Matilda Maria Feliksovna Kschessinskaya was the second Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Imperial Theatres. She was born on the 31st August [O.S. 19th August] 1872 in St Petersburg to a Polish family that stemmed from a dynasty of artists – her father was the celebrated Polish Principal Character Dancer, Felix Kschessinsky. Her brother, Iosif Kschessinsky and her sister, Julia Kschessinskaya were also dancers with the Imperial Ballet.
At the age of 3, the young Matilda Kschessinskaya already showed a love for dancing and her father often took her to watch performances at the Imperial Theatres. In 1880, when she was 8 years old, Kschessinskaya was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School, where she trained under Lev Ivanov, Ekaterina Vazem, Christian Johansson and Enrico Cecchetti. Upon graduating from the school in 1890, she joined the Imperial Ballet and made her début in the performance of a ballet divertissement that was attended by the Imperial Family. The early years of Kschessinskaya’s career were very successful, for they saw her succeeding the great visiting Italian ballerinas in leading roles. In 1892, she succeeded Carlotta Brianza in the dual role of Marietta/Draginiatza in Petipa and Minkus’s three-act ballet Kalkabrino. On the 16th January [O.S. 4th January] 1893, she succeeded Antonietta Dell’Era in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker and two weeks later, on the 29th January [O.S. 17th January], she débuted as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. In 1894, she created the leading role of Flora, the Goddess of the Spring in The Awakening of Flora. In 1896, Petipa revived his 1879 ballet Mlada for Kschessinskaya, she made her début as Lise in La Fille mal Gardée and she created the role of Venus in Bluebeard. The years 1898 to 1900 saw her dancing the leading roles of Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, Esmeralda in La Esmeralda and Nikiya in La Bayadère, all of which Petipa revived for her.
Matilda Kschessinskaya enjoyed a successful career with the Imperial Ballet, becoming well-known for her outstanding technique and dramatic/acting abilities. However, it was not just her career that made her famous. Her personal life was far from private and was nothing short of scandal. In 1890, at the age of 18, she met the future Tsar Nicholas II and her dancing won the favour of his father, Tsar Alexander III. The young Kschessinskaya fell in love with the Heir to the Russian throne and eventually embarked on a three-year relationship with him. Nicholas was captivated by the ballerina, but did not fully reciprocate her love for him, though he did have feelings for her. He finally ended the relationship in 1894 in light of the death of his father and when he was finally given permission to propose to Princess Alix of Hesse (the future Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna). Afterwards, Kschessinskaya embarked on a long-term affair with Nicholas’s cousin, the Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, whom Nicholas, himself, had assigned to be her protector. Through these relationships, Kschessinskaya obtained strong links to the Imperial Russian Court, which she went on to milk for the rest of her career and used as a means to get what she wanted. Despite her great talent, she owed much of the success in her career to the Imperial Russian Court, including her rise to the rank of Prima Ballerina Assoluta, a rank that she did not rightfully earn. Petipa gave this rank to Pierina Legnani, whom he and many others considered to be the superior ballerina, which reputedly made Kschessinskaya all the more jealous and resentful of her Italian colleague, as she would settle for nothing less than to be the pinnacle of the Imperial Ballet. When Petipa did not give her the rank, Kschessinskaya appealed to the Imperial Russian Court to obtain it and her appeal was successful. In 1896, she became the second and the first Russian ballerina to become Prima Ballerina Assoluta, which did not sit well with Petipa, as he had not been consulted on the matter.
While Kschessinskaya was praised for her wondrous terre á terre dancing, opinions of her as a person were greatly divided – some people remembered her fondly; others did not. Kschessinskaya could be very kind and charming to some, for example, she was very kind to Tamara Karsavina, who had very fond memories of her. However, she also had a proud and spiteful side to her nature that made her unpopular among others. To some, especially her rivals, she was utterly ruthless and even refused to share her roles with rivals who were just as deserving of them as she was. According to Bronislava Nijinska, it was common knowledge in the Imperial Theatres that Kschessinskaya was very jealous of Olga Preobrazhenskaya and her starring roles. Petipa, himself, thoroughly despised Kschessinskaya; in several of his diary entries, he calls her “rotten”, “spiteful” and “a nasty swine” and even goes on to say that a local critic should have beaten her rather than compliment her.
Despite Petipa’s great dislike for Kschessinskaya as a person, he greatly respected her as a dancer and created several roles and revived older works for her. However, Kschessinskaya was never completely satisfied with her repertoire, as she wished to create more new leading roles and variations than the number she did create. This never happened, as many of the new leading roles and variations in the Imperial Ballet repertoire were created by Pierina Legnani and Olga Preobrazhenskaya. Kschessinskaya had to settle for what she was given, though she would later use her connections to the Imperial Court to usurp the custom roles and variations of other ballerinas, especially those of Legnani, much to the shock of the St Petersburg balletomanes and critics.
In 1900, Kschessinskaya met and fell in love with the Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich, the cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, who was seven years her junior. Despite still being in a relationship with the Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, Kschessinskaya and Andrei became lovers and the two cousins would go on to share the same woman for over a decade. On the 1st July [O.S. 18th June] 1902, Kschessinskaya gave birth to a son, Vladimir (nicknamed Vova), which further complicated everything as both Grand Dukes were convinced they were the boy’s father. Kschessinskaya and Andrei maintained that he was Vova’s father, though the birth certificate showed Sergei as the father. Even now, Vova’s paternity is still unclear, but many sources agree that Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich was the father as Vova resembled him. In relation to her son’s paternity, Kschessinskaya writes the following account in her memoirs:
I was dreading the explanation I would have to have with the Grand Duke Serge, once I was recovered, for though full of my love for André and my son, in my happiness I did not stop suffering from the thought of the great pain and terrible and wholly undeserved blow I had just inflicted on him. My suffering was all the keener because the winter before, when he was courting a young and pretty Grand Duchess, I had asked him to bring this idyll to an end in order to cut short the gossip, which I found particularly unpleasant, provoked by rumours of their eventual marriage. My thoughts were only of my love for André, and I had not then reflected how guilty I was towards the Grand Duke Serge Mikhailovich.
His attitude, however, was moving and gave me a little reassurance. Serge knew for certain that he was not the father of the child, but he loved me and had become so attached to me that he forgave me everything. Whatever happened, he told me, he would stand by me as a faithful friend, feeling that I needed his devotion and protection.
This conversation relieved me, but I still suffered over what had happened.
We decided to call our son Vladimir, in honour of the Grand Duke Vladimir, André’s father.
In 1907, Kschessinskaya had a house built for her on the Kronversky Prospect in St Petersburg. In 1911, she was invited to dance with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in London, Vienna and Monte-Carlo, in which she danced in various pieces that included two acts of Swan Lake, the Grand Pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty and Le Spectre de la Rose with Vaslav Nijinsky. These engagements saw Kschessinskaya as the first ballerina to perform the roles of Odette/Odile and Princess Aurora in the West.
In 1917, the outbreak of the Russian Revolution affected Kschessinskaya badly. She lost her house to the Bolsheviks, lost many of her possessions and was left homeless for six months. On the 26th July [O.S. 13th July], she fled St Petersburg with her son to the spa city of Kislovodsk in the Northern Caucasus region, where they were reunited with the Grand Duke Andrei, who had been serving in the First World War. They settled there with some friends and family members for two years, but the presence of the Bolsheviks made life difficult, until they were driven out of the region by the Caucasus army. However, by then, Russia was no longer safe and was no longer the country that it once was. When the White Army could no longer restrain the Bolsheviks, like many others, Kschessinskaya acknowledged that the only option was to go into exile.
Matilda Kschessinskaya left Russia on the 3rd March [O.S 19th February] 1920 with Andrei and Vova, never to return to the country again. They escaped to Western Europe, arriving in Venice on the 23rd March and from there, they travelled to Cap d’Ail in France, where Kschessinskaya owned a villa called “Alam”. On the 30th January 1921, Matilda Kschessinskaya and the Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich were married in a simple ceremony in the Russian Orthodox Church in Cannes. Through her marriage, her husband’s elder brother, the Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich granted her with the title “Her Serene Highness, the Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky” and her son became “His Serene Highness, Prince Vladimir Romanovsky-Krassinsky”. Kschessinskaya was raised as a Catholic, but she converted to the Russian Orthodox Church on the 19th December 1925.
On the 4th February 1929, due to financial difficulties as a result of gambling, Kschessinskaya and her husband sold their villa in Cap d’Ail and moved to Paris, where she opened a new ballet school. Among her students were Tatiana Ryabouchinskaya, Dame Alicia Markova, Dame Margot Fonteyn, André Eglevsky, Tamara Toumanova and Maurice Béjart.
Matilda Kschessinskaya made her final appearance on stage on the 14th July 1936 at the age of 64 when she came out of retirement to perform at a charity event at Covent Garden in London. For this performance, she danced a Russian Dance that she had performed many times in Russia; the last time she had performed it was for Tsar Nicholas II and his family at Krasnoe Selo on the eve of World War I.
On the 30th October 1956, Kschessinskaya suffered a terrible blow when the Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich died suddenly at the age of 77 after a period of struggling with frail health. Following her husband’s death, she was met with financial difficulties, which would make life very different from her former luxorious lifestyle; the Prima Ballerina who was once a highly-established member of the Russian aristocratic society lived her final years in poverty.
Matilda Kschessinskaya died on the 6th December 1971, aged 99, eight months before her 100th birthday. She is buried in the Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, Paris with her husband and son.
*Biography by Amy Growcott
Did you know?
- After Kschessinskaya lost her St Petersburg home in the Revolution, it was from the balcony of her house that Vladimir Lenin addressed the revolutionary crowd after his return from exile in 1917.
- Although Kschessinskaya was born in the month of August, she celebrated her birthday in the month of March, so even though her official age at the time of her final appearance on stage was 64, she was actually 63 years old at the time.
- Due to her wealth and connections to the Imperial Court, Kschessinskaya owned many valuable jewels, which she would often wear with her ballet costumes. One particular piece of jewellery she often wore in roles such as Princess Aspicia and Flora was a valuable diamond choker (as seen in the photos above). However, she lost some of her jewels in the revolution and later lost her diamond choker in a game of cards at a casino in Constantinople in 1920.
Matilda Kschessinskaya’s Imperial Ballet repertoire
- The Marchioness in The Sleeping Beauty (1890)
- The Fairy Candide in The Sleeping Beauty (**1890)
- Little Red Riding Hood in The Sleeping Beauty (**1890)
- Marietta/Draginiatza in Kalkabrino (**1892)
- The Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker (**1893)
- Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty (**1893)
- Odette, the Stepsister in Cinderella (1893)
- Flora, the Goddess of the Spring in The Awakening of Flora (1894)
- Paquita in Paquita (**1894)
- Swanhilda in Coppélia (**1894)
- Ondine in The Naiad and the Fisherman (**1894)
- The Yellow Pearl in The Pearl (1896)
- Galatea in Acis and Galatea (1896)
- Mlada in Mlada (*1896)
- Lise in La Fille mal Gardée (**1896)
- Venus in Bluebeard (1896)
- Gotaru-Hima in The Mikado’s Daughter (**1897)
- Fiametta in Fiametta (**1898)
- Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh’s Daughter (*1898)
- Esmeralda in La Esmeralda (*1899)
- The Spirit of the Corn in The Seasons (1900)
- Colombine in Harlequinade (1900)
- Nikiya in La Bayadère (*1900)
- Odette/Odile in Swan Lake (**1901)
- Marie Camargo in La Camargo (**1901)
- The Tsar Maiden in The Tsar Maiden or The Little Humpbacked Horse (**1901)
- Kitri/Dulcinea in Don Quixote (*1902)
- The Princess in The Magic Mirror (1903)
- The Fairy Doll in The Fairy Doll (1903)
- Niriti in The Talisman (*1910)
- Giselle in Giselle (**1916)
(* – original cast member of role in revival)
(** – year of début performance in role)
- Kschessinskaya, Matilda, H.S.H. The Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky (1960) Dancing in Petersburg: the Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinskaya. Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd
- Petipa, Marius, The Diaries of Marius Petipa. Translated ed. and introduction by Lynn Garafola. Published in Studies in Dance History 3.1. (Spring 1992)
- Garafola, Lynn (2005) Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press
- Nijinska, Bronislava, (1992) Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs. Translated ed. by Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson. Duke University Press Books.