Today is a pretty special day. I wasn’t late for work this morning (like in this post), I’m finally having a good hair day (yay, no rain today!) AND it also happens to be the birthday of not one but TWO of the most inspiring and important figures in ballet history. See, very special indeed!
Alexandra Danilova, Prima Ballerina (1903-1997)
The great and irreplaceable Alexandra Danilova, known to her friends as Choura, was born today 110 years ago in Saint Petersburg.
Known for her extraordinary versatility, wit and charm, she is most famous for being one of the star performers in Diaghilev’s renowned Ballet Russe. She danced almost all the major pieces in the ballet repertoire of the time including Swan Lake, Coppelia and even Leonide Massine’s balletic comedies ”Le Beau Danube” and ”Gaite Parisienne.” Her rise to prominence was quick and people would buy tickets specifically to watch her expressive and elegant movements on stage. From 1964 to 1989 she was also a much beloved and respected ballet teacher at the American School of Ballet and is credited with bringing the traditions of Russian ballet technique to America.
Unfortunately, parts of Danilova’s life read like a tragedy – she was orphaned at a young age, later fell in love with her former schoolmate George Balanchine (falling in love with a womaniser like Balanchine is a tragedy in itself) who left her for another, was never good at keeping her finances in check and married unhappily twice. Oftentimes when things looked like they were heading up, something would happen to pull the ground from under her feet. But Danilova never gave her craft up, even in the toughest, loneliest times. In her Autobiography “Choura”, published in 1986, she wrote ”I sacrificed marriage, children and country to be a ballerina, and there was never any misunderstanding on my part: I knew the price.”
Maya Plisetskaya, Prima Ballerina Absoluta (b. 1925)
When Danilova was 22, a little baby was born into a prominent Belarusian-Jewish family in Moscow. Little did her parent’s know that she would someday be heralded as one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th Century.
From the start Maya Plisetskaya was a trailblazer in her own right – she excelled at ballet school and spent only a short time in the corps de ballet before becoming a soloist. To me, Plisetskaya is the quintessential ballerina – she had (and still does at 88!) long, slender limbs, incredible flexibility, strength without strain and, to top it all off, a charming, fiery personality and hardworking nature. She excelled in adagio as well as allegro (how many people can claim that!) and mesmerised audiences whenever she performed. She is without a doubt, one of my favourite dancers.
Sadly, Plisetskaya’s life, like Danilova’s, was not void of misfortune. Being a wealthy Jew at a time in Russia where “anti-Zionist” and “anti-bourgeois” campaigns were commonplace and bloody she and her family suffered prejudice and persecution. Her father was murdered during a Stalinist purge and she was banned from travelling and dancing abroad during the first part of her career. Like Danilova, Plisetskaya never gave up ballet despite all that she faced. She continued to perform (with grace and agility) right up until she turned 70!
There are so many things I love about these two extraordinary women and so many lessons I think I can learn from the amazing lives they led. To me, both stand testament to the fact that when you find your calling, you just have to stick with it and keep going no matter what and for as long as you can.
Happy birthday Choura! Happy birthday Maya! In the hope that some of your ballet-genius rubs off on me today during class, I dedicate this post to you!