As we’ve written about before, the history of ballet is long and extensive, with many changes in production and style over the centuries. Ever since the classical era of ballet in the 19th century, one figure has loomed large over the world of dance like no other: The ballerina. Here’s a list of some of the greatest ballerinas in history.
Born in Stockholm in 1804 to a dancer mother and an Italian choreographer father, Marie Taglioni was born with ballet in her DNA. At a very young age, she distinguished herself as a student of dance, practicing for hours everyday. She soon blossomed as a court dancer renowned for her perfect form, impressive strength, and a range of motion that set her apart from her peers.
Considered a top talent in the golden era of the Romantic movement, Taglioni’s career took her to the most distinguished European ballet companies, from the Paris Opera to the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. Often credited as the first person to dance en pointe, Marie Taglioni’s legacy as an early superstar in the time before the age of the prima donna ballerina is undeniable.
Another star of the Romantic era is the Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler. Elssler came from a musically connected family; her father and uncle were employed as servants and copyists of the great court composer Joseph Haydn. Ellsler showed such an early skill for dancing that she was considered by many to be a child prodigy. After training and performing in many royal courts from Naples to Berlin, Elssler landed a spot in the Paris Opera Ballet in 1834 that put her in competition with the superstar Marie Taglioni.
A less virtuosically impressive dancer than Taglioni, the younger Essler nonetheless set herself apart from the older ballerina by an attention to precision in her footwork and a fawning cult of personality paid to her by the French audience because of her great beauty. Her career took her all over Europe and across the Atlantic to America, where her performance in the great Romantic ballet La Sylphide caused a sensation among the cultural elite. She died in 1884, the same year as her former rival Maria Taglioni, just as a new era of ballerina was emerging: The Age of the Prima Donna.
Known for her incredible strength matched with a rigid control of technique, the Milanese ballerina Pierina Legnani was a dance sensation during the fin de siècle (the end of the 19th century) period of European culture.
During the height of her career at the Imperial Russian Ballet under choreographer and ballet master Marius Petipa, she was awarded the title of Prima ballerina assoluta, an honorific invented by Petipa to bestow on prima ballerinas who have distinguished themselves above the rest. This title gave birth to the station of the prima donna ballerina, the star among the stars, a concept that would dominate the world of ballet in the coming 20th century. For this reason alone, Legnani is an important figure in the history of dance, but it’s also worth noting that her work in Petipa’s productions is the stuff of legends.
The first ballerina to complete a world tour, the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova is an important figure in the evolving world of dance of the early 20th century. Born with an angular body and high-arched feet, Pavlova’s appearance didn’t conform to the popular conception of a ballerina at the time. She initially struggled with her physical differences during her time at the Imperial Russian Ballet under the ballet master Marius Petipa, but soon learned to distinguish herself by her differences. She soon developed a style of dance that fit more comfortably with her body, and which harkened back to the earlier Romantic era style of dance.
She blossomed as a solo dancer as well, reaching international fame for her creation with choreographer Mikhail Fokine of the character of The Dying Swan. The revolutionary piece which is set to the music of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, featured gliding hand motions and precise, petite footwork reminiscent of the great Fanny Essler. It is now considered the archetypical expression of the solo ballerina.
After trading her Native Russia for England just before the turmoil of the First World War, Pavlova started her own ballet company and became a world traveler, taking her productions around the globe and on annual treks across the United States. Her innovations went beyond her impressive productions, as her sole-strengthening alterations to her shoes to accommodate her high arches prefigured the development of modern pointe shoes. A true trailblazer, Anna Pavlova died prematurely in 1931 of a sudden illness while on tour, her early demise only adding to her legend. To this day, she is still a towering figure in ballet.
A true child prodigy, English dancer Alicia Markova found early fame at the age of 13, dancing for the brilliant impresario Sergei Diaghilev in his Ballets Russes company. After the death of Diaghilev, Markova became an international star, following in the footsteps of Anna Pavlova and touring the world. She was particularly popular in the United States, where she formed her own version of the Ballet Russes during WWII and played a central role in the formation of the American Ballet Company.
She was one of the first ballerinas to appear in a Hollywood production, a multi-medium experience that inspired her to release innovative television master classes after her retirement. This move would go on to influence the modern phenomenon of online dance classes.
Another 20th century dancer to achieve international stardom, Dame Margot Fonteyn was, along with fellow countrywoman Alicia Markova, one of only two English dancers to earn the title of prima ballerina assoluta. Born Margot Hookham in 1919, she created the more exotic stage name of Fonteyn as a variation of Fontes, the surname of her illegitimate maternal grandfather, a wealthy Brazilian industrialist.
Her early career was defined by her collaborations with the English choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, whose productions created a distinctly English genre of ballet.
However, she is best known for her later career, when she paired with the recently defected Russian star Rudolf Nureyev. Although 19 years his senior, the chemistry between the two caused an immediate sensation, and with the recent advent of televised ballet performances the pair was rocketed to international stardom. To this day, their work together is cited as the pinnacle of paired ballet dancing, with a shared mind and body dynamic that created an otherworldly example of empathetic collaboration.
Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso was an extraordinary prima ballerina and a legendary talent with an international following. On the merits of her considerable abilities alone she would be included on this list, but her biography adds an impressive context to her prolific dance career.
Alonso was able to navigate a career that survived, and even thrived, through the tumult of the Cuban Revolution, a time marked by a general distrust between her native country and the rest of the western world. Also, at an early age, she suffered from a detached retina and never fully recovered. Although the true extent of her disability was kept a secret by the proud Alonso, it is generally agreed by experts that she was legally blind.
Her vision problems forced her to have an extremely fastidious approach to choreography, which only served to heighten her performance as a star ballerina. Despite the limitations of her government and body, she managed to still tour internationally to adoring crowds, and performed well into her 70’s as a solo dancer. Alicia Alonso was quite the superstar.
Last, but certainly not least on our list is Maria Tallchief. Born in Oklahoma in the diaspora territory of the Osage Nation, Maria Tallchief was the first Native American to become a prima ballerina, breaking color barriers at a time when indigineous people were treated as second-class citizens.
Working under the innovative choreographer George Ballanchine, she became an early star in his newly-formed New York City Ballet. Their productions together revolutionized the world of ballet and brought American ballet into the international spotlight, seen for the first time not as a second brand knock-off of Russian ballet but as a trend-making, cutting edge cultural force.
During this period of her career, she starred as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s production of The Nutcracker. Long considered a failure during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime and scorned in Russian and European circles, Balanchine’s staging of The Nutcracker with Tallchief became an instant hit in America, where it is still considered an essential holiday classic today. This transformation is emblematic of Tallchief’s career and the world of 20th century American ballet as a whole: To come as an outsider into a complicated and foreign cultural institution and to innovate and define that institution forever. We can thank Balanchine as choreographer and Maria Tallchief as prima ballerina for this cultural transformation.
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