Since the beginning of the human race woman has been alongside man for every stride and success. Sure, there are times where women have been downtrodden and considered second best but it is the complete opposite in the world of ballet.
In this refined artistic realm where ladies dance en pointe and men are there to lift their weightless bodies to new heights, woman are rather dominant in the spotlight. Seriously, what little girl didn’t dream to be a ballerina someday? Okay, we realize not every little girl wanted to be a ballerina, but there was a great many who did. Some of them made that dream a reality and this is the focal point of our list today.
1. Anna Pavlova
Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova graced the ballet stage during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of her performances were at the Imperial Russian Ballet and with the Ballet Russes created by Sergei Diaghilev. Pavlova’s most notable role was her conception of The Dying Swan, a solo choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1905.
The first ballerina to tour the world Pavlova was born on February 12, 1881 in Ligovo, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Her parents were unwed and she was adopted by her mother’s second husband Matvey Pavlov. It was when her mother took her to see the original production of The Sleeping Beauty choreographed by Marius Petipa at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre that Pavlova knew she wanted to dance.
Her first audition to the Imperial Ballet School was rejected because Pavlova looked “sickly.” The next year, in 1891, she was granted entrance and would go on to perform in Un Conte de Fees, also choreographed by Petipa, specifically for the school.
Although Pavlova reached great heights professionally, her training did not come easy for her. Her feet were sharply arched and she had skinny ankles. Her arms and legs were longer than the preferred ballerina of the time, which was a body that was more solid. Her classmates would tease her but Pavlova did not let that stop her. She worked harder than anyone training on the side with Christian Johansson, Pavel Gerdt, Nikolai Legat, and Enrico Cecchetti.
In 1898 Pavlova enrolled in the classe de perfection with Prima ballerina Ekaterina Vazem. At the age of eighteen, she graduated and was immediately given a spot in the Imperial Ballet’s corps de ballet. Her formal debut was at the Mariinsky Theatre in a production of Les Dryades prétendues by Pavel Gerdt.
Still, her style of dancing was off-putting to some of the audiences, especially since she seems to make a lot of mistakes in an academic sense that Petipa held strictly. It is said that her performances, while gifted, were filled with her knees bent, misdirected port de bras, or placement of arms, and imperfectly positioned tours, or turns. Her uniqueness and use of wooden support soles in her pointe shoes, which was considered deceitful for ballerinas at that time, did not stop Marius Petipa from using her often. She went on to have a legendary career. Unfortunately, while touring she contracted pneumonia was in need of surgery but was informed that this would end her dancing career.
Pavlova rebuffed the medical help saying that she would “rather be dead” then not dance. Her mortality wish came true on January 23, 1931, in The Hague. Her fiftieth birthday was only three short weeks away. Some interesting facts about Pavlova are that she was able to turn thirty-seven times while atop a mobile elephant on a tour of China. Also, there are several sculptures of her located in the Ivy House and in the Victoria Palace Theater.
2. Diana Vishneva
A more contemporary entry for our second spot on the list of famous females in ballet. This dancer was also born in Russia and is a principal dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre.
Born in St. Petersburg in 1976 Vishneva studied the dance at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet. Her scores while there have exceeded anything before and after her attendance. When she graduated in 1995 Vishneva was instantly recruited by the Mariinsky Ballet Company and subsequently, she won the Benois de la Danse, which is a respected ballet contest, and the Golden Sofit, the most prestigious theater award in St. Petersburg.
These accomplishments quickly helped Vishneva move up to principal dancer in 1996. It was in 2003 when Vishneva would first perform with the American Ballet Theatre. Two years later she took on the role of principal dancer with that company as well.
Vishneva starred in Ballerina, a documentary released in 2006. Two years after that she became a member of the Honorary Board of Directors for the Russian Children’s Welfare Society. Also revered for her beauty Vishneva became a spokesperson for Discipline, a beauty product line by Kérastase, a French line of hair care products.
Performing in classic ballets like Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet, La Bayadére, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Firebird, and Giselle, Vishneva is similarly featured in more contemporary pieces from artisans like George Balanchine, William Forsythe, and Roland Petit.
Awards she has received also include the People’s Artist of Russia in 2007, The State Prize of Russia in 2000, Prizewinner at the International Ballet Competition in 1994, and the recipient of Russia’s Golden Mask theatre prize in 2009 for Ballet/Best Production, Ballet/Contemporary Dance, and the Critics Award.
3. Margot Fonteyn
This female famous for her gifts as a ballerina is considered one of the best classical dancers that has ever lived. The entirety of her career was spent performing with the Royal Ballet. Queen Elizabeth II appointed her Prima Ballerina Assouta of the prestigious ballet company.
Born in Reigate, Surrey, England, UK on May 18, 1919, Fonteyn’s father was British while her mother was of half-Brazilian and half-Irish descent, who signed her young daughter up for ballet classes at the age of four. At age eight her family moved to China where her father obtained a job there. They would live abroad in Asia or the next six years. While there Fonteyn trained under George Goncharov, a Russian teacher living in Shanghai.
At fourteen she was enrolled in the Vic-Wells Ballet School in London. There she studied under instructors like Ninette de Valois, Olga Preobrajenska, and Mathilde Kschessinska. Just six years later she already had lead roles in productions of Giselle, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty in her repertoire. Fonteyn became a Prima Ballerina for the Royal Ballet.
Her most notable roles afterward are with famed choreographer Frederick Ashton in such works as Ondine, Daphnis and Chloe, and Sylvia. Another celebrated role of hers was as Aurora in Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty.
Fonteyn was the recipient of a DBE and made a dame by the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1956, she held the position of chancellor at the University of Durham in North East England from 1981 through 1990, and she was selected as one of five “Women of Achievement” in England to be immortalized on a stamp in 1996.
After retiring to Panama City, Panama for some time Fonteyn was ill and cancer was detected. She would die on February 21, 1991 in a local hospital. Her final performance was in 1986 as the Queen in The Sleeping Beauty.
4. Sylvie Guillem
This French native was born on February 25, 1965, in Paris. She originally trained as a gymnast as a child with her mother, a gymnastics instructor, as her teacher. At the age of eleven Guillem began her studies at the Paris Opera Ballet School in 1977. Claude Bessy, a ballerina, and director of the school at the time was impressed with Guillem instantly and it didn’t take long for her to become a member of the corps de ballet in 1981.
Two years later Guillem was awarded the gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition. I direct result of that accomplishment was her first lead role at the Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote originally staged by Rudolf Nureyev. The very next year Guillem would be appointed to the role of étoile or high placing ballerina in the company. She is the youngest dancer to ever reach this goal.
In a celebration of Nureyev’s fiftieth birthday in 1988, Guillem was given the lead role in Giselle. It was showcased by the Royal Ballet and a year later she took on the role of a freelance ballerina and was continually a guest principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. Her desire to work and dance while not tied down to a specific company earned her the title “Mademoiselle Non.”
Guillem created Evientia, a television show featuring ballet and dance, in 1995. It won a number of international competitions. Three years later she produced her own adaptation of Giselle for the Finnish National Ballet in Helsinki, and in 2001 Guillem performed the same production in Milan for the La Scala Ballet.
She was named the first ever winner of the Nijinsky Prize for the world’s best ballerina in 2001. Two years later Guillem directed a pivotal part of the Nureyev tribute program but her artistic vision of having the dancers perform in front of giant photos of Nureyev was not well received.
Guillem’s final performance was just last year on December 31st live on Japanese television. She danced in Boléro by Maurice Béjart.
PS: March was Women’s History Month! Take a look at how Cennarium honored women’s accomplishments in the performing arts with 3 select streamed shows!