Ballet dancers that changed the world of ballet – part 3


We finish this series of the most famous ballet dancers from the classical and romantic period with our last three ballerinas whose names are still remembered today.


Fanny Elssler, the ballet dancer in Spanish and Polish clothes

Fanny Elssler
Fanny Elssler dancing La Cachucha

When we think of ballet, we often think of a grave story, impossible love, and the grace of the dancers.

Fanny Elssler proved that ballet should be more than this image.

Everyone knew Marie Taglioni, the ballerina from the ballet Giselle with her surreal look. Almost like a fairy.

Well, now we can say that Fanny Elssler also danced like a fairy if we compare her with Tinkerbell from the cartoon Peter Pan. Fanny Elssler was full of energy on the stage, similar to Peter Pan’s companion and friend.

Her lively energy was unfit for sad stories like La Sylphide (for which Marie Taglioni is known). And that meant that she was cast in other ballet performances that had a funny side, for example, The devil on two sticks.

She also wanted to express the story in new ways, and so she incorporated national dances from various countries. For The devil on two sticks, she danced the Spanish dance called la cachucha. For La Tarentule, another ballet performance, she danced a Polish dance called cracovienne. Not only did she bring these dances on the stage, but to be more loyal to the character she wore the national clothes of those countries.

And in a world where only the European ballet was given importance, she was the first to leave the continent and tour the United States of America (where she met the president’s son and brought tears to the American audience).


Pierina Legnani, the first ballet dancer to do the famous 32 fouettés en tournant 

Pierina Legnani

The most important part of the ballet Swan Lake is when the Black Swan turns 32 times on one leg. Nowadays, ballerinas who refuse to do this dance move (considered the most difficult in ballet) are mocked.

Well, the first dancer to achieve this was Pierina Legnani, an Italian dancer.

Like many other ballerinas, she was offered to dance in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre under the leadership of Marius Petipa. She slowly rose to fame in Italy (becoming prima ballerina) and then she moved to Russia.

Here she danced in ballets such as Cinderella, Swan Lake, and Raymonda. And while she played Cinderella, she did the 32 fouettés en tournant. Everyone was amazed by her technique and courage.

The choreographers loved this dance move and added it to the new ballet Swan Lake. And you know what they say, the rest is history because this dance move is still present in the choreography of the performance.


Matilda Kshesinskaya, the tzar’s mistress

Mathilde Kschessinska

While Matilda is not the best (Russian) dancer that has ever lived, her importance lies in the fact that she was the lover of the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II.

The Russian ballet, or even the ballet, would not have developed without the love (and money) that the Romanovs gave to dancers, music masters, choreographers, and dance institutions. And sometimes the Russian nobles believed that the dancers and actresses owned them more than their performances.

The custom was that young men have affairs with them before marriage and this is why Nicholas’s father (the emperor of Russia at that time) introduced his son to Matilda Kshesinskaya, a Polish dancer. He underestimated just how much the two of them would love each other, though.

In their journals, they declared their love for each other. Nicholas gave Matilda a house to live in.

But the future czar could not marry a dancer and he was married to Alix of Hesse. Nicholas did not want to cheat on his wife and so he ended the affair. And Matilda cried for her lost lover and her status.

Don’t underestimate her, after Pierina Legnani, she was the first Russian dancer to do the 32 fouettés en tournant. And she opened a ballet school in Paris after leaving Russia, not remaining in the country after the royal family lost their power.


With the death of the last Romanov emperor, the age of classical and romantic ballet also died. From now on, we speak of modern ballet, and other dancers tried to bring innovations or just to be remembered like the dancers that came before them.


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