Spotlight: Galina Ulanova

This week's Spotlight Saturday features Soviet ballerina Galina Ulanova.

Galina Ulanova as Juliet in 'Romeo and Juliet' (Bolshoi)

Galina Sergeyevna Ulanova was born January 8, 1910, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father, Sergei Ulanov, was artist-regnisseur, and her mother, Maria Romanova, was a soloist - she toured with Anna Pavlova in 1911 - and teacher with the Imperial Mariinsky Ballet, and later the Leningrad Ballet School. At first Ulanova rebelled against the thought of following her parents' footsteps, but changed her mind after the 1917 Russian Revolution. She was put into the Leningrad Ballet School (formerly the Imperial Ballet School) as a border, as her parents were often away on tour. She did not much enjoy her training, which was strict under her teacher Agrippina Vaganova, but always enjoyed her visits to the mime teacher, Alexander Shiraiev, who always kept sweets for the children.

Galina Ulanova and unidentified partner, 'Chopiniana'

In her time at the Leningrad Choreographic School, she enjoyed dancing the boys' parts and was not thought to be the right physique for a ballerina. However, under the tutelage of her teachers (especially Vaganova) she refined her technique to the point where an audience could look past her build. She had a unique grace with which she danced that few could demonstrate.

In 'Romeo and Juliet' (Bolshoi, 1946)

For her graduation in 1928, she danced the pas de deux from Chopiniana (also known as Les Sylphides) and The Nutcracker, as well as the Princess Florine variation from The Sleeping Beauty. The following year, once more under the tutelage of Vaganova, she danced the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and gained sudden public recognition. In quick succession she danced the leading roles of Le Corsaire, The Ice Maiden, The Age of Gold, Raymonda, and various other parts that showcased her virtuosity. The Artistic Director of the Kirov Ballet (formerly the Mariinsky), Fedor Lopukhov, took a special interest in her. In 1932, after success in The Flames of Paris and The Little Hump-backed Horse, she performed in Giselle for the first time. She had originally been cast as Myrtha by Vaganova, and was coached in the role of Giselle by the renowned interpreter of that role at that time, Yelena Liukom, the first prima ballerina of Soviet ballet.

In 'Giselle'

During the 1930s, Ulanova began to expand her repertoire into modern works by Soviet choreographers such as Vainonen, Goliezovsky, Zakharov, Lopukov, and Lavrovsky. This last, Leonid Lavrovsky, replaced Lopukohv as Artistic Director in 1932, though Ulanova continued to be a favourite. There was some friction between Ulanova and Vaganova, who did not like the way Ulanova's mother had trained her. Vaganova preferred Marina Semyonova and Natalia Dudinskaya, though Ulanova was ensured roles by her partnership with choreographers Lavrovsky and Zakharov.

With Agrippina Vaganova, 1930

In 1933, she appeared in Vaganova's Swan Lake; in 1934, she danced Masha in The Nutcracker and Maria in the premiere of Zakharov's The Fountain of Bakchisarai, based on the poem by Pushkin; in 1935 she was Diana in Vaganova's La Esmeralda; in 1936, Korali in Zakharov's Lost Illusions; while wading through the artistic dilemmas of creating Romeo and Juliet, she appeared in Vainonen's Raymonda until Romeo and Juliet was finally ready in 1940, only to be shelved due to the war. It was not to be danced again until 1944, when both the ballet and Ulanova were acquired by the Bolshoi. Ulanova had fled to the Bolshoi from Leningrad, which suffered its infamous siege. There she danced Nikiya in La Bayadere, and was awarded many honours. She also danced with the Kirov in Perm (then Molotov) and with the Kazakh State Ballet in Alma Ata, entertaining troops on various fronts as well as politicians.

Ulanova, most likely 'Giselle', though possibly 'Chopiniana'

Though she refused to discuss politics, Ulanova was undoubtedly a product of the Soviet system, and played her eventual role as the 'Queen of Soviet Culture' well. Since the Soviet leaders wished, for political reasons, that the Bolshoi be established as superior to the Mariinsky, Ulanova went to dance for the Bolshoi. She debuted as prima ballerina on January 23 as Maria in The Fountain of Bakchisarai, which was quickly followed by Giselle. She was awarded the Stalin Prize and Medal for her 'valiant behaviour' in the war. In 1946, Romeo and Juliet was staged again, and was perhaps her greatest triumph.

Galina Ulanova mentors ballerina Ekaterina Maximova

After Romeo and Juliet re-premiered in 1946, Prokofiev offered to create another ballet for Ulanova, who chose Cinderella; this ballet too had choreography by Lavrovsky and Ulanova was a great success in the role. She also danced the role of Katarina in a third collaboration between Prokofiev and Lavrovsky, the 1954 ballet The Tale of the Stone Flower. She then returned to Swan Lake in 1948, before performing as the slave dancer Parasha in The Bronze Horseman (Zakharov, to music by Gliere), and as Tao Hua in The Red Poppy (Lavrovsky, to music by Gliere). She and the company then went on tour between 1948 -1950, visiting Leningrad, Kiev, Tallin, Minsk, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and even China and Italy, among others. After difficult negotiations, it was agreed that the company would perform at Covent Garden in London in 1956. Despite set difficulties and a flight re-route to Manton RAF base (which resulted in Ulanova refusing to leave the plane until she had received official permission from Moscow), the season sold out and was a great success. Ulanova performed as Giselle, Juliet, and Maria (The Fountain of Bakchisarai). At an additional performance, she also danced Pavlova's famous Dying Swan.

Ulanova in 'The Dying Swan'

In 1957 she was awarded the Lenin Prize, and in 1958 went on tour with the Bolshoi to Paris, Brussels, Hamburg, and Munich. She also toured America and Canada, as well as China, Hungary, and Egypt, but by the 1960s her career was coming to an end. She turned instead to teaching, though she rarely taught technique. Instead her focus was on the emotional quality of a dancer. She was also on the jury of the biennial Varna International Competition until the late 1970s. She remained a teacher at the Bolshoi Ballet until her death, and died on March 11 1998 in Moscow.

Galina Ulanova's grave in Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia

Here she is in The Dying Swan:

In Giselle with the Bolshoi (which seems to be the full ballet):

In Swan Lake (from the 1947 Soviet silent film Solistka baleta):

And what appears to be a 1954 colour film of Romeo and Juliet, featuring Ulanova (I have not yet watched this the full way through to verify it):

There are plenty more on YouTube and other sites which I fully recommend watching but haven't room for here - well worth the time!

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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