

In 1896, she was given the title of Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, one previously given only to the Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani. The ballet master, Marius Petipa, did not approve the title and Mathilde only obtained it through her influence in the Russian Imperial court.

In costume as the shade of Mlada in 'Mlada'

Petipa also restricted the roles Mathilde created in new works, due to his preference for Legnani as the superior dancer. Mathilde's friends at the Imperial court could do nothing about this, as even the Emperor himself refused to interfere with Petipa's casting. Her few new roles included Flora in The Awakening of Flora (1894) and Columbine in Harlequinade (1900).

In costume as Flora in 'Le Reveil de Flore/The Awakening of Flora'

This was partly because despite his acknowledgement of Mathilde's dancing ability - she became the first Russian ballerina to master Legnani's 32 fouettes - he despised her character, referring to her as 'that nasty little swine' in his diaries. Once Legnani retired, however, Petipa cast Mathilde in a number of revivals of his ballets, including the shade of Mlada in Mlada (1896), Queen Nisia in Le Roi Candaule (1897), Thetis in Les Aventures de Pelee (1897), Aspicia in The Pharaoh's Daughter (1898), Esmeralda in La Esmeralda (1899), and Nikiya in La Bayadere (1900). In revising these roles to reflect Mathilde's technical ability, Petipa made them notoriously difficult for other dancers.

In costume as Princess Aspicia in 'The Pharaoh's Daughter'

Mathilde was also notoriously difficult to work with. She once forced the resignation of the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Prince Serge Wolkonsky, when she refused to wear 18th century panniers for a performance of the ballet La Camargo. It is likely that Mathilde's one-sided feud with Pierina Legnani eventually forced Legnani's retirement.

In costume for 'La Camargo'

In addition, Mathilde was involved in numerous affairs and scandals. She had a three year affair with the future Tsar, Nicholas II, from 1890 until his marriage to the future Empress Alexandra in 1894. She later had affairs with two of Nicholas's cousins, the Grand Dukes Sergei Mikhailovich and Andrei Vladimirovich. She had a son in 1902, named Vladimir and styled H.S.H Prince Romanovsky-Krasinsky. He later commented that he never knew for sure who his father was.

Her relationships with her colleagues differed dramatically. Having already driven out Legnani, she was kind to the young Tamara Karsavina, but ruthless to others. While pregnant in 1902, she coached a young Anna Pavlova in her role of Nikiya in La Bayadere, believing that Pavlova was too technically weak to upstage her. However, the audience became enthralled with Pavlova's ethereal quality, one of Mathilde's biggest miscalculations. In 1906, jealous of Olga Preobrajenska who had been given the coveted role of Lise in La Fille Mal Gardee, Mathilde opened the doors to the chickens' coops that were used during the first act. At the first note of Preobrajenska's variation music, the chickens wildly flew about the stage. Nevertheless, Preobrajenska finished her variation and received a storm of applause, much to Mathilde's anger.

In either 'Le Talisman' or 'Paquita'

Mathilde owned much property through her aristocratic connections, and it was from her balcony that Vladimir Lenin addressed the crowd on his return to Russia in 1917. Following the Russian Revolution, Mathilde fled to France, settling in Paris. In 1921, she married Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich, the possible father of her son Vladimir. In 1925, she converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Maria.

In costume as Princess Aspicia in 'The Pharaoh's Daughter'

In 1929, she opened a school in Paris, where she taught such stars as Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova, Andre Eglevsky, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Tamara Toumanova, and Maurice Bejart. She made her last appearance at the age of 64, for a charity event with the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden. She published an autobiography entitled Dancing in St. Petersburg: The Memoirs of Kschessinska in 1960, and despite suffering financial difficulties in her later years remained indomitable.

She died on 6 December 1971, eight months short of her 100th birthday, and is buried in the Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois Russian cemetery in Paris.

In costume as Esmeralda in 'La Esmeralda'

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Olga Preobrajenska.

- Selene

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