Ballet is the traditional European art of dance performance. Every culture has dance, I suppose, and many have "dancing girls" or other groups especially good at and trained in dance, but often dancing is something that everyone in a certain section of society is supposed to do, either because it is part of rituals, or because it is a worthy accomplishment for a certain social rank.

Ballet as a distinctive form began in the court of the French kings, and I suppose may be considered what the court watched instead of what they themselves did. Dancers were valued for their skills, so dancers became professionals.

It is European, in that we do not think of Arab-world raqs sharqi or Indian classical dance as ballet, though they're its cultural equivalent, at least in part.

It is also traditional, having evolved into a "high art", and picking up influences from "popular" arts, without being the same as them. The allemandes and gigues of the old courts developed from country dancing, ballet developed from these, took in the folk dancing and waltz of later centuries, and more recently has consciously sampled styles such as charleston and foxtrot and jazz, but without fusion.

One final distinctive feature is that there is no voice. There is no spoken dialogue to help the tale along, and there are no songs, neither sung by the dancers nor used as the music behind it (though modern ballets may use these occasionally). This distinguishes ballet from combined arts like opera and the modern musical. However, many operas do contain ballets, that is at least one scene of ballet; into the middle of the nineteenth century audiences regarded this as compulsory, and many great operas were slightly bogged down by this necessity.

Ballet reached a height of popularity in the early nineteenth century, and the modern image of it may be said to have arisen from a single work, La Sylphide (1832), a fairy romance in which Marie Taglioni brought together the tutu, the pointe shoes, the otherwordly atmosphere, and the emphasis on the female star. This work is still performed (not the same as a later classic, Les Sylphides), but the best ballet from this period of renewal is Giselle (1841), a star vehicle for Carlotta Grisi.

After a while it declined, and France even looked to England as the centre of ballet performance now, though in England there was no professional company and ballet scenes were only put on as part of music hall entertainments.

But it was in Russia that modern ballet began, under the guidance of French-trained choreographers and dancers. Two of the greatest choreographers were Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine, and around the turn of the century, we get many of the great foundation ballets created in Russia: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Rite of Spring. This was the greatest flourishing of the art.

In the 1920s the impresario Serge Diaghilev toured Europe with his Ballet Russe company, and other Ballets Russes were formed to take the new art across the world, as far afield as Australia, and spawning the creation of revitalised ballet companies such as, in Britain, the Sadler's Wells Ballet of Dame Ninette de Valois, which became the Royal Ballet. Australia's national ballet company wasn't formed until the 1960s, but it like the others was under the direct influence of the Ballets Russes that had visited.

Some star dancers are legendary, and their names will forever be known: Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky, who could have been the greatest partnership ever, if Pavlova had worked with Diaghilev instead of touring the world on her own, and if Nijinsky had not gone insane and died too young: and Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, who quite simply were the greatest partnership of all. Today Sylvie Guillem stands alone as the most gifted dancer of the age.

There were many other names, many of them Russian (and many of the English ones changing their names to look Russian!), that all ballet lovers, all balletomanes as we call ourselves, "mad with ballet", should recognize: Galina Ulanova, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, Pierina Legnani, Tamara Karsavina, Tamara Toumanova, Alicia Markova, Robert Helpmann, Anton Dolin, Lynn Seymour, Carla Fracci, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Altynai Asylmuratova, ...

Choreography continues to develop. Modern ballet can use old music, like Bizet's gloriously leaping Symphony in C; or those like Steptext and Hermann Schmermann can use thoroughly modern music, with discord and tape loops. Of the living dancers I see on stage in London, the best by far is Sylvie Guillem; others who are wonderful include Darcey Bussell, Tetsuya Kumakawa, Jonathan Cope, Sarah Wildor, and Irek Mukhammedov.

The present write-up is an expanded one posted on 20 May 2002 to replace my inadequate E1 one. It's not remotely long enough to do this lovely spectacle justice, but it's a bit more than was. I don't want to encroach on the excellent nodes below it.

Here are some of the most famous dancers:

Dame Alicia Markova

One of the loveliest ballerinas of the twentieth century, a child prodigy, and a star of many of the greatest ballet companies in their various incarnations: the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, and Ballet Rambert in her native England, and the Ballets Russes and American Ballet Theatre. What made Alicia Markova most special was the lightness and grace of her young girl roles, notably Giselle and Juliet.

The great impresario Diaghilev saw her star quality at the age of eleven, but illness prevented her taking up his offer. She joined his Ballets Russes company at the age of fourteen, and the leading role, the nightingale, was created for her in Le Rossignol, which premièred in June 1925: music by Stravinsky, choreography by Balanchine, costumes by Matisse. It was Diaghilev who gave her her Russian name (stressed mar-KO-va, I believe).

She was born Alice Marks, or Alicia Marks, or in fact Lilian Alice (or Alicia) Marks, in December 1910 in Finsbury Park, in north London. I always thought she was Alice, but more references give her as Alicia, though the BBC website for Desert Island Discs gives her as Alice, and since that program involves talking to her in person I'm inclined to trust their version.

Returning to England because Diaghilev's own company dissolved with his death in 1929, she was the first leading female dancer of the newly-created English ballet scene, working with Ninette de Valois in her Vic-Wells Ballet at Sadler's Wells (later to become the Royal Ballet), and with Marie Rambert's company. The dancer who discovered her as a talented fourteen-year-old was Anton Dolin, and they became regular partners; in 1950 they jointly founded the London Festival Ballet (later to become English National Ballet). With the English companies she created many roles, especially for the ballets of Frederick Ashton.

In the 1930s she also worked with various successor companies of the original Ballet Russe, such as Colonel de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; and in the 1940s she worked with the American company then called simply Ballet Theatre, later to become American Ballet Theatre. Here in 1943 she created the role of Juliet in Anthony Tudor's choreography of Romeo and Juliet.

Markova was created a CBE in 1958 and a dame (DBE) in 1963, in which year she became ballet director of the Metropolitan Opera. She became a governor of the Royal Ballet in 1970, where she had long been a teacher. Dame Alicia is still going, as at the time of writing.

Desert Island Discs
Andros on Ballet

Altynai Asylmuratova

A Kazakh ballerina, the recent superstar of the Russian ballet world. Born in Alma-Ata (now Almaty), capital of Kazakhstan, in 1961, studied at the the Vaganova Ballet Academy from 1970, and joined the Kirov Ballet at the Maryinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, in 1978, where she became a principal in 1982. She seems to have done all the great classical roles, especially of the Russian tradition, but is also successful with Western choreographers like Kenneth MacMillan, Roland Petit, and Frederick Ashton.

She has toured and guest-starred with world companies such as the Royal Ballet (doing Manon, Romeo and Juliet, and A Month in the Country); and American Ballet Theatre (La Bayadère in 1988); and with Roland Petit's Ballet National de Marseille (including Coppélia and Carmen).

Her dancing days not quite to an end, she became head of the Vaganova academy in 2000. Among her early reforms were reinstating compulsory classes in music and French, believing them essential for any dancer. The Vaganova is the traditional breeding ground for the Kirov, and and she is worried that the Kirov's recruiting of outsiders will dilute their traditional character.

Pictures: The Ballerina Gallery
Bio and repertoire: For Ballet Lovers Only

Sir Anton Dolin

Sir Anton Dolin was the foremost English male ballet dancer of the twentieth century, and central to many of the ballet companies that developed in England. He was a prominent choreographer for them and others. His most regular dancing partner, Dame Alicia Markova, was also his co-founder of some of these.

He was born Patrick Kay, or in full Sydney Francis Patrick Chippendall Healey-Kay, in Slinford, in Sussex, on 27 July 1904, son of an amateur cricketer. He took his first dancing lessons at the age of ten, in Hove on the south coast, and débuted in London as the Black Cat in Bluebell in Fairyland for Christmas 1915, when he was eleven. He also appeared as John in Peter Pan.

His first serious ballet training was in 1913, under Seraphine Astafieva. He appeared in Serge Diaghilev's ballet The Sleeping Princess in 1921 under the Russified name of Patrikéeff, and in June 1923 first appeared under the name Anton Dolin, at the Royal Albert Hall. In November of that year he joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

Dolin's first important role was Beau Gosse in Bronislava Nijinska's Le Train Bleu, a tale of sporting types disporting themselves on the beach at Deauville, to music of Milhaud. He did this first in Paris in 1924, then débuted with it in London. Leaving the Ballets Russes in 1925, he rejoined them in 1928, and danced with stars including Tamara Karsavina in Petrouchka, Olga Spessivtseva in Swan Lake*, and Lydia Lopokova. He did Balanchine's Prodigal Son in 1929. With Diaghilev's death in 1929 he returned to England.

In the 1925-28 interval Dolin had done revues and musicals, but also ballet with Karsavina and de Valois. With Vera Nemchinova, with whom he did a continental tour, he founded an English Ballet Company in 1927. Its members included Frederick Ashton. After Diaghilev he returned to those who were creating the new world of English ballet: with the Camargo Society, a group formed to support and commission new ballet, from 1930 to 1934, and with Ninette de Valois's new-formed Vic-Wells ballet at Sadler's Wells, the precursor of the Royal Ballet.

The most famous role he created in this new ferment was Satan in de Valois's Job, a Masque for Dancing, to music of Vaughan Williams, in 1931. He was succeeded in the role in 1933 by the up-and-coming Robert Helpmann.

Dolin and Alicia Markova founded their own company in 1935, lasting until 1938, with the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska (Nijinsky's sister) as ballet mistress. A second Dolin-Markova company lasted from 1945 to 1948. From 1937 he was on world tours, and spent much of the war years in America, where he was a leading figure in the Ballet Theatre (later American Ballet Theatre) from its inception in 1940, until 1946. For them he did original choreography for Capriccioso (1940), The Romantic Age (1942), and in later years Variations for Four (1957). He danced Fokine's Bluebeard in Mexico City in 1941, which he had originally done for the Vic-Wells in 1934.

From 1948 he was guest dancer for Sadler's Wells, and in November 1950 he and Markova founded their final company, the London Festival Ballet, which survives to this day as English National Ballet. he was their principal dancer until 1961, when he moved to take up the ballet directorship of the Rome Opera.

Author of numerous books on ballet including a 1960 autobiography, Dolin played the dancing master Enrico Cecchetti in the 1980 biopic Nijinsky, was knighted in 1981, and died suddenly in Paris on 25 November 1983.

Most facts from Dictionary of National Biography and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Inspiration and wishes that I'd seen it all, from my own heart. Unexplained softlink to Bolt Thrower by someone else.

* The DNB actually says Lac, which I'm guessing means Lac des Cygnes, i.e. Swan Lake.

Carla Fracci

The leading Italian ballerina of the last century, renowned for the high quality of her acting, and in fact she has been in films and television as a straight actor. Born in Milan on 20 August 1936, she studied at the La Scala Ballet School between 1946 and 1954. At La Scala she became a soloist in 1956 and principal in 1958. She has partnered the greatest of male dancers, including Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn.

It has been said that Carla Fracci è più leggera dell’aria, più lieve di un sospiro, "is lighter than air, softer than a sigh", and they have called her the "Duse of dance" and said she shows squisita evocazione del più puro stile romantico, "exquisite evocation of the pure romantic style".

Fracci appeared with many other companies, and became principal guest artist with American Ballet Theatre in 1967. She has directed the ballet companies of Naples in 1990-91, Verona in 1995-97, and currently Rome.

She starred as Verdi's wife Giuseppina Strepponi in the 1983 TV series The Life of Verdi, with Ronald Pickup, a superb historical drama featuring lots of wonderful music and singers. Carla Fracci acted beautifully in it, and didn't dance at all. Ballets she has appeared in films of include Giselle in 1969, opposite the Danish star Erik Bruhn, and Romeo and Juliet in 1982, with Fonteyn and Nureyev.

Among roles she created at La Scala are Juliet in John Cranko's new version of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

Her parents were poor and she was delicate, and as they were unable to send her to gymnastics classes she was sent to ballet school instead (if I read the Italian aright), since it was free and she had the aptitude.

Photos and bio: The Ballerina Gallery
Quotes from: Radiotelevisione svizzera
Some fairly useless film databases
More bio in: ElbaSun and scroll the frame to find her birthdate "20 agosto"

Carlotta Grisi

Carlotta Grisi was one of the stars of early nineteenth century ballet, a particularly rich time for the art, which fell into relative disuse afterwards, until revived by the Russians in the 1890s. Grisi was the first Giselle, and Giselle is the only great ballet from that period that is regularly performed even today.

Born on 28th June 1819 in Visinada in the peninsula of Istria (then in Austria-Hungary, now in Croatia), Caronne Adele Josephine (or Giuseppina) Marie Grisi was of Italian ancestry. She studied at La Scala and began her dancing career at the age of eight.

In Naples in 1834 she danced with Jules Perrot (1810-1892), a leading figure in the ballet world and in her life. She became his student, then his lover and (perhaps by a polite fiction) wife. Later she was to leave him for another dancing partner, the great Lucien Petipa. She and Perrot popularized the polka when they danced it together; and he created for her and the other most important ballerinas of the age his Pas de quatre, a showpiece for four principals, carefully allowing each ego to shine in its solos. The four great ballerinas who danced that first Pas de quatre in London in 1845 were Carlotta Grisi, Marie Taglioni, Fanny Cerrito, and the Dane Lucile Grahn.

She was a brilliant success all over Europe, but especially in Paris, where she first appeared in 1841, and in London. She also had a fine voice and used it in some parts. In Paris the poet Théophile Gautier was among the group who created the highly romantic ballet Giselle for her, with Grisi as the peasant girl dying on the eve of her wedding to Prince Albrecht, and joining the wilis to haunt him. Lucien Petipa was her Albrecht. Gautier married Carlotta's sister Ernesta.

Grisi also created the starring roles in La Péri (1843), La Esmeralda (1844, from Victor Hugo's famous tale of the gypsy girl and the hunchback but given a happy ending in one version), and Paquita (1846).

Her working relationship with Perrot continued, and in 1850 she went to Russia where he was ballet master at St Petersburg. In 1854 she went to Poland (still in Russia then), where on becoming pregnant by a Prince Radziwiłł she retired from the stage. She spent many years living in Geneva and died there on 20th May 1899.

Grisi had a daughter Marie-June by Perrot in 1837, and Léontine by her Polish prince in 1853. Her cousin Giulia Grisi (1811-1869) was one of the preeminent singers of the day, creating leading roles in operas including Norma, Semiramide, I Capuletti ed i Montecchi, I Puritani, and Don Pasquale.

Encylopaedia Britannica
Andros on Ballet
Dance History Archives shows her polka'ing with Perrot

Darcey Bussell

A very beautiful English ballet dancer, the best of her generation; though at Covent Garden she is still overshadowed by the guest artist, the simply perfect Sylvie Guillem. Born in London in 1969(?), she entered the Royal Ballet's school at the age of 13. In 1986 the choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan was captivated by her, still a student, and she created the leading role in his Concerto. After a two-year stint with the Sadler's Wells company she joined the Royal Ballet in 1988 and Sir Kenneth gave her more leads in new ballets of his: Princess Rose in The Prince of the Pagodas and Masha in Winter Dreams. She was promoted rapidly to Soloist, First Soloist, and in 1989 Principal (the youngest ever), at the first night of The Prince of the Pagodas. She was a star from the first.

She looks very good, she dances superbly - her Sleeping Beauty is especially wonderful -; but there is an obvious lack of thought. There is power but no depth, no sexiness. I haven't read her ghost-written biography but I have a read a review that was quite painful in skirting around the complete lack of insight.

Darcey became an OBE in 1995. There is a painting of her by Allen Jones in the National Portrait Gallery. She is married to an Australian financier called Angus Forbes.

Official home page isn't very interesting.

Galina Ulanova

The greatest of Russian ballerinas during the Soviet period, that is after the talents nurtured in the St Petersburg Ballet School and the Maryinsky Theatre had fled west after the Revolution.

Born in 1910, daughter of another great dancer Maria Romanova, she was reluctant at first to enter the discipline of ballet, but at the age of 18 she danced the twin roole of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. She came to study under the superlative ballet teacher Agrippina Vaganova.

Ulanova created many of the classic Soviet ballet roles, such as The Fountain of Bakhchisarai. Her first appearance in the West was in 1945, in Vienna. She retired as a dancer in 1962 but continued to teach in ballet schools, and died in 1998.

Jonathan Cope

One of the principal dancers of the Royal Ballet. He is quite gorgeous, like a curly-haired Apollo, powerful and well-chiselled, in this besmitten noder's opinion, and is the partner of choice of the divine Sylvie Guillem, who is very fussy in her choice of partners. He is tall, which is important for her.

There are some bits of review at, which says he suffered from bad crits in his early career, but is now much better liked by the critics. I'd imagine his regular partnering of Guillem did a lot to lift his profile. He is not flashy (the above link says he's "an unassuming dancer, but can be relied upon to make his partner look her best", and "never over the top and is always a perfect partner"), but he is probably my favourite male star to watch in his own right - except, oh all right, except the pyrotechnic Tetsuya Kumakawa.

He has also been called "such an easy, solid presence on stage" (Jenny Gilbert, The Independent, 15/04/2001, on his Prince in Giselle). Hunting through the reviews indexed by the above website, I keep coming across this sort of solid praise.

There's a 1998 interview with him in The Times.

Cope is near the end of his leading man career, alas, because he's about 38. When he was 27, in 1990, he and his wife, ballerina Maria Almeida, announced their retirement, because of too much work and not enough recognition. (Perhaps they'd been downvoted.) He returned two years later.

On his modesty, he said, "I haven't got one of those egos that demand to be centre stage all of the time. Maybe that's not a good thing in this business, but that's my character."

This of course is a good thing, probably even a necessary thing, when you're partnering Sylvie Guillem most of the time: she's the star, people are there to see her, and he could be part of the scenery she uses, except that you do see him, because they work so well together. When they first came together she, though younger, was already world-famous, and fanatically exacting. She threw an enormous amount of instruction at him for what he had to do. He was of course terrified at the burden. "But just before we did our first performance together, she came up to me in the wings, grabbed my wrist, looked me straight in the eyes and said one word: 'calm'. We've been all right ever since."

He got a CBE in the 2003 New Year Honours.

Originally an E1 write-up, this was expanded August 2001

Lynn Seymour

A Canadian ballerina who was a star of the Royal Ballet in the late 1950s to 1970s, and is especially associated with the works created by their choreographer Kenneth MacMillan in those years. She created Juliet in his 1965 Romeo and Juliet and the lead roles in the one- and three-act versions of Anastasia, 1967 and 1971. She was also the creator of Natalia Petrovna in Ashton's 1976 ballet A Month in the Country She was renowned for both drama and comedy.

Born Lynn Springbett on 8 March 1939, in Wainwright in Alberta, she studied in Vancouver then at Sadler's Wells in London. She became a soloist with the Royal Ballet in 1958 and a principal the following year. She returned to London as principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet between 1971 and 1978, after a stint (1966-69) as prima ballerina in Berlin, where she had followed MacMillan, who had become director there.

Her favourite regular partners included Rudolf Nureyev and Robert Helpmann. Dame Ninette de Valois said, "Lynn Seymour will go down in the history of the first fifty years of the Royal Ballet as the greatest dramatic dancer of that era."

In 1978 she became art director of the Bavarian State Opera House in Munich. I'm not sure how long this lasted but it was apparently not very successful. She was invested with the CBE in 1976.

She has appeared in various film versions of ballets, including Giselle, and played Keynes's wife the dancer Lydia Lopokova in Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein (1993).

Bio and de Valois quote: Canada Heirloom Series
A few photos and bio: The Ballerina Gallery
More chatter at:

Mathilde Kschessinskaya

The greatest Russian ballerina of the classical period, of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty at the end of the nineteenth century, before the innovative styles of the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev.

Kschessinskaya was the first Russian dancer to receive the supreme title of prima ballerina assoluta. She was proudly the first Russian to achieve the 32 fouettés in Swan Lake, until then thought to be the preserve of imported Italian dancers. (The role had been created by Pierina Legnani.)

She was also very beautiful and the lover of two princes of the Romanov blood royal, and it was even rumoured that she was attached to Tsar Nicholas II. But what is undoubted is that she was very much attached to his uncle Grand Duke Sergei, and later (from 1900) Grand Duke Andrei, a second cousin to the Tsar. She lived with Sergei for many years, though she had a child by Andrei in 1906, and eventually married him and went into exile in the West with him. Her mansion in Petrograd was briefly used as Bolshevik party headquarters in 1918 (thanks, CatherineB).

Born in 1872, she last danced at the age of 64, at Covent Garden, and died at the age of 99 in 1971. She had appeared with the Ballets Russes and spent much of her later life teaching ballet in Paris.

As was the custom then, she was known by a French/German transcription of her Russian name. These days she is often seen in a more narrowly accurate form Matilda Kshesinskaya.

Olga Spessivtseva

One of the most talented ballerinas of the early part of last century. The only one who could compare with her was Anna Pavlova. Fortunately film exists of her astonishing style. Her own life story was so dramatic and tragic that it has been turned into a ballet.

Born in Rostov in 1895 to a wealthy family left destitute by her father's death, she was sent to an orphanage. Between 1919 and 1921 her ballet career was interrupted by tuberculosis. Her husband was a member of the NKVD. After a breakdown in 1940, between 1943 and 1962 she was confined to a mental hospital in New Jersey. She lived until 1991, in retirement in New York, where she died. This life was the basis for Boris Eifman 1997 ballet Red Giselle.

In her own dancing her most famous role was Giselle. The irony is that Spessivtseva went into mental asylums to study madness for playing Giselle. The role had been preserved by Pavlova and was one of her most famous, so comparisons were easy to make. Spessivtseva first danced it in 1919 in Russia, in 1924 in Paris (its first performance there for many decades), and in 1932 in London. Her English partner in it was Anton Dolin, who thirty years later was to get her released from the hospital. The critic Yuri Slonimsky described her thus.

From her first appearance, Spessivtseva prepared the spectators for a catastrophe. She was in love, and this caused her punishment. She struggled for her love, and this doomed her with ruin. Spessivtseva's eyes, totally opened at the beginning of the First Act, are closed at the end. A lonely, broken, surprised begin roamed the stage... During the Second Act Spessivtseva danced with half-closed eyes, not daring to look at what was going on around her. The beauty of her heroine increased along with Giselle's struggle for happiness. Only, this was for someone else's happiness, not her own
After graduating from the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, she worked with the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev several times, first to replace Tamara Karsavina on a tour of America in 1916-18, partnered by Nijinsky, then in London in 1921 for Sleeping Beauty, in 1927 in Paris, and finally from 1929, dancing Giselle and Swan Lake.

She left the Soviet Union for good in 1924, and her tours took her as far afield as Argentina and Australia, but she was mainly based in Paris after that. At the Paris Opera Ballet she created the lead role in The Creatures of Prometheus by Serge Lifar in 1929. In the late 1930s she lived in the United States, working with the American Ballet Theater, until her illness claimed her. At the end of her life she lived on a New York farm founded by Tolstoy's daughter.

Full name Ol'ga Aleksandrovna Spessívtseva. - Take the "English" in the URL with a grain of salt

Pierina Legnani

An Italian ballerina whose place in history is as the first star of Swan Lake and the impetus to the development of the great Russian ballet tradition. She was of unsurpassed technical ability and could spin in the circumference of a rouble coin. Not only could she spin perfectly, but while doing so she could execute the whipping kick called fouetté en tournant no less than thirty-two times. This so impressed the choreographers Petipa and Ivanov, not to mention everyone else who saw it, that they wrote it into the black swan Odile's spectacular dance to woo the deluded Prince, played by Pavel Gerdt.

Legnani went to St Petersburg in 1893, engaged for a single season with the Imperial Ballet, and there she created Cinderella. She stayed on to create Odette/Odile in Swan Lake in 1895 (full version, based on an earlier work), as well as dancing in Coppélia, Raymonda, and Bluebeard; and she remained in Russia until 1901, being named prima ballerina assoluta of the Imperial Ballet. The only other star they gave this distinction was her Russian counterpart Mathilde Kschessinskaya, who learned to do the 32 fouettés and was the first great native dancer of the emerging Russian school.

Born on 30 September 1863, Pierina Legnani studied at La Scala, Milan, and danced there and in London, Paris, and Madrid before moving to Russia. It was in London that she first demonstrated her fouetté skill. After her return to western Europe she continued to dance until about 1910. Not a physically attractive person, she possessed great charm.

The date of her death is given as either 1923 or 1930. The Britannica says 1923, in Italy, but the BalletAlert website cited below gives the exact date of 15 November 1930.

Encyclopaedia Britannica
Susan Au, Ballet & Modern Dance, 1988, Thames & Hudson
Ballet Alert!
Great Ballerinas for a picture

Sir Robert Helpmann

An Australian ballet dancer, choreographer, actor, and director. Although he was Margot Fonteyn's most regular partner at Sadler's Wells between 1935 and 1950, he was not a classical dancer of romantic heroes so much as a master of character and comic roles.

Bobby Helpmann was born Robert Murray Helpman on 9th April 1909 in Mt Gambier in South Australia. He added the second N to his name later to avoid his stage name having thirteen letters. Educated very spottily at Prince Alfred's College, Adelaide, he much preferred playing truant so he could act and dance and generally show off. As a musical comedy dancer in 1923, he saw Anna Pavlova on her company's tour of Australia, and joined her. After that he worked on revues, pantomimes, and musicals.

In 1932 he went to England and was taken up by Ninette de Valois for her Vic-Wells Ballet (later Sadler's Wells, then the Royal Ballet). He had a clownish or almost grotesque appearance, with a large forehead and bulging eyes, and this and his flamboyant homosexuality and waspish wit made him a striking figure in the ballet world. It is hard to imagine him as a young dancer, since he seems so perfect for the part of menacing old man.

In 1933 he took over from Anton Dolin in the star role of Satan in Job, a Masque for Dancing. This was the first of five major roles in de Valois ballets over the next few years. The first role he created in these was in The Haunted Ballroom (1934); this was followed by the Rake in The Rake's Progress (1935, music of Stravinsky), the Red King in Checkmate (1937, music of Bliss), and the drunken stage manager in The Prospect Before Us. One of his last roles for de Valois was Don Quixote in 1950.

As a choreographer he did a brooding, psychological Hamlet in 1942, in the form of flashbacks from the moment of death; Miracle of the Gorbals (music of Bliss) in 1944; and Adam Zero in 1946. He danced the lead in each of these. He was much helped in the planning of these by his lifelong partner Michael Benthall. He also revived Jules Perrot's nineteenth-century star vehicle for four ballerinas, Pas de Quatre.

Turning to film of ballet, Helpmann directed The Red Shoes, starring Moira Shearer, in 1948, and Tales of Hoffmann in 1950, as well as dancing in them.

That was the year of his sudden resignation from Sadler's Wells, and his concentration to straight theatre, both acting and directing. Helpmann as a director did Madame Butterfly at Covent Garden in 1950, and plays including Murder in the Cathedral in 1953 and As You Like It in 1955. His final production was The Merry Widow at the Sydney Opera House in 1974.

He had already played Oberon in 1937, and went on to play Shylock, Hamlet, Richard III, and King John at the Old Vic or Stratford. He had appeared in Olivier's film of Henry V in 1944, and in 1978 was in Patrick. He appeared with Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh in Antony and Cleopatra, and Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, and with Katharine Hepburn in The Millionairess; these two successful partnerships took him on tour back to his home country.

From 1962 he spent more time in Australia. Bobby Helpmann joined Peggy van Praagh as co-director of the newly-formed Australian Ballet in 1965, the country's first truly national ballet company. Appointed CBE in 1964, he was knighted in 1968. His partner Michael Benthall died in 1974, and Sir Robert died in Sydney on 28th September 1986.

Lots from Dictionary of National Biography and the Britannica.

Sarah Wildor

Sarah Wildor (short like will) is one of the loveliest of younger English ballerinas. I was going to say newer, but she's been around longer than I realised: born in Eastwood in Essex in 1972, she joined the Royal Ballet in 1991, and was promoted to Principal in 1999.

That was under the directorship of Anthony Dowell. Then the Australian Ross Stretton took over the Royal Ballet, and his brief stint is generally regarded as a disaster. He drove away a number of their best talents, not just Sarah Wildor in 2001 but also some who had survived the earlier defection of Tetsuya Kumakawa and others, and sapped the morale of those remaining. Luckily he's now been replaced as director by Monica Mason, but the damage is done, and Sarah Wildor is freelance.

She has a strikingly beautiful face, elfin but strong, and willowy limbs. She was faster to pick up the exotic, advanced style brought in by Sylvie Guillem than her staider compatriot Darcey Bussell had been, and she was doing some very original movements. I haven't seen her since she left the company, so I don't know what she's like now. I miss her. A recent role was in the West End musical Contact, as the abused wife (the Karen Ziemba role on Broadway): reviews all speak of her as very funny and charming in it, and she was nominated for an Olivier Award.

Particularly associated with the clever roles chorographed by Frederick Ashton, she is also very sexy when it is required, in Macmillan's passionate ballets, and an adorable Juliet. However, though not exactly typecast, the restriction to certain images or roles was one of the factors in her decision to leave; and Ross Stretton's schedule didn't give her much to do. She wants to concentrate on the dramatic more than merely dancing.

She is married to Adam Cooper, himself one of the bright stars of the Royal Ballet when they met. He had left the company a little earlier, to be associated with Adventures in Motion Pictures, the company that had put on an all-male Swan Lake. They have done some projects together since, including AMP's Cinderella. Their next one is Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes (August 2003 at the Royal Festival Hall).

Pretty as a picture: The Ballerina Gallery
Contact reviews:
Did she jump or was she pushed? The Daily Telegraph
On Your Toes: theatre pages of The Independent, 31 July 2003

Sylvie Guillem

The world's greatest living ballet dancer. Born in 1965, she became an étoile in Paris, their highest rank, at the age of nineteen, under her mentor Rudolf Nureyev. She became world-famous, quarrelled with Nureyev, and joined the Royal Ballet. She is an inconceivably beautiful performer, an actor in her roles as well as technically perfect, and she has the most extraordinary anatomy, enabling her to reach impossible-looking positions with consummate grace and ease.

Her limbs are unbelievably supple: they can move in ways that seem to require absence of bones. Her party trick is to stand on pointes and move one leg up, up, up, until it's pointing straight up above her head. She can hold this position for what seems like minutes at a time. She can twirl from this position. She can do acrobatics, spinning faster and leaping higher than anyone you've ever seen or imagined.

But as Juliet, the young girl surprised by her Nurse's mention of marriage, unaware till then of her budding breasts, she is all youthful innocence and amazement. You can see her facial expression from the furthest seat in the house, and you can read it like an actor's in close-up. As Manon, dying in the deserts of Louisiana, she is lying on the ground twitching for most of the final act, yet she can make lying on the ground twitching seem as vibrant and erotic and tragic as the Black Swan's wildest passions.

25th February 1965 Sylvie Guillem born to a mother who was a gymnastics teacher; she excelled in that and was shortlisted for the French Olympic team. At the age of eleven she transferred to the Paris Opera Ballet School, and at sixteen entered the corps de ballet of the company.

In 1983 Nureyev became head of that company, and in 1983 Guillem won the gold medal at the Varna international competition. She was promoted to sujet and danced her first solo role, the Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote. That was a Nureyev choreography, and she now became his protégée, starring in numerous of his works.

19th December 1984 Guillem is promoted to première danseuse, the second highest rank. She is nineteen. She holds this rank for five days.

24th December 1984 She dances her first Odette/Odile, the twin lead in Swan Lake. At the curtain calls Rudolf Nureyev steps out and publicly crowns her étoile, the youngest ever.

6th January 1988 Her London début. She and Nureyev dance Giselle at Covent Garden. Her style, which was simply amazing in France, is by some here regarded as both amazing and shocking. You simple should not be doing things this wild in classical ballet. But instantly she is a star in Britain too. He is slowly dying, and he has so much invested in her, but she now has the confidence to make her own artistic decisions, and they quarrel, both hot-tempered: she will not follow the Paris path he has laid out for her. Her loss is a national scandal: it is discussed in the French National Assembly.

15th April 1989 She dances Swan Lake at Covent Garden, her first performance in her new job, principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet. When she had come to London before, her partner had been her fellow Frenchman Laurent Hilaire. But tonight's Prince is a young man whose career had languished, Jonathan Cope, the right height for the tall and imperious Guillem. They click, and he becomes her favourite partner, an indispensably trustworthy pair of hands.

That is my last date for this write-up. Since then she has continued to dance at Covent Garden, mainly with Cope, and has also returned to Paris, and of course toured elsewhere. She has broken new ground, had choreographers queuing up to work for her, and sets new standards. Other dancers are influenced by her. The staid English style of ballet has changed: both Darcey Bussell and Sarah Wildor, the two best English ballerinas, have opened up and learnt from her.

In the Paris years she began her association with the American choreographer William Forsythe, who created modern disoriented urban works for her, to shocking electronic music by Thom Willems: one was In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987), and another was the cheeky Hermann Schmermann, in which her lovely breasts were visible through a sheer black top. Some of these works were probably unperformable by any other dancer at that time. She had to create them, show how the moves could be done.

Another choreographer she was worked with is the Swiss Maurice Béjart, especially in Sissi, in which she plays the Empress Elizabeth of Austria and a madwoman. Sometimes the concocted modern ballets are so harsh that they would be horrible to watch with anyone else, but she turns them into star vehicles.

Guillem is or was notoriously haughty and distant, at least when she first came to London; when she did not speak the language well. She did not mix with the others, refused to be photographed by anyone but her boyfriend Gilles Tapies, didn't talk about that important English subject the weather ("If I want to know what the weather is like I can look out of the window"), and once had a screaming match with their main choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan ("They have come to see me, me!").

But she attracts great loyalty from those she does work with, if she gets her way. She is supportive and works incredibly hard. She helps everyone else to work hard. Once when she was ill (I didn't even think she could get ill or injured), I wrote, and she replied in a very kind hand-written letter: a real one, not a curt form letter on stationery.

She was considered for the post of artistic director of Covent Garden on its recent vacancy, and has turned to choreography with a new version of Giselle. She got an honorary CBE in the 2003 New Year Honours.

The best website on her is A Tribute to Sylvie Guillem

This began as an E1 write-up; major revision August 2001.

Tamara Karsavina

One of the greatest of Russian ballet dancers, especially associated with partner Vaslav Nijinsky in the works created by impresario Serge Diaghilev, both in the Imperial Maryinsky Theatre and later in his own company the Ballets Russes.

Tamara Platonovna Karsavina (the stress is on the SA) was born on 10th March 1885 in St Petersburg, daughter of a dancer, and joined the St Petersburg ballet school in 1902. Her talent was such that she became a soloist and star immediately. She starred as the doll in Petrouchka, 1911, and also in The Firebird, Rite of Spring, and Les Sylphides. She was renowned for her expressiveness.

In 1919, having married a British diplomat, she left newly Bolshevist Russia and settled in England, where she guest starred with Marie Rambert's ballet, and became a leading coach of English dancers such as Margot Fonteyn in the classic Russian style. She died in London on 26th May 1978.

Tetsuya Kumakawa

"Teddy" Kumakawa, as his English-language friends and fans know him, is a spectacular Japanese ballet dancer. For many years he was one of the guest principals of the Royal Ballet in London. What sets him apart is the bouncing energy and speed in his pyrotechnics. Other male stars of great technique usually go for grand, heroic roles: the Prince leaping vast distances across the stage. Tetsuya Kumakawa's style is unique.

While other loved stars are given respectful sighs and applause when they appear, he is greeted with squealing like a pop star. And he revels in it. To watch him zip around the stage and jump endlessly is sheer joy: you're laughing at it constantly, yet in utter awe at the technical expertise. It's no party trick, but trained mastery as great as any other of the stars.

Sadly, the downward spiral of the Royal Ballet drove away several of their brightest lights, including Kumakawa and Sarah Wildor. He has now turned to choreography as well as dancing, and now runs a company called K-Ballet back in Japan. When he left in 1998 he took several other Royal Ballet stars with him, including William Trevitt and Michael Nunn, but it seems that their partnership has not turned out well; and they don't like the way Kumakawa has reinvented himself as a media star in Japan.

I saw him briefly earlier in 2003, when he appeared for only a couple of minutes in a solo, part of Covent Garden's tribute to Rudolf Nureyev. As stunning as ever, and with the same adoring groupies.

Those splits: The Daily Telegraph
The Guardian
I can't see much else interesting in English on the Web.

© JudyT 1999-2003. The author has asserted her moral rights.