Per Christian Johansson was a Premier Danseur and principal teacher at the Imperial Ballet School, who made an incredible contribution to classical ballet. Born on the 20th May 1817 in Stockholm, Sweden, Johansson trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, graduating under the first Swedish-born choreographer of note, Anders Selinder and joined the Royal Swedish Ballet Company.
In 1836, after making his début, Johansson was noticed by the Danish choreographer and Ballet Master, August Bournonville, who invited him to Copenhagen to train with him. Johansson trained with Bournonville for two years, becoming one of his star pupils, and on completing his training, he returned to Stockholm as Premier Danseur and was officially recognised as one of the greatest male ballet dancers in all of Europe. One of the highlights of Johansson’s career was when he partnered the great Marie Taglioni during her brief guest appearance in Stockholm in 1841. In fact, when Taglioni was invited to appear in Stockholm, she agreed only on condition that Johansson would be her partner.
In 1842, Taglioni travelled to Saint Petersburg, where Johansson followed her in the hopes of securing an engagement at the Imperial Theatres. While taking classes at the Imperial Ballet School, he was noticed by Ballet Master Antoine Titus, which led to his official Saint Petersburg début and an engagement with the Imperial Ballet. He settled into Russian life well, learned the language and married a Russian woman, who was the mother of his famous daughter, Anna Johansson (1860-1917), one of Petipa’s most celebrated soloists.
Christian Johansson became Premier Danseur with the Imperial Ballet and became especially noted for his innate nobility and grace and his impeccably precise and correct technique. Some of the highlights of his dancing career were his partnering of some of the most famous ballerinas of the 19th century – Marie Taglioni, Fanny Cerrito, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Elssler, Amalia Ferraris and Elena Andreyanova. In 1860, Johansson turned his attention more towards teaching as his dancing days began to meet their end and started giving lessons at the Imperial School, but it was not until 1869 that he was officially enrolled into the school’s staff.
Johansson taught at the Imperial Ballet School for forty-three years. He taught the method of the French school, borrowing ideas and traditions from the great Ballet Masters Auguste Vestris, Filippo Taglioni, Jules Perrot and his teacher, August Bournonville. Johansson brought a new polish to the Russian style and he became one of Petipa’s most important collaborators, particularly in the case of the men’s dancing. Between the two, Johansson was a better choreographer for the men, while Petipa’s choreographic skills were better suited for the women and Petipa would often send his male dancers to Johansson to have their variations choreographed. Johansson proved to be a great influence to Petipa, so much so that Petipa would sit in on Johansson’s classes, observe everything and take notes. Johansson would then see his ideas on stage and would jokingly say: “Once again the old man is stealing something from me…”
Johansson became one of the most influential and respected teachers; all his students greatly admired and respected him. One of the most distinguished features of his classes was that he was always accompanied by his violin and a thick stick that he used to keep the musical beat underneath his mumbled counts of music. Johansson trained some of the greatest names in ballet history – his students included his daughter Anna, Pavel Gerdt, Marie Petipa, Maria Gorshenkova, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Nikolai and Sergei Legat, Matilda Kschessinskaya, Alexander Shiryaev, Vera Trefilova, Georgy and Lydia Kyaksht, Varvara Nikitina, Alexander Gorsky, Agrippina Vaganova, Mikhail Fokine, Tamara Karsavina and Anna Pavlova.
In 1902, at the age of 85, Johansson retired from teaching, leaving his position to his student Nikolai Legat and even gave him his violin, which Legat held as a cherished gift. In 1903, a tragedy occurred when Johansson’s wife died, a loss that he never recovered from. Only a month after his wife’s death, Johansson had an accident when he fell and hit his head, which triggered a stroke.
Christian Johansson died on the 25th December [O.S. 12th December] 1903, aged 86. He is buried in the Smolenskoe Lutheran Cemetery in Saint Petersburg.