In our previous series about ballet dancers, we discovered those ballerinas that changed the old classical and romantic ballet into something new, more modern. Now let’s discover those dancers that were awarded the prestigious title of prima ballerina assoluta.
No one can deny that Marie Taglioni or Fanny Elssler deserves the title of the best of the best. Today, dancers still aspire to be as iconic as they were. But back then, this title was not invented yet and so they were not awarded, even posthumously.
And then Marius Petipa, the ballet master from Russia, saw Pierina Legnani. We already talked about her in our previous series. Marius Petipa considered that Pierina was the best dancer in Europe and deserved to be recognized by everyone.
You must understand that this title is a rare distinction, very few dancers can claim it, and for them to claim it someone else needs to propose the distinction. Today, ballerinas are rarely proposed to hold this position, maybe they do after a long and prestigious career. And sometimes they receive the title, but they are not recognized and striped of it.
There is no correct list for ballerinas that hold this position, but this is the most commonly found.
Pierina Legnani and Mathilde Kschessinska, classical ballerinas
Both dancers belong to the classical and romantic era of ballet and were discussed in more detail in our previous series.
And both of them danced for the Mariinsky Theatre under the eyes of Marius Petipa.
While Petipa bestowed the title to Pierina Legnani, the dancer who did the 32 fouettés en tournant, he was against the Polish girl to have the same distinction as his Italian protegee. And we remember why: Mathilde was the czar’s lover before he married. Her importance to the royal family did not cease to exist after the relationship stopped. Petipa tried in vain to stop Mathilde from being recognized as prima ballerina assoluta.
Alicia Markova, the creator of the English National Ballet
Only two English dancers hold this position, and Alicia Markova was the first to do so.
The little Lilian Alicia Marks was a sickly child who did not speak until six years old. Her doctor recommended to her parents that she should dance ballet to fortify her strength. And the rest is history as they often say.
She was only 13 when the great Sergei Diaghilev saw her and was amazed by the “child Pavlova” (the nickname that she was given to her; she was also offered to play her in a movie but she declined because she respected her as a dancer too much). He offered her a place at his ballet company from Monte Carlo and Alicia did not decline his invitation.
She returned to England after Sergei Diaghilev’s death (after she became a powerful name on the ballet stage) where she established the first professional ballet company from this country. But she also helped to establish the American Ballet Theatre after touring and presenting the dance to people who haven’t seen this type of art before.
She is best known for her roles in The Dying Swan, Giselle, and Radha-Krishna (a ballet inspired by Hindi mythology) and appearing in the Hollywood movie A Song for Miss Julie.
The fact that she retired did not stop her from still being active in the world of ballet becoming a teacher, director, and choreographer.
There are no records of people denying that she was a prima ballerina assoluta. After the New York Times wrote that she was the best dancer that has ever lived, she replied: It’s easy to write something like that, but it’s I who have to live up to it. I mean, ducky, the audience is going to expect something after reading that bit.”