Pierina Legnani, the first dancer ever to be given the honor of Prima Ballerina Assoluta (the highest honor achievable in the profession, and only given to 11 individuals to date) - proof that you don’t have to be a stick insect to excel at ballet.
Per request from @suzzay, here is a summary of Nikolai Tsiskaridze’s foreword to Heinz Spoerli’s production of “Swan Lake”.
For a number of years, Tsiskaridze was engaged by Russia’s Kultura channel to record these brief introductions, which would accompany ballet broadcasts. He would usually cover the ballet’s history and the details of a particular staging.
“Swan Lake” was first staged in Moscow in 1877. In 1895, following Tchaikovsky’s death, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov stage their own production of “Swan Lake”. That is the version of the ballet we are all familiar with today, the one which exists till today and keeps getting reimagined by different choreographers.
Tchaikovsky wrote a score that isn’t always convenient for choreographer, so there is a tendency to chop and change the music, as well as the choreography.
People tend to forget that Act 2 was choreographed by Ivanov, not Petipa. This is the case with Spoerli, who writes that he created his ballet based of Petipa’s choreography, while he owns as much credit to Lev Ivanov.
Western choreographers feel the need to depart from the classical Russian choreography and “cleanse”, as they put it, classical ballets of their “Russian-ness”, while only leaving the elements they consider to be crowd-pleasers in.
The “Swan Lake” you are about to see is the third version of the ballet staged by Spoerli. His original production followed the classical canon, but he later re-choreographed a version which takes place in a ballet class, with the dancers falling in love with each other and the balletmaster - Von Rothbart - coming between them. In 2002, Spoerli returned to the classical Petipa version, though he removed the one element he loathes - the pantomime.
Over the years “Swan Lake” has undergone so many transformations that even though we know that most of the swan scenes were choreographed by Ivanov, while the pas de deux belong to Petipa, in actuality it is very difficult to tell which choreographer is responsible for which element of the ballet.
Pierina Legnani was the first ballerina to perform the thirty-two fouettes in “Swan Lake” (she originally performed this feat in “Cinderella”). In fact, Petipa included the fouettes in Act 3 specifically for Legnani, which is how this element became part of classical canon.
I did not include Tsiskaridze’s overview of the cast and Spoerli’s biography. You can read up on Spoerli here.
The photos included in this post are from the original 1895 production at the Mariinsky Theatre.
Elizaveta Gerdt, the Russian ballerina and teacher, was born in St Petersburg on April 29, 1891.
A daughter of celebrated dancer Paul Gerdt, she studied under Michel Fokine at the Imperial Ballet School, where her chief partner was Vaslav Nijinsky. She married another popular danseur, Samuil Adrianov (1884-1917; the first husband), who danced with Pierina Legnani and Mathilde Kschessinska, two ballerinas she sought to emulate.
After the Russian Revolution Elizaveta Gerdt and Olga Spesivtseva were the only world-class dancers who chose to remain in Russia, while others emigrated to the West.
In 1928, after 20 years of dancing, she resolved to abandon the stage and devote herself to teaching. She taught the class of perfection for the female dancers in the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theatre together with teaching the girls in her Alma mater (1927-1934). Then she moved from Leningrad to Moscow. There she taught the class for the female dancers at the Bolshoi Theatre, coaching ballerinas of the Bolshoi Ballet and also worked at the Moscow Ballet School (1935-1942 and 1945-1960).
Among her students were Alla Shelest (in Leningrad), Irina Tikhomirnova, Maya Plisetskaya, Violetta Bovt, Mira Redina, Raisa Struchkova, Ekaterina Maksimova (in Moscow). With some of them she continued to collaborate at the theatre. Thus she coached Sulamith Messerer and later her niece Maya Plisetskaya.