Maria Skorsiuk

Maria Sergeyevna Skorsiuk was a character artist and coryphée of the Imperial Ballet. Born in Saint Petersburg in 1872, Skorsiuk is not a well-known name in ballet history, but, through the research of Peter Koppers, she has recently surfaced as an interesting historical figure because she holds an interesting and important place in ballet history – she was the only black ballerina of the Russian Imperial Theatres. In a time and age long before the debate on people of colour in ballet took off at full throttle, Maria Skorsiuk studied at the Imperial Theatre School and was a member of the Imperial Ballet for ten years.

Maria Skorsiuk
Maria Skorsiuk ©Saint Petersburg Theatre Museum

In the 19th century, Saint Petersburg was home to a number of people from Africa, or who had African origins, known as Afro-Russians. They were descendants of servants to the Russian Court. According to the historian Ivan Zabelin, the tradition of black court pages was in place as early as the late 17th century. Georgy Manaev does not waste time to point out that Russia never had slaves, and that black people were not even part of the serf system. Black people in Russia, in those days predominantly Moors, were seen as something wondrous and given privileged tasks of attending to royalty to perform – emerging from the jesters, dwarfs and parrots as it were, as well as many a white servant. This privilege may be frowned upon today, but one must remember that Russia was a society without a public sphere and middle class at the time, where even the nobility was supposed to be at the back and call of the sovereign, and a rather elaborate pyramid of serving was in place. Catherine the Great employed two dozen servants of colour and instituted the position ‘Moor of the Imperial Court.’ The misnomer ‘Arap,’ later ‘Arab,’ continued to resonate in the Russian name of Petrushka’s Blackamoor.

The most illustrious individual of African origin was Russia’s national poet Alexander Pushkin, whose maternal great-grandfather was Abram Gannibal. Gannibal made it as far as engineer and general under Peter the Great. Peter I did not just educate his black pages as some form of amusement, but to really advance and make a career.

Bust of Abram Petrovich Gannibal in Petrovskoe
Bust of Abram Petrovich Gannibal in Petrovskoe

19th-century Saint Petersburg, increasingly cosmopolitan, hosted the first black Americans in 1809 when John Quincy Adams, who later became the 6th president of the United States, was appointed the first American ambassador to Russia in 1809 during the presidency of James Madison. After that, Afro-Americans helped fill the court ranks. At the beginning of the 20th century, most of them were made redundant, but not so the exotically named Abyssinian Guards, a most famous fixture of the last days of the Russian Court. These giants guarded the doors in striking attire. To give an idea: “… coats of black wool embroidered with double-headed eagles in gold thread over short wide jackets that shielded waistcoats of crimson velvet, with wide, scarlet wool trousers, pointed boots of Moroccon leather with gold stitching. Atop the head of each guard was a white or red turban or fez adorned with a gilded tassel …” (Anna Vyroubova). They were initially recruited from Ethiopia by the Russian Consul, but by the end of the 19th century, there was generally no longer anything Abyssinian about them. “… The only requirements were that the men were Christian, stood immensely tall, with imposing figures …” (Greg King). Among the last to serve the Tsar were Americans. “… One of them, called Sam, had come from the Riggs Plantation in Georgia; when once asked about his curious journey to the Russian Court, Sam replied simply that he had followed the money …” (Agnes de Stoeckl, Greg King). Another, a former slave and ex-boxer, Jim Hercules, “… travelled home each year for several months to holiday there, returning with homemade jellies as gifts for the Imperial children …” (Ian Vorres, etc., Greg King). Making 800 rubles annually, he did not rank too low on the Imperial payroll. Many ‘Moors of the Russian Court’ settled in the empire after service and took Russian wives.

Maria Skorsiuk was likely descended from the ‘Moors of the Russian Court’. Her father was from Luga and a member of the lower urban class and she had entered the Imperial Theatre School as a state student. She was taught by Ekaterina Vazem, who, in her memoirs, described her as “… A tall, skinny girl with the distinctive features of a purely African type, dark brown skin, large black eyes and full lips …” Vazem did also stereotype the girl as not fit for classical roles because of her ‘appearance,’ but she also points to her technical abilities in this respect.

Nevertheless, Vazem believed in the girl and her dance qualities. This must be seen in the context of the repertoire that awaited her – a repertoire rich in character parts and dances. However, after the spring exams in 1888, Skorsiuk suddenly found herself in danger of getting expelled, on grounds of ‘unsuitability.’ Vazem vehemently opposed the decision of the directorate, arguing that her graduation would be in just two years, and the precarious position that such a removal would put a sixteen-year-old girl in. Apart from ballet training, Skorsiuk had no extensive education and while a dancer on stage was applauded, a dancer off stage – and more so an unemployed one – was, if not outright looked down on, still no society material. The chairman of the board proposed Skorsiuk become a home tutor, but Vazem snapped at how preposterous this idea was; there were more than enough girls around with the proper education for that. After lengthy disputes, Vazem managed to get another examination for her protégée, for which she instructed her to do the etude set by the examiners without stopping (as in correcting oneself with small adjustments, etc., P.K) – and so bypass the ground they had fabricated to get her out. As Vazem asserted: ‘… That is what the ‘High Court’ of the theatre officials would respond to, having no clue what dance was really about …’ The trick worked. Skorsiuk could stay, finish the school, and embark on a career at the Mariinsky. Vazem’s generosity to the girl again stretched further when she tipped off Petipa about Skorsiuk, who also recognised her talent. Vazem resigned from the Theatre School in 1896, citing as the reason the endless misunderstandings like the one concerning Skorsiuk.

The cast of Act 1 of The Sleeping Beauty, with Maria Skorsiuk on the far left as one of the Young Maidens (1890)
The cast of Act 1 of The Sleeping Beauty, with Maria Skorsiuk on the far left as one of the Young Maidens (1890)

In 1890, the year of Skorsiuk’s graduation, a major ballet was staged. This ballet would come to boast an unprecedented number of performances and eventual worldwide acknowledgment as the epitome of classical dance. This ballet was, of course, The Sleeping Beauty and Skorsiuk was cast as one of the Four Young Maidens in the first act, who, together with the Four Maids of Honour, form a group of danseuses that accompany Princess Aurora. In one of the photographs of Act 1, Skorsiuk is the single one of her group portrayed along with Carlotta Brianza as Aurora, Felix Kschessinsky as King Florestan and Giuseppina Cecchètti as the Queen. The interpreters of the Young Maidens need(ed) to be ready for pointe work usually executed by coryphées and demi-soloists, and there is a chance that Skorsiuk substituted for Varvara Rikhlyakova, the strongest girl of her year. Rikhlyakova, whom many classical solo parts awaited, might have been injured, as she was not in the cast. Nevertheless, if Skorsiuk was a total disaster, another solution would have been found for the important première, so perhaps this somewhat dispels Vazem’s assessment of Skorsiuk’s suitability for classical parts.

Months later, Skorsiuk appeared on stage again, dancing in the farewell benefit performance for the conductor Alexei Papkov as part of her graduation assignments. The notorious critic Alexander Plescheyev, who from then on emerged as something of Skorsiuk’s champion, wrote with admiration about her and two of the other debutants, Rikhlyakova and Matilda Kschessinskaya (who had never been a boarding student). Skorsiuk performed a Spanish Dance, which she earned because of her gypsy-like appearance; she danced with fire, vivacity and energy and was completely embraced by the public.

Maria Skorsiuk entered the company in June 1890. From then on, she danced an extensive repertoire, but she would rarely don pointe shoes and was made to concentrate on character parts. In her first season, 1890/91, she appeared forty times in ballets and eighteen times in operas, totalling fifty-eight appearances.

Among Skorsiuk’s early roles was Heinrich in Nenuphar, one of the named students that accompanied Gerdt’s Franz on his fatal field trip in search of the rare, titular lily (all were performed en travestie). Skorsiuk also performed in the gypsy dance entitled the Danse Bohémienne in Fiametta and the nymph Jalousie in The Vestal. After Nenuphar, Kalkabrino was Petipa’s second new production of the season. The ballet about the nasty smuggler premiered in February 1891, as a vehicle for Brianza, who interpreted the dual role of Marietta/Draginiatza. Gerdt was Kalkabrino, and Skorsiuk was among the women of his band.

In the summer of 1891, in accordance with a summer tradition, part of the company moved to Krasnoe Selo, under the direction of Lev Ivanov. 1891 became Skorsiuk’s first ‘summer season,’ and she danced in a new ballet called The Boatmen’s Festival, a one-off which turned out to be Ivanov’s last creation for the red village. Together with Julia Kschessinskaya and Claudia Kulichevskaya, Skorsiuk appeared as a sailor in the aptly named Valse des Matelots. It received praise for its staging in the Petersburg Gazeta. Skorsiuk also took part in Krasnoe Selo’s divertissement of that year, alongside Marie Petipa, Julia Kschessinskaya, Maria Anderson, the ballet master Lev Ivanov himself, the newly graduated Georgy Kyaksht and Alexander Shiryaev. The latter reminisced about Skorsiuk: “… She danced randomly, and once in Krasnoe Selo when we performed a Spanish Dance together, we knocked our foreheads so hard that I saw “stars before my eyes” as they say … “

In the following season, Skorsiuk made a name for herself dancing the Peltata in Le Roi Candaule when the ballet was revived for Brianza in November 1891. Set in Candaule’s army camp, the king’s escort is seen engaged in warlike games, and the feisty duet was part of these. Skorsiuk danced with Stanislav Gillert, waving a baton. Plescheyev praised her liveliness in the Peltata and endorsed her development as a character dancer. Skorsiuk also danced one of the Bacchantes. Among the last performances of the 1891/92 season was Petipa’s Zoraya, in which Plescheyev credited Skorsiuk for her Abyssinian Dance.

The 1892/93 season opened with a ‘wood-oriented’ double bill. La Sylphide – incidentally, the last performance on the Mariinsky stage for decades to come – was paired with Ivanov’s The Enchanted Forest. Skorsiuk appeared in that ballet’s Czardas. Plescheyev singled her and Maria Tistrova out from the others for their ‘… passionate and captivating performance …’

The Naiad and the Fisherman followed, and the theatre billed it again to accommodate the talent of Varvara Nikitina. Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Mlada, based on an ancient Slav story, set in the Baltics around 1000 A.D., premièred on 20th October 1892. Twenty years before, then director Stepan Gedeonov had envisioned a prestigious joint ballet and opera project on Mlada, but it had come to naught. After that, Ludwig Minkus extracted his contribution and used it for the all-ballet version, which Petipa choreographed in 1879. Rimsky-Korsakov also set his libretto as an opera-ballet. Skorsiuk was to play in both productions, landing an important part in the ballet revival, which was staged in 1896. According to a review, Petipa withdrew from the opera production. He was on the sick list and had recently experienced the terrible tragedy of the death of his fifteen-year-old daughter Evgenia. The choreography was now handled by Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchètti. Skorsiuk appeared as an Indian Gypsy in Act II and as Cleopatra in Act III. The Indian Gypsy Dance fell to Ivanov, and he used Skorsiuk as a soloist in front of a corps de ballet.

“… Miss Skorsiuk ran about a great deal, fussed, but revealed neither oriental languor nor graceful passion in poses or movements: the whole dance bears a kind of hashed up, hurried, faint resemblance to something gypsy-Indian, generalised oriental or wild …” ((Novosti i Birzhevaya Gazeta, Roland John Wiley) but there was also appreciation: “… Among the dances, only the Indian Dance succeeded, thanks to the dancer Skorsiuk, a lively and spry young woman of the Gypsy type (!) …” (Chronicle of My Musical Life by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Roland John Wiley).

A vision of Egypt with Cleopatra is conjured up to seduce the hero, Yaromir. This section had choreography by Enrico Cecchètti.

“… Miss Skorsiuk, with her thin, frail figure … alternated resting on a gigantic sphinx at the back of the stage with taking part in the slave dances executed downstage, run among them, and then resume her position …” (Novosti i Birzhevaya Gazeta, Roland John Wiley). Cecchètti’s work here was compared unfavourably with Petipa’s ballet version in the same review.

Maria Skorsiuk in "The Pupils of Dupré" (1896)
Maria Skorsiuk in “The Pupils of Dupré” (1896) ©Saint Petersburg Theatre Museum

Skorsiuk embodied another Cleopatra in Petipa’s choreography for Gounod’s Faust, in the long Walpurgisnacht section, and after Le Roi Candaule, as another Bacchante in his Venusberg ballet of Wagner’s Tannhauser, restaged by Ivanov. Today, the best-known examples of ‘the Faust ballet’ are probably those of the contemporaries Leonid Lavrovsky (Walpurgis’ Night) and George Balanchine (Walpurgisnacht Ballet). The character Cleopatra indicates that Petipa and the director opted for a narrative approach.

Bizet’s best-loved opera Carmen enjoyed a revival on 9 April 1893. Skorsiuk appeared with the likes of Maria Petipa, Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Iosif Kschessinsky. Together with other artists, they were distributed over a Morena in Act 2 and a Spanish Dance, Fandango and Olé in Act 4, all newly choreographed by Enrico Cecchètti. In December of that year, Cinderella premiered. The grand production was the first Mariinsky ballet (created) to star Pierina Legnani, who was to spend seven more seasons with the company. Skorsiuk took part in a dance section devoted to the Elements, in which she danced Fire. She also led the War and Discord in Act 3 of Coppélia.

The management expressed its apparent appreciation of Skorsiuk in currency. As of August 1894, her annual salary went from 700 to 1000 rubles. Other recipients of a raise included Anna Noskova, Iosif and Julia Kschessinsky, Shiryaev, Kulichevskaya and Rikhlyakova.

The opera and ballet companies gave their initial performances of 1894/95 in the charming Mikhailovsky Theatre. After opening with The Tulip of Haarlem on 31 August, the ballet performed small-scale works like The Enchanted Forest, The Magic Flute, Coppélia and a revival of La Fille mal Gardée. On 16th September, a divertissement was billed together with Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana and Ivanov’s The Enchanted Forest. Skorsiuk performed a Spanish Dance with Alfred Bekefi and caused a sensation. While this was far from her first outing in a Spanish number, Skorsiuk’s success here may lay at the root of her casting in the Spanish Dance in Swan Lake when Petipa and Ivanov’s staging of the ballet premièred in January 1895. Skorsiuk was in the Spanish Dance along with Evgenia Obukhova, Sergei Litavkin and Shiryaev. In December of that year, Petipa revived Arthur Saint-Léon’s The Little Humpbacked Horse for Legnani and Skorsiuk received the role of the First Wife of the Khan. In the second act, her character performed a solo with a bandura – a Ukrainian, plucked string instrument – right before the Animated Statues (later referred to as the Frescoes) had their pas de quatre.

In May 1896, as part of the festivities surrounding Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation, Petipa and Drigo created The Pearl, which featured an all-star cast of Saint Petersburg and Moscow artists. Skorsiuk was also cast in the new ballet, leading a corps de ballet of over forty danseuses as Shells, who were featured in the famous battle number the Combat des Coreaux et des Métaux. The Krasnoe Selo summer season of 1896 hosted a guest appearance of the Moscow ballerina Adelina Giuri. On 11 August, Skorsiuk participated in another piece d’ occasion, infinitely smaller in scale than The Pearl: a Cossack Dance, choreographed by Shiryaev to music from the comic Ukrainian opera A Cossack Beyond the Danube.

When Petipa’s full-length ballet version of Mlada was revived a year later, Petipa cast Skorsiuk in what would be her eeriest role up till then: the sorceress Morena. Morena was an accomplice of Chernobog, the evil one. Chernobog, Dark God, was to escape notoriety limited to the Slav world; he was drawn to life in Disney’s 1940 animated picture Fantasia, which earned him eternal fame in the West as well. Morena aided and abetted the anti-heroine Voislava, played by Marie Petipa, in her scheme to win Prince Yaromir, played by Pavel Gerdt. Plescheyev’s pen was full of admiration for Skorsiuk in this powerful character part: he praised her expressive face and passionate interpretation.

If Skorsiuk expected a substantial role in Petipa’s upcoming Bluebeard to follow up on her success in Mlada, she might have been disappointed, for she was but modestly cast in the wonder-chamber section as one of the silver pieces – cutlery. It was not until the subsequent season when things started to pick up for her again, which happened with the ‘Japanese’ extravaganza The Mikado’s Daughter, which premièred on 9th November 1897. The production fell into the hands of Lev Ivanov. Undoubtedly familiar with Skorsiuk’s strong portrayal of Morena, Ivanov and/or the management decided to use her for the malicious O-Gen-Mi, the eldest daughter of the retainer Iazum Ippeida. Since the other two daughters were danced by the classical soloists Preobrazhenskaya and Kulichevskaya, it is to be asked: did O-Gen-Mi offer Skorsiuk an opportunity to dance on pointe again? She was listed for the Pas d’Action, however, the numbers of the soloists behind Kschessinskaya would turn out uneven with her participation as a classical dancer. Also, when examining the libretto, the role seems to have been in the domain of mime and character dance, if not completely then for the most part.

O-Gen-Mi sets the narrative in motion. She opens the ballet together with Enrico Cecchètti in the role of Iazum Ippeida when father and daughter have a dialogue. O-Gen-Mi is in love with Ioritomo, Gerdt’s character, but Ioritomo is in love with the Mikado’s Daughter, Hotaru-Hime, danced by Kschessinskaya. The retainer beseeches his eldest daughter to refrain from acting on her feelings, as it would dishonour and even destroy their family, but O-Gen-Mi, thwarted, neglected and revengeful, invokes a dragon to end the wedding celebration. The dragon abducts Hotaru-Hime and Ioritomo starts the search for his wife. This indicates that O-Gen-Mi, like Morena, is in command of supernatural powers, or is one herself. According to the libretto as described by Roland John Wiley, O-Gen-Mi no longer played a part after Act 1. This means there was no comeuppance for her, which rather confirms this: forces of nature cannot be punished by human law or moral. But The Mikado’s Daughter had more dances in store for Skorsiuk. Act 2, despite being rather plot-driven, did incorporate a lengthy suite of dances. Skorsiuk performed the heavily costumed Javanese Dance with Sergei Lukianov, and in Act 3, she performed an allegorical number, Winter, together with Alexandra Slantzova and Agrippina Vaganova.

If there is one role associated with the name of Maria Skorsiuk, it must be the one she was to grace two months after The Mikado’s Daughter: the Saracen Dance in Raymonda. Skorsiuk was never to learn that what should have been the shortest number of her repertoire, would prove to be of the longest duration where her name and fame were concerned. Petipa’s Raymonda premiered on 7th January 1898. Coinciding with the century’s literal end, the successful Raymonda ended the epoch of the great master in the spiritual sense; Skorsiuk’s contribution took place in Act 2. After dreaming of her crusader fiancé Jean de Brienne in Act I, the young chatelaine Raymonda receives the Eastern Prince Abderakhman in Act 2. The Saracen duet is danced by two members of Abderakhman’s retinue; a party brought in to entertain yet nonetheless ready for plan B: abduction of the titular heroine should she not come of her own accord. Skorsiuk was paired with Alexander Gorsky, who was cast by Petipa in a wide range of repertoire, varying from purely classical variations to feisty character work like the Saracens. The number looks complex because of the broad use of port de bras and body bends but is of a masterly simplicity in its build-up of running steps, pas de basques, ballonnés and small temps-levés. The dance ends abruptly when the female dancer assumes a whipcrack position, leaning back, with the male dancer only supporting her head. Petipa was known to prepare his group work meticulously, but with soloists, he was allegedly more studio-oriented and could have played to Gorsky and Skorsiuk’s strength here, based on what the couple gave him. Indeed, for all we know, the original end pose is something Skorsiuk might have come up with herself, warning Alexander Gorsky momentarily for what she was about to try out. Plescheyev mentioned another role for Skorsiuk in Raymonda: on 28th October 1898, she graced the Palotas of Act III together with Bekefi, who usually partnered Preobrazhenskaya in it.

Exactly a year later, on 13th January 1899, Legnani had a benefit performance for which Petipa revived the ballet he had revived the most one last time: Le Corsaire. Skorsiuk appeared in the dynamic Forban Dance. Three couples of Conrad’s pirate band perform it in the grotto hide-out, but it was to be the last role that Skorsiuk would add to her repertoire.

In the 1899/1900 season, Maria Skorsiuk made only one appearance. It is to be feared she ended up on the sick list after that, never to be taken off again. When Esmeralda was revived in November 1899, the role of Gypsy Woman, a role of the fach ‘declared to be Skorsiuk’s,’ went to Domenica Soliannikova. It is unclear if Skorsiuk danced this role months into her first season, in Brianza’s two Esmeralda performances in 1891.

Throughout her life, Skorsiuk suffered from consumption, a disease not quite conquered at the start of the 20th century. The aptly named ‘Fight Against Tuberculosis’ was on by that time, helped by Western organisations, but an institute like the famous Leskoye Sanatorium, where more effective treatments were developed, was not founded until a decade later. The theatre appears to have covered the costs of Skorsiuk’s treatment twice. Probably unknown to her, a fellow-patient of hers was Nicholas II. The Tsar’s life was feared for, but he started to recover in November 1900. Alas, the same cannot be said for Maria Sergeyevna Skorsiuk; she finally succumbed to the disease and died on 15th January 1901, aged 28 or 29. Nothing is known about her private life, but she was certainly missed professionally. In October 1900, a reviewer from Theatr i Isskustvo complained about the state of The Nutcracker’s Arabian Dance, where Anna Leonova was found lacking in comparison with Skorsiuk, and her replacement as Khan’s Wife in The Little Humpbacked Horse was deemed wanting too.

What can be said about Maria Skorsiuk’s career and her achievements? Dance historian Mikhail Borisoglebsky asserted that, according to all reports, she could compete successfully with Marie Petipa, the Queen of Character Dance. Nikolai Legat said that her father was not prone to nepotism, but despite this claim and the ballet master’s apparent appreciation of Skorsiuk, it is not unimaginable that her being in the same fach as Petipa 1 did thwart her career to a certain extent. But was this the same fach?

The easy question is: should Skorsiuk have been given the chance to dance in toe shoes more often? On and off, interest in Skorsiuk seemed to have waned, but her missing out on more pointe roles as well as additional meaty parts that ‘were her,’ might have been caused by sprees of ill health, compelling the management to refrain from casting her, or not use her as planned. If right, was this, in turn, caused by the tuberculosis? She could have caught it anytime, as a child, or by infected milk. One can only speculate about where and when Skorsiuk was afflicted.

The uneasy question is: was Skorsiuk hindered by stereotyping? Separated from the dancer by an epoch that came too soon for video and (proper) film recording and unable to sample the theatre’s culture of yonder day, it is not possible to assess this ourselves. However, there is an acceptable answer, and it comes from keen-eyed Alexander Shiryaev. In his memoirs, written in his later years, he described Skorsiuk as follows: “… Maria Skorsiuk possessed a weak dance technique, but her mulatto-like appearance made her irreplaceable in various exotic dances, to which she brought a genuine temperament …”

So Shirayev, a consummate professional who experienced the West, who lived long enough to witness the start of World War II and how ballet evolved up to and including the generation of Alla Shelest, came to an observation practically the same as Vazem’s, so many years ago. From this, it might be deduced that Skorsiuk, overall, got to perform the roles she was best suited to, classical or character, health-induced or not.

There is every reason to believe that Skorsiuk’s heritage has been passed on. Perhaps her powerful Cleopatra(s) shaped the young Mikhail Fokine’s perception of how the legendary, Ptolemaic ruler should emerge on stage. Going by its pizzazz and body bending, Gorsky’s Spanish Dance from Swan Lake seems influenced by Skorsiuk’s personal style. But especially Shiryaev must be a pivotal figure here. Through him, as the theatre’s repetiteur and character teacher for the (by then former Imperial) Theatre Ballet School, Skorsiuk’s interpretations should still resonate in performance direction and education. Where, for example, are the Spanish Dance of Swan Lake and the Saracen Dance of Raymonda without Skorsiuk’s temperament, her zest, her abandon?

In conclusion, it seems clear that Ekaterina Vazem, herself a dancer with a formidable technique, had the wisdom to see and acknowledge that the art of ballet needed more than that. Equally important, had Ekaterina Ottonovna not risen above her time and fought to overcome a narrow-minded board, Maria Skorsiuk, as a woman of colour in yonder day, would never have made it to the Imperial stage.

Biography and article by Peter Koppers


Published sources

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Non-published sources

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