Spotlight Saturday: Virginia Zucchi

Today's Spotlight Saturday focuses on Italian prima ballerina Virginia Zucchi.

In 'Paquita', c. 1884

Virginia Zucchi was born on 10 February 1849 in Parma, Italy. She trained under Lepri and Carlo Blasis in Milan before making her debut in Varese in 1864, aged 15. She toured around Italy as well as visiting Berlin and Paris. In 1885, at the request of Tsar Alexander III, she appeared for the first time in St. Petersburg in a specially staged production of La Fille Mal Gardee. Her intense popularity following this role led to her being called 'the Divine Zucchi', or 'the Divine Virginia'.

In 'La Fille Mal Gardee', 1885 - note the chicken!

Her popularity was such that at the request of the Tsar, she joined the Imperial Mariinsky Theatres, with which she danced until 1888. She danced in a great many ballets whilst there, including A Trip to the Moon (1885), Padmana in Brahma (1885), Coppelia, The Pharaoh's Daughter (1885), La Fille Mal Gardee (1885), La Esmeralda (1886), and The King's Command, or The Pupils of Dupre (1887), among others. During this time she amazed audiences by performing an entire variation en pointe, still a rare occurrence.

In 'La Esmeralda', 1886

Zucchi inspired the creation of Mir iskusstva, or 'World of Art'. This was a movement of people many of whom would go on to be collaborators in the Ballets Russes, including Leon Baskt, Sergei Diaghilev, and Alexandre Benois. Together they published a journal of the same name. Benois later painted a portrait of Zucchi at the age of 68 in 1917.

Portrait by Fedor Bronnikov, 1889

Despite her popularity, Zucchi disappeared from the stages of the Imperial Theatres in 1888, allegedly banned by the Tsar for an illicit affair with a nobleman. Instead, she danced with her own company in Moscow and St. Petersburg until the late 1890s. She commissioned Cosima Wagner to choreograph the Bacchanal in the opera Tannhauser before its premier in 1891. She also guest-starred with the Paris Opera Ballet. Her last performance was in Nice in 1898.

Unidentified Mariinsky photograph - possibly 'Coppelia'

Zucchi greatly contributed to the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School, and inspired a greater level of precision and technique among its pupils, including future prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinskaya, who credited Zucchi as her inspiration. Her legacy includes the famous La Esmeralda pas de six, created for Zucchi by Marius Petipa in 1886.

Zucchi retired to Monte Carlo, where she opened her own ballet school. She died in Nice on 12 October, 1933.

Statue of Zucchi by Emile Soldi c. 1880

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Charles Didelot.

- Selene

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