Pierina Legnani, 1895
The highest rank that ever existed in ballet is Prima Ballerina Assoluta. It is rarely bestowed on the best of the best ballerinas for their exceptional talents and mastership. The rank itself was invented by famous French balletmaster Marius Petipa who headed for many years Russian Imperial Ballet. The idea came to Petipa when he studied the history of the early Romantic Ballet. So, he became the official father of this title when he awarded it to the famous Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani whom he considered a supreme danseuse of all Europe.
Legnani went through extensive training at famous La Scala where she developed her technical expertise. At the time when Petita awarded her with the title, Pierina was also performing on the stage of St Petersburg Imperial Ballet. She was the first Ballerina in the world to perform outstanding 32 fouettés en tournant during the performance of the ballet Cinderella.
Although Legnani danced only for 8 years at the Imperial Ballet, she left deep impression on the contemporaries who witnessed her strength, stamina, and technique. Even today 32 fouettes en tournant is still considered a very difficult step to do.
If you could ask any Russian ballet fan of the 19th who is his favorite male ballet dancer, there would come up only one name – Paul Gerdt. He spent fifty six years on the ballet stage and performed in the roles of nearly every lead male character of famous Russian ballets. For his extraordinary ballet technique and dancing Paul Gerdt received the mot prestigious title of the Premier Danseur of all three significant theaters in the tsarist Russia: the Imperial Ballet, The Bolshoy Kammeny Theater and Mariinsky Theater.
Gerdt had the unusual longevity for any male ballet dancer: he was born in 1844, started performing very young and retired one year before his death in 1917. Public loved and worshiped him. In addition, to his brilliant career and titles, audience nicknamed him Blue Cavalier. Admiring public also awarded him with another title: the Prince of Saint Petersburg stage. This was true enough because Paul Gerdt was the first to dance Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, Prince Desire in Sleeping Beauty, and Prince Coqueluche in The Nutcracker.
His mentors and teachers that helped him start his amazing career of a dancer were also the best that Russian ballet could offer. Gerdt’s first teacher was Alexander Pimenov who himself was a student of the Father of Russian ballet – Charles Didelot. His next teacher was Jean Petipa, famous ballet dancer, father of probably the second person of importance after Didelot for Russian ballet – Marius Petipa. Old Jean in his youth underwent extensive training by the giant of the French ballet Auguste Vestris.
Paul Gerdt was quite an eccentric, nobody at the theater knew how old he was. When asked, he would give one and the same response, claiming that he was 23 years old. He excelled not only in dancing but in teaching as well. He left after himself the whole brilliant team of students among which there were Anna Pavlova, George Balanchine, Michel Fokin, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky. It is interesting to note that Michel Fokin trained Gerdt’s daughter – great ballerina Elizaveta Gerdt. And Vaslav Nijinsky was Elizaveta’s partner in ballet dancing.
Paul Gerdt in 1890
Avdotia Istomina was one of the most famous ballerinas of the Russian ballet in the 19th century. Having said that, I must add that her origin and place of birth remain unknown. My intense web analytics search did not reveal any of her ancestors. Supposedly, she was born in 1799. She was brought to the ballet school by a flutist in an Army orchestra when she was just six years old. She was the best student of the First ballet master Charles Didelot who managed to pass to her the best techniques, artistic methods and progressive ballet moves and positions.
She debuted in the Russian Imperial Ballet when she was only sixteen. Charles Didelot was very proud of her. None of his other female dancers appeared on stage as often as Istomina, nor danced as many roles as she did. For a long time Istomina, as a a prima ballerina had no equal in the Russian and, possibly, European ballet.
All young noble Russian aristocrats and courtiers were in love with Istomina. Famous writer Alexander Pushkin dedicated her beautiful lines in Eugene Onegin. Noblemen were competing for her heart. These dangerous competitions led to dueling during which several of them were killed. Among those who died for her was influential young Count Sheremetev. Even Russian famous playwright and diplomat Alexander Griboedov was shot through the palm during one of those dangerous competitions.
The contemporaries describe her as a medium built, well-shaped brunette. She had black, fiery eyes veiled by long eye-lashes, great strength in her feet, aplomb on the stage, and together with that, grace. Lightness and speed in movements; her pirouettes and her elevation were astounding.
She was on the peak of her fame when suddenly famous Didelot left the theare after a conflict with theater administration in 1829. It all went down the hill after Father of Russian ballet left. Many romantic leading roles were taken away from Istomina and she played older characters on stage as the years rolled by. Her salary was lowered twice and in the end she requested her retirement from ballet and it was officially given to her by the emperor Nicholai I. Her days ended in relative obscurity in 1848.
Russian Ballerina Avdotia Istomina