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 Saint 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, the titular role in Esmeralda and Nikiya in La Bayadère, all of which Petipa revived for her.
Mistress of the Romanovs
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, for she was arguably more famous for her life offstage, which was far from private and was nothing short of scandalous. 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 madly in love with the Heir to the Russian throne and eventually embarked on a relationship with him. However, while Nicholas was captivated by the young ballerina and despite Kschessinskaya insisting in her memoirs that her love for the Tsarevich was reciprocated, his feelings for her appear to have been platonic rather than romantic. His feelings did become more serious, as shown at least by the expensive gifts he showered upon Kschessinskaya, including a mansion at 18 Angliisky Prospect, which had belonged to Rimsky-Korsakov and which Kschessinskaya moved into in 1892. Despite all this, however, the Tsarevich’s real affections were always for Princess Alix of Hesse (the future Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna).
Eventually, Nicholas’s interest in Kschessinskaya faded and he finally parted ways with her in 1894 in light of the death of his father and when he was finally given permission to propose to Alix. The Imperial engagement was announced in April 1894. Kschessinskaya was left heartbroken by Nicholas’s parting of her and her despair was unalleviated by a “settlement” offered to her of 100,000 roubles and the house on Angliisky Prospect, where she lived until 1917. Afterwards, however, Kschessinskaya soon got her claws into another Romanov “protector” – the Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, a cousin of the Tsar, with whom she embarked on a long-term affair. Sergei gave her a luxurious seaside villa at Strelna near Peterhof, indulged her every whim and remained her devoted companion for many years. 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 as an artist, she owed much of the success in her career to the Imperial Russian Court, including her succeeding of the roles of Princess Aurora and the Sugar Plum Fairy and 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.
In 1900, Kschessinskaya met and fell in love with the Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich, another cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, who was seven years her junior and later became her husband. 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, adding further scandal to the ballerina’s infamous love life and putting a strain on relations between the two Grand Dukes. On the 1st July [O.S. 18th June] 1902, Kschessinskaya gave birth to a son Vladimir (nicknamed Vova), who was named in honour of Andrei’s father, the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich. However, this only further complicated matters as both Andrei and Sergei 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. Kschessinskaya addressed the issue of her son’s paternity 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. – Dancing in Petersburg: The Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinska (p. 89)
Even now, despite Kschessinskaya’s insistence, Vova’s paternity remains unclear, but many sources agree that the Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich was his father since Vova resembled him, though even Vova said he was never sure who his father was. Vova grew up being spoiled by his parents and never had an independent life. Kschessinskaya also had a large collection of valuable jewels, some of which were gifts from members of the Imperial Family and she would wear these jewels in many of her roles, even sewing some of them into her costumes. One such piece from this collection was a valuable diamond choker, which she wore in such roles as Princess Aspicia and Flora (as seen in the photos above). Despite her relationships with the two Grand Dukes, at one point, Kschessinskaya was unfaithful to them both when she had an affair with the Premier Danseur Pierre Vladimirov. Andrei called Vladimirov to a duel and shot him in the nose; Vladimirov survived and his affair with Kschessinskaya ended.
Reputation in the Imperial Theatre
While Kschessinskaya was praised for her wondrous terre á terre dancing and dramatic abilities, opinions of her as a person were greatly divided – some people remembered her fondly, while others did not. Kschessinskaya could be kind and charming to some, for example, she was very kind to Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky. 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 was notorious for countless shenanigans that she committed to boost her position within the Imperial Theatre and to get her way. One of these shenanigans was that she refused to share her roles with rivals who were just as worthy of them as she was and often used her connections to the Imperial Theatres to seize the lead role in the premières of new ballets or productions, even if the role had not been especially choreographed for her. She formed a number of one-sided rivalries with certain ballerinas, including Pierina Legnani, Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Vera Trefilova. These rivalries eventually led to Legnani and Trefilova resigning from the Imperial Ballet. Petipa himself thoroughly despised Kschessinskaya, as proven by several of his diary entries, in which he calls her “rotten”, “spiteful” and “a nasty swine” and even goes onto say that the critic Sergei Khudeov should have beaten her rather than compliment her.
Many times in her memoirs, Kschessinskaya portrays herself in a very bright and even heroic light as a person with such claims that she “passed on” her roles to other dancers, such as Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Anna Pavlova, and that she was instrumental in helping Pavlova’s career take off. However, this is clearly an attempt from her to rewrite history since other sources dispute these claims. According to Bronislava Nijinska, it was common knowledge in the Imperial Theatres that Kschessinskaya was very jealous of Preobrazhenskaya and her starring roles. In his memoirs, Col. Vladimir Teliakovsky writes of a theatre legend that says in 1905, Kschessinskaya attempted to sabotage Preobrazhenskaya’s début as Lise in La Fille mal gardée by bribing one of the stage hands to set loose chickens onto the stage during Preobrazhenskaya’s variation in the Pas de ruban. To Kschessinskaya’s chagrin, however, this scheme backfired because Preobrazhenskaya successfully danced her variation from start to finish as if nothing had happened and received a storm of applause from the audience. In terms of the rise of Anna Pavlova’s career, Kschessinskaya writes the following claims in her memoirs:
Now that I could no longer dance (due to her pregnancy), I decided to hand on my ballet, ‘La Bayadère’, to Anna Pavlova. We were on excellent terms and Anna often came to my house. She greatly enjoyed having fun and especially liked the company of the Grand Duke Boris Wladimorovitch, who called her “my angel”. She had been noticed and praised by public and critics ever since graduating from the Ballet School in 1899. For my part, who saw in her the beginnings of great talent, I predicted for her a brilliant future. But Petipa at first refused to give her this ballet, which he had created for me, and I had to insist for a long time before he would give in. To help Pavlova, I rehearsed ‘La Bayadère’ with her, from beginning to end, despite my state of health. She also worked on the ballet with E. P. Sokolova, who had danced it long before me.
When interviewed by a journalist after the performance, Pavlova only mentioned E. P. Sokolova, and forgot me completely. I knew Anna Pavlova too well not to be certain that this “lapse of memory” could be attributed to people who were trying to damage our relations, in particular, a journalist who was most influential at the time, apparently pleasant and polite, but capable of the worst meanness. I was greatly hurt by this injustice from Pavlova, especially as I had helped her, from her first steps on the stage, by all means in my power. These things, however, sometimes happen, and despite a few shocks of this nature, my relations with dancers remained on the whole excellent – Dancing in Petersburg: The Memoirs of Mathilde Kschessinska (p. 87)
However, as backed up by other sources, including Pavlova’s biography, these claims are false. In reality, Kschessinskaya played no role in Pavlova’s rise to fame, nor was she on “excellent terms” with the young ballerina and it was not down to any generosity on her part that Pavlova was cast in the role of Nikiya. It was Petipa who noticed Pavlova’s potential when she was a student and ensured the beginning and rise of her career. He also did not refuse to cast her as Nikiya and did not need to be persuaded by Kschessinskaya, or anyone else for that matter, to give her the role. The person who did not want Pavlova to dance Nikiya was Kschessinskaya. What really happened was that Kschessinskaya returned from holiday, pregnant with her son, and was outraged to discover that “her role” was being given to a younger dancer and was also apparently convinced that Pavlova would fail in the role, but there was little she could do about it. As for her claims that she gave Pavlova special coaching, in reality, Kschessinskaya only gave the young ballerina some tips for the role and simultaneously made a spectacle of her pregnancy, ensuring that those close to her were always present to inform the press of her alleged “act of generosity”. Pavlova was, in fact, coached by Petipa for the role of Nikiya and was also rehearsed by Eugenia Sokolova.
Kschessinskaya also writes in her memoirs that Mikhail Fokine “liked her and thought highly of her”. In reality, however, just like Petipa before him, Fokine greatly detested Kschessinskaya and declared her to be his “sworn enemy”, for she represented everything in virtuosa technique that he considered vulgar. The only time he mentions her in his memoirs is when he explains that he refused to let her wear her own jewels in any of his ballets. Fokine even went as far as to snub Kschessinskaya in his ballet Petrouchka, in which he used her as the object for the role of the Street Dancer, as explained by Bronislava Nijinska, the creator of the role, in her memoirs:
“Well, what shall I mount for you, Bronislava Fominitchna? The Street Dancer is an acrobat. Do you know any tricks? Can you do the splits and whirl around on one leg while holding the other foot stiffly, high in the air?”
I felt like joking and replied, “If, Mikhail Mikhailovitch, you want to see an acrobat, then I will dance for the ballerina’s coda from the ballet ‘Le Talisman’.”
I started to imitate Mathilda Kschessinska, her cabrioles and her rélevés on toe from the last act of ‘Le Talisman’, the coda that was always accompanied by thunderous applause in the Maryinsky.
“That is perfect, it is exactly what is needed,” Fokine laughed – Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs (p. 363)
In fact, Kschessinskaya was seemingly mocked in two other ballets before Fokine’s Petrouchka. In 1896, Petipa seemingly snubbed her in The Pearl by dubbing her character “the Yellow Pearl” because yellow pearls do no exist unless a white pearl’s colour becomes tarnished with age and the pearl is no longer valuable. In short, Petipa seems to have deliberately presented the one of his ballerinas he thoroughly despised as the bad pearl of the ballet. In 1903, Nikolai and Sergei Legat choreographed and staged their own version of Josef Bayer’s The Fairy Doll and Kschessinskaya danced the titular role in the première. It was for this version that the famous Fairy Doll Pas de trois was created, with the music composed by Riccardo Drigo. Petipa claimed that this pas de trois was a play on Kschessinskaya’s scandalous love life since the scenario is the Fairy Doll being courted by the two Pierrots, just like Kschessinskaya was being simultaneously courted by the two Grand Dukes at the time. Kschessinskaya withdrew from the ballet shortly after the première, which Petipa further claimed was no coincidence.
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. Many of the new leading roles and variations in the Imperial Ballet repertoire, however, were created by the likes of Legnani and 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. For example, in her memoirs, she claims to have “inherited” the leading role in La Camargo from Legnani after her departure in 1901, but in reality, Kschessinskaya used her connections to the Imperial Court to usurp the role only three months after Legnani’s departure, much to the shock of the Saint Petersburg balletomanes.
Kschessinskaya made her first appearance in the west in February 1895 when she was invited to dance at the Casino Theatre in Monte Carlo by Raoul Guinsberg. She was joined on this tour by her brother Iosif, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Alfred Bekefi and Georgy Kyaksht. Four months later, she travelled to Warsaw with her father Felix, Bekefi and one of the Legat brothers, where she famously danced a mazurka with her father, who was rightfully known as “the King of the Mazurka”. In 1911, Kschessinskaya 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.
Kschessinskaya lived a charming life as one of the great artists of the Imperial Ballet and one of the highest members of the Russian aristocratic society, but everything would soon take a turn for the worst. The outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 affected Kschessinskaya badly. She lost her house to the Bolsheviks, lost many of her possessions and was left homeless for six months. It was from the balcony of her house that the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin famously addressed the revolutionary crowd after his return from exile. On the 26th July [O.S. 13th July] 1918, Kschessinskaya fled Saint 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.
Life in 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, Princess Marie Romanovsky-Krassinsky”. It was here that Andrei officially acknowledged Vova as his son and the young man was granted the title “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.
During the first years of Kschessinskaya’s life in exile, she and Andrei were in better economic circumstances than the other Romanov family members who had fled from Russia. However, it was not long before the couple found themselves in financial difficulties, which was brought on by their liking for gambling. Kschessinskaya squandered what money they had left and what she had managed to save of her valuable jewels collection, including her diamond choker, at the casinos in Monte Carlo. Subsequently, on the 4th February 1929, Kschessinskaya and Andrei sold their villa in Cap d’Ail and moved to Paris, where she opened a new ballet school to provide for her family. 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 short of her 100th birthday. She is buried in the Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, Paris with her husband and son: Vova never married and never had children and died three years after his mother on the 23rd April 1974, aged 72. Today, Kschessinskaya’s former mansion in Saint Petersburg is now the State Museum of Political History of Russia. While the exterior has remained unchanged, only sections of the mansion’s original interiors have survived and the largest surviving section is used as a Kchessinskaya museum.
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 Esmeralda (*1899)
- The Spirit of the Corn in The Seasons (1900)
- Columbine 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 (**1909)
- 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.
Photos and images: © Dansmuseet, Stockholm © Большой театр России © Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Государственный академический Мариинский театр © CNCS/Pascal François © Bibliothèque nationale de France © Musée l’Opéra © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet © АРБ имени А. Я. Вагановой © Михаил Логвинов © Михайловский театр, фотограф Стас Левшин. Партнёры проекта: СПбГБУК «Санкт-Петербургская государственная Театральная библиотека». ФГБОУВО «Академия русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой» СПбГБУК «Михайловский театр». Михаил Логвинов, фотограф. Martine Kahane.