The Legends: Famous Ballerinas of All Time

Famous ballerinas
Ballet is a beautiful dance form that's made to look even more so by ballerinas. They add their own touch to this already-graceful and breathtaking dance form. The names included in this Buzzle post are legendary ballerinas in their own right; some of the best in the business.
A Ballerina Performance Vs. a Soccer Game
A 3-hour ballet performance is almost equivalent to two 90-minute soccer games played one after the other!
Ballet is exciting and entertaining to perform, and to watch. Though formalized, it is performed in tandem with classical music. It is tremendously technical and has its own jargon. The ballet technique was constituted years ago in Europe, after which it has gone through many evolutionary changes, and was refined by adding to the vocabulary steps and movements that are unique to ballet.

Dancers need a lot of practice and hard work to excel in ballet dancing. They need to be fit, strong, and flexible, and they are usually lifelong students. They are required to develop a good kinesthetic sense because of which they can kick, run, jump, and turn without clashing into each other. Here are a few ballerinas, living and dead, who made it big during their time.
Pierina Legnani
September 30, 1863 - November 15, 1930
Few ballets performed :-
  • Cinderella
  • The Talisman
  • La Perle
  • Coppélia
  • Raymonda
  • Les ruses d'amour
  • The Cavalry Halt
  • La Camargo
An Italian ballerina, Pierina Legnani was one of the ballerinas to win the title of Prima Ballerina Assoluta at the Mariinsky Theatre. She trained under the famous ballet dancer Caterina Beretta at La Scala, where she was named Prima Ballerina in 1892. Legnani is widely known to perform the incredible 32 fouette turns in Cinderella in 1893. This was later introduced into the Swan Lake choreography, which led to the popularity of this ballet. She retired from dancing at the age of 27 in 1901. Later on, she worked in the examining board of La Scala Theatre Ballet School.
Anna Pavlova
February 12, 1881 - January, 23, 1931
Few ballets performed :-
  • Les Dryades prétendues (The False Dryads)
  • The Pharaoh's Daughter
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • La Bayadère (The Temple Dancer)
  • Giselle
  • The Dying Swan
What can one say about this queen of ballet from yesteryear? Talk about famous Russian ballet dancers and hers is the name which comes to the fore. Anna Pavlova was undoubtedly one of the most popular ballet artists. She was almost the 'be all and end all' of ballet in the late 19th and early 20th century. Widely regarded as principal artist of the Imperial Russian Ballet, Pavlova is most famous for her role creation of 'The Dying Swan'. Further, with her own company, she was the first ballerina who toured the world!

Anna had the first tryst with ballet at the age of 8, when she was taken by her mother to watch a ballet. Later on, at the age of 10, Pavlova was taken in as a student in Imperial Ballet School. Incidentally, Marius Petipa was the producer of the first ballet she saw and performed for. She was awarded with Première Danseuse in 1905, and finally, Prima Ballerina in 1906 after a resounding performance in Giselle. In her later years, she shifted to England and had a profound influence on English ballet. She passed away three weeks before her 50th birthday. "Prepare my Dying Swan costume!"―these were probably her last words before she left for her heavenly abode.
Galina Ulanova
December 26, 1909 - March 21, 1998
Few ballets performed :-
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Giselle
  • Swan Lake
  • Cinderella
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • Les Sylphides
  • The Fountain of Bakhchisarai
Galina Ulanova was one of the greatest Russian ballerinas of the 20th century. Her mother herself was a ballet dancer at the Imperial Russian Ballet. As a child, Ulanova was not fond of dancing and rebelled when her mother gave her ballet lessons. She was unwillingly enrolled at the local ballet school and was trained under Agrippina Vaganova. Eventually, she grew to accept and excel in ballet. Fedor Lopukov, an artistic director at the Kirov, discovered her rare talent, and Ulanova joined Kirov in 1928. She was greatly lauded for her performances. In 1944, she was transferred to Bolshoi Theatre, where she won the title of Prima Ballerina Assoluta for 16 years, a title held by only 11 ballerinas till date. She also won the title of "Hero of Socialist Labour." Ulanova earned great fame when she toured at the age of 46 and was cited as one of the greatest dancers after Anna Pavlova. She retired at the age of 50 and coached many Russian ballerinas thereafter.
Alicia Markova
December 1, 1910 - December 2, 2004
Few ballets performed :-
  • Giselle
  • The Dying Swan
  • Le Chant du Rossignol
  • Les Sylphides
  • La Chatte
  • The Nutcracker
  • Rouge et noir
  • Aleko
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Vilea
Alicia Markova can be said to be Pavlova's contemporary. Markova has been touted as one of the greatest ballerinas of the west during her time. She was known as Dame Alicia Markova, and she was the second British dancer to be awarded the Prima Ballerina Assoluta. No wonder, she was one of the best there was in the 20th century. Another feather in her cap was that she was the first British dancer who became the principal dancer of a ballet company. Rambert Dance Company was established by her in addition to The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. After she retired from the professional ballet scene, she imparted her incredible dancing skills to her students. She died of a stroke in 2004.
Alicia Alonso
Born: December 21, 1921 (aged 92 years)
Few ballets performed :-
  • Great Lady
  • Giselle
  • Swan Lake
  • A Voyage to the Moon
  • Carmen
This Cuban dancer carved a distinct niche for herself in the field of ballet by being intensely dramatic and a technician to the core. American School of Ballet was where she honed her ballet skills and went to England in between. Then in 1940, Alicia Alonso joined the American Ballet Theatre and was a part of it till 1960. During this period, she took a break due to eye problems, something that has been troubling her throughout her life. She made a comeback to the American Ballet Theatre in 1943. She had a fabulous partnership with Youskevitch and is most known for her role in Giselle. She set up the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company in Cuba in 1948, following which she gained recognition as a choreographer. In the year 1950, she came up with her own ballet school. A Prima Ballerina, Alonso toured China, the then-USSR and Europe a lot. She continues to direct her Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
Maya Plisetskaya
Born: November 20, 1925 (aged 88 years)
Few ballets performed :-
  • The Sleeping Beauty
  • The Nutcracker
  • Giselle
  • Swan Lake
  • The Dying Swan
  • Raymonda
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Carmen Suite
  • Spartacus
Another great ballerina of the 20th century, Maya Plisetskaya was born to a Jewish family. Many of her family members were involved with theater and films. Plisetskaya's parents were arrested in 1938 due to which she was sent to a labor camp along with her brother for the next 3 years. She was taken care of by her maternal aunt, a Bolshoi ballerina, until her mother was released. Plisetskaya joined the Bolshoi Ballet School at the age of 9 and gave her first performance at the Bolshoi theater at 11. She graduated at the age of 18, in 1943, and was soon recognized as a soloist when she joined the Bolshoi Ballet. Having a striking personality with red hair and long arms, Plisetskaya gained fame in her version of the The Dying Swan. She was not allowed to perform abroad until 1959, after which, she gained universal fame. She won the title of Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Bolshoi in 1960 (after Galina Ulanova) and the Anna Pavlova Prize in 1962. She was appointed as the President of the Imperial Russian Ballet in 1996, and she continues to work in the ballet world even at the age of 89.
Beryl Grey
Born: June 11, 1927 (aged 86 years)
Few ballets performed :-
  • The Sleeping Beauty
  • Le Lac des Cygnes (Swan Lake)
  • The Birds
  • Giselle
  • Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis
  • The Quest
Beryl Grey was born in England and came on to the dancing scene a tad later than Fonteyn. Born in 1927, she joined Sadler's Wells ballet in the year 1941. Consequently, on her 15th birthday, she performed a full length Swan Lake in 1942. A Dame of the British Empire in 1988, Vice President of the Royal Academy of Dancing since 1980, and President of the Imperial Society of Dancing, and a Director of The Birmingham Royal Ballet are the titles she has held. Grey has also got an Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) on account of her contribution to ballet in her illustrious career. Queen Elizabeth Coronation Award by Dame Antoinette Sibley in September 1997 was another addition to the list of her numerous achievements.
Margot Fonteyn
May 18, 1919 - February 21, 1991
Few ballets performed :-
  • Giselle
  • Swan Lake
  • The Sleeping Beauty
  • Ondine
  • Daphnis and Chloe
  • Sylvia
Another British ballerina to have graced the ballet horizon is Margot Fonteyn. She got through Vic-Wells Ballet School in the year 1933. The next year, due to her phenomenal skills and hard work, she had become a part of Giselle, Odette-Odile, and Aurora ballets. By 1939, Margot gained significant roles in Giselle, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty. Thereafter, she was appointed Prima Ballerina. She had a great dancing camaraderie with Robert Helpmann and Michael Somes. Rudolf Nureyev was her partner for many ballets. There were also speculations about their relationship beyond dance. In 1949, when the Royal Ballet toured the US, she drew a lot of fan following and instantly became a celebrity for her performances.
Phyllis Spira
October 18, 1943 - March 11, 2008
Few ballets performed :-
  • Giselle
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Don Quixote
  • Orpheus and the Underworld
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A South African ballet dancer, Phyllis Spira was often referred to as 'a baby Markova' by her ballet teachers. She joined the Royal Ballet School in 1959. Spira was promoted as the soloist when she joined the Royal Ballet touring company the next year. She returned to South Africa in 1964, turning down an invitation to dance with Rudolf Nureyev. She became South Africa's first Prima Ballerina Assoluta in 1984. She won an international recognition during her career with CAPAB. Spira, with her husband Philip Boyd, founded the Dance For All programme, which teaches ballet in Cape Town. Spira suffered an injury during her Giselle performance in August 2007 due to which she had to go through a series of operations. One of the operations led to certain complications, during which Spira passed away in 2008 at the age of 64.
Eva Evdokimova
December 1, 1948 - April 3, 2009
Few ballets performed :-
  • Giselle
  • The Sleeping Beauty
  • La Sylphide (The Sylph)
Eva Evdokimova was born to a Bulgarian father and American mother. She began training as a kid in Munich, and studied for a several years in the Royal Ballet School, London. She completed her training in the Royal Danish Ballet under Vera Volkova. Evdokimova earned fame in the Berlin Opera Ballet where she won the title of Prima Ballerina for 12 years from 1973 to 1985. Traveling was a major part of her career, and throughout it, she worked with many companies like Kirov. She was highly recognized for her roles in Giselle and La Sylphide. She won a gold in the Varna International Ballet Competition, and among her other achievements are the first Ulanova prize. Evdokimova later became a dance teacher/coach and taught in the US, Japan, and Europe. She succumbed to cancer at the age of 60.
The list of famous ballerinas is actually an endless one. But, ballet could not have earned the fame of a magical and graceful dance form, had it not been for these commendable ballerinas.
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