A successful ballet depends on many different things. The story the dance intends to tell is important and so is the music composed to accompany the story. The choreography of the dances is important as well as the orchestra that conveys the music in which the story will be told alongside.
Still, the single most important ingredient in this mix, the one in which no ballet would survive without is the ballet dancer. These gifted men and women utilized their talents to tell us a story of a Nutcracker that fights a Rat King or the Swan Queen that becomes human.
It only makes sense that, since a great deal of weight in the success of a ballet performance rides on the backs of its dancers that once a great ballet performer is found, his or her status skyrockets in the global ballet arena.
Dancers of this stature have hailed from all over the world and continue to dazzle us today. This is why we would like to discuss five of the top ballet dancers of all time.
1. Galina Ulanova
Born in Russia on January 8, 1910, Galina Ulanova has been called the paramount ballerina of the twentieth century. Ulanova studied in St. Petersburg with the renowned ballet master Agrippina Vaganova.
In 1928 Ulanova joined the Mariinsky Theater and, due to her acting style of dancing, director Konstantin Stanislavsky, beseeched Ulanova to join his productions.
Joseph Stalin became aware of Galina Ulanova in 1944 and insisted she be relocated to Moscow to dance with Bolshoi Theater. She became prima ballerina and held the title there for sixteen years. In 1945 Ulanova performed as the title character in the world debut of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella.
The draw to Ulanova as a dancer was her amazing acting abilities. When she was forty-six years old Ulanova was at long last permitted to travel outside of Russia. Upon doing so she enchanted the British ballet fans. Some British papers claimed her to be the best ballet dancer since Anna Pavlova.
At the age of fifty Ulanova would retire from dancing and go on to coach many future Russian ballet dancers. Famed Russian ballerina Margot Fonteyn said of Ulanova, “I cannot even begin to talk about Ulanova’s dancing, it is so marvelous, I am left speechless. It is magic.”
Ulanova perished in Moscow at the age of eighty-eight and is entombed at the cemetery of the Novodevichy Convent in that same city. Her apartment in Moscow is preserved as a museum and shrines were built to honor Ulanova in St. Petersburg and Stockholm.
2. Sylvie Guillem
This top notch ballet dancer was born in France on February 25, 1965. While growing up in Paris Guillem studied gymnastics with her mother who was a gymnastics teacher. When she was eleven years old Guillem began to train for the ballet at the Paris Opera Ballet School. The director, Claude Bessy, recognized her talent immediately. In 1981 Guillem joined the Paris Opera’s corps de ballet at the young age of sixteen.
Guillem was not a fan of the dance in the beginning, but once she got a taste of performing she found that she adored the ballet.
In 1983 she was awarded the Varna International Ballet Competition’s gold medal. This led Guillem to her first solo in Rudolf Nureyev’s production of Don Quixote. The next year she performed in Nureyev’s staging of Swan Lake and subsequently was named the highest rank of female dancer, étoile or star, at the Paris Opera Ballet. She is the youngest ballerina to earn this honor at this company.
Guillem performed the lead in Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a contemporary ballet, in 1987. The next year Guillem earned the title role in Giselle, a production performed by The Royal Ballet. This production was in celebration of Nureyev’s fiftieth birthday. Guillem’s success in this role catapulted her to move from Paris to London.
While there Guillem earned the moniker “Mademoiselle Non”, which loosely translates to “Not Miss.” She was given this nickname because she preferred to freelance as a ballet dancer than exclusively join one company.
She created the television program Evidentia in 1995 and it earned quite a few accolades internationally. Guillem took over production by staging her own rendition of Giselle performed by the Finnish National Ballet.
Guillem won the Nijinsky Prize for the world’s best ballerina in 2001 and was the first ballerina to be awarded the title. While grateful she made sure to profess her disdain for such decorations. Later that year photos of her were published in French Vogue and the dancer appeared naked and without makeup. This caused some controversy for the ballet dancer.
Giving her final performance on December 31, 2015, Guillem performed Maurice Béjart’s Boléro live on Japanese television while timers ticked toward midnight and a new year.
3. Vaslav Nijinsky
Our first ballet dancer of Polish decent Vaslav Nijinsky has been hailed by some as the greatest male dancer of the twentieth century. Born on March 12, 1889 Nijinsky was known to characterize his subjects with intensity. He also was a rarity in male ballet dancers with his ability to dance en pointe.
Nijinsky’s parents were both dancers who traveled with the Setov Opera company and he spent his youth touring alongside the group. His two siblings also became ballet dancers.
When he turned nine years old Nijinsky was admitted into the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. Upon graduation at the age of eighteen Nijinsky was given the role of coryphée, or lead dancer, skipping over the entry level position of corps de ballet. During his time here Nijinsky worked closely with his sister Bronia in dance and choreography.
When Sergei Diaghilev formed Paris’ renowned Ballets Russes, Nijinsky left St. Petersburg and moved to France to join the new company. He was an instant star and was known to leave his audiences speechless with his performances. It was here where Nijinsky and Diaghilev started a romantic relationship.
Nijinsky choreographed unique ballets starting in 1912 and premiered Le Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring, in Paris in 1913. At that debut, featuring compositions by Igor Stravinsky, battles erupted among the audience over the shocking new trend in ballet.
That same year Nijinsky married Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian aristocrat, which brought an end to his relationship with Diaghilev. This meant an end not only to their relationship romantically but professionally as well. Diaghilev fired Nijinsky shortly after his marriage.
Nijinsky attempted to found his own ballet company but was unsuccessful. He was placed under house arrest in Hungary during WWI and was kept there until 1916. With the help of Diaghilev and other global authorities, Nijinsky was given permission to travel to New York to perform in an American tour.
With failing mental capabilities Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and committed. He would spend the next thirty years of his life in a revolving door of institutionalization. Unfortunately, he would never dance again in public. Nijinsky died of kidney failure on April 8, 1950 in London and is buried there.
4. Anna Pavlova
This legendary Russian dancer was the first ballerina to tour the globe with her own company. Pavlova was born to unwed parents on February 12, 1881 in St. Petersburg. Her biological father is believed to be Lazar Polyakov, a banker, yet it seems she may have been adopted by her mother’s second husband Matvey Pavlov.
It was at Marius Petipa’s debut performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Imperial Mariinksy Theater where Pavlova first fell in love with the ballet. She was there with her mother and the impression it would leave on her was lifelong.
Pavlova auditioned for the Imperial Ballet School at the age of nine but because she looked ill and malnourished she was not picked. The next year she auditioned again and was admitted as a student.
The time she spent as a student was not easy for Pavlova. She was longer than most ballerinas at the time and was dubbed The Broom or La petite sauvage, meaning the little savage. None of this stopped Pavlova, it only drove her to become better. She studied twice as hard and took her education further than any of the students she learned alongside at the time.
Research finds that due to her long body, brutally arched feet, and thin ankles mixed with her enthusiasm for the ballet would find Pavlova to be a bit clumsy in the dance. At one performance in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, Pavlova lost her composure and fell into the prompter’s box. At a performance of The Sleeping Beauty she had to improvise certain en pointe jumps due to the pain in her weak ankles.
Somehow, all of these strikes against her didn’t seem to matter. Once Pavlova became a favorite dancer under Marius Petipa she swiftly ascended to the top of the ballerina world.
Her most celebrated role was in a solo choreographed just for her by Mikhail Fokine entitled The Dying Swan. This 1905 ballet is performed to Le cygne by Camille Saint-Saëns.
Pavlova founded her own ballet company in the early twentieth century and they toured around the globe. The productions they performed consistently leaned on the ideas of Marius Petipa and focused on Pavlova as a center.
There is a rumored conflict Pavlova had with dancer Tamara Karsavina and it is said that Pavlova rigged Karsavina’s wardrobe to fall and expose her in front of the audience. She was supposedly brought to tears.
Pavlova died just short of her fiftieth birthday when she refused an operation that would save her from pneumonia but make her unable to dance again for the rest of her life. She is quoted as saying, “If I can’t dance then I’d rather be dead.” Her wish was granted on Friday, January 23, 1931.