Spotlight Saturday: Olga Spessivtseva

This week's Spotlight Saturday features forgotten Russian star Olga Spessivtseva.

Olga Spessivtseva, 'Giselle'

Olga Alexandrovna Spessivtseva was born on July 18 1895, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. When her father, an opera singer, died, she was sent to an orphanage in St. Petersburg with known connections to the theatre. In 1906, she was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg; her teachers there included Claudia Kulichevskaya, Evgenia Sokolova, and Agrippina Vaganova.

Olga Spessivtseva, Odette, 'Swan Lake'

She graduated from the school in 1913 and immediately joined the Mariinsky Ballet. With perfect technique and exquisite feeling, she was especially suited to roles such as Giselle and Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Her talents her quickly noted and admired, and she was promoted to soloist in 1916.

Olga Spessivtseva, 'Giselle'

At the same time, Sergei Diaghilev invited Spessivtseva to guest with the Ballets Russes for the 1916 season; they went on tour to the United States, where she danced Le Spectre de la Rose and the Bluebird Pas de Deux from The Sleeping Beauty with Vaslav Nijinsky. She was abroad during the chaos of the Russian Revolution of 1916, but unlike her fellow stars of the Ballets Russes, she decided to go back.

Olga Spessivtseva and Serge Lifar, Balanchine's 'La Chatte'

She returned to Russia in 1918, where the Mariinsky had been renamed the Petrograd Opera and Ballet Theatre. She was almost immediately promoted to the rank of ballerina, since many of the ballet's established stars had fled, mainly to Diaghilev or to Pavlova's touring company. Vaganova, who had elected to stay, had taken charge of the old Imperial Ballet School, and Spessivtseva's fellow stars included Elizaveta Gerdt and Lyubov Egorova, left over from the glory days of the Imperial Ballet, as well as Xenia Maklizova, Elena Lukom, Elena Smirnova, and Elsa Vill, all hasty but solid replacements for the likes of Pavlova and Karsavina.

Olga Spessivtseva, 'Giselle'

Spessivtseva continued, however, to perform in the West with the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev had acquired Spessivtseva and Egorova for his ambitious production of The Sleeping Princess in London in 1921; Spessivtseva danced Aurora, but the production was not deemed a success. She repeated the performance at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, in 1923.

Olga Spessivtseva as Aurora, 'The Sleeping Princess', Ballets Russes, London, 1921

In 1924, Spessivtseva left Russia for the last time, securing her travel papers from her ex-husband, Boris Kaplan, a Bolshevik functionary who was also a lover of the arts. While she maintained her relationship with the Ballets Russes, she had accepted an offer to dance at the Paris Opera Ballet as a prima ballerina; she remained there until 1932. From 1932 to 1937, she toured with a number of companies and guested all over the world, beginning with another appearance in London, in Giselle with Anton Dolin. She performed both classical roles and more contemporary works by choreographers such as Mikhail Fokine and Bronislava Nijinska.

Olga Spessivtseva, 'Giselle'

Spessivtseva had shown signs of clinical depression since 1934; whilst in Sydney, she had had a breakdown and required hospitalisation. In 1937, a nervous breakdown forced her to leave the stage. She did a little teaching before returning to make her farewell appearance, at the Teatro Colon in 1939. Later that year, she moved to America, serving as an advisor to the Ballet Theatre Foundation in New York. She suffered another breakdown in 1943, and again had to be hospitalised.

Olga Spessivtseva, Australian Tour, 1934

She died on September 16 1991, aged 96. She has been called 'the supreme classical ballerina of the century', but was then largely forgotten (and regrettably, still is). Anton Dolin made some effort to document her life, writing a book about her called The Sleeping Ballerina in 1964. In 1998, Russian choreographer Boris Eifman created a ballet, Red Giselle, in which she was the heroine.

Here she is with Dolin in Giselle, 1932; commentary by Mme. Marie Rambert, who met her briefly in rehearsals; the clip is courtesy of an amateur, and is rather blurry in places, but worth the watch, since she was regarded as the ultimate Giselle:

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Merce Cunningham.

- Selene

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