Pierina Legnani was the very first Prima Ballerina Assoluta and one of the greatest ballerinas ever to have lived. She was born on the 1st October 1868 in Milan, Italy, but very little is known about her personal life for she lived a very quiet life outside of the theatre and was never the subject of any gossip or scandals. However, there is enough information about her to know and understand why she is such a colossal figure in ballet.
Legnani began dancing at the age of 7 and after a year of private teaching, she was accepted into the La Scala School, where she trained for ten years. In her final year, she acted as an understudy to the Prima Ballerina Maria Giuri. After a successful career in her native Italy, she later appeared as Prima Ballerina at the Alhambra Theatre in London in 1890 in the ballet Salandra by Eugenio Casati. In 1892, she was appointed Prima Ballerina at the Teatro alla Scala and in the summer of 1893, she danced again in London as the Princess in the ballet Aladdin.
A few months later, Legnani was invited to Russia to join the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg. She made her Imperial Ballet début in Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti’s version of Cinderella on the 17th December [O.S. 5th December] 1893, in which she amazed the audience with her incredible virtuosa, bravura technique and dramatic/acting abilities. But the highlight of her début was when she introduced the famous 32 fouettés in the final act. According to eyewitnesses, she performed the sequence without stopping and without moving from the spot in which she started. In fact, the audience was so thrilled by the fouettés that they made her repeat the sequence. One misconception of facts, however, is that Legnani is sometimes credited as having been the first ballerina to attempt the fouetté, but this is certainly not the case. Other ballerinas before Legnani had performed fouetté sequences, for example, her fellow Italian Emma Bessone performed a sequence of 14 fouettés in Ivanov’s 1887 ballet The Haarlem Tulip. Legnani gained attention when she performed the famous 32 number, however, it is unclear if she was the first to perform the 32 number. In an 1893 interview with the London newspaper The Sketch, Legnani said:
… in the last tableaux of ‘Aladdin’ I turn thirty-two pirouettes on tiptoe without dropping my foot. Not many dancers can do that.
Legnani is not taking credit for being the first to perform the 32 fouettés, but rather seems to be indicating that there were other ballerinas who could also do them. What is clear is that Legnani was the first to perform the 32 fouettés on the Russian stage, setting a new record from Bessone’s 14 fouettés. It was not long after her début with the Imperial Ballet before Petipa fell completely in love with Legnani’s dancing and he granted her the official rank of Prima Ballerina Assoluta.
Pierina Legnani went onto enjoy a very successful career in Russia, with one of the highlights being her performance as Odette/Odile in Petipa and Ivanov’s recreation of Swan Lake. Petipa revived many works for Legnani, in which she created new pas and variations; these works included Coppélia, The Talisman, The Little Humpbacked Horse and Le Corsaire. She also created the lead roles in many of Petipa’s new ballets, including the White Pearl in The Pearl, Ysaure in Bluebeard and Raymonda. Legnani became a popular figure within the Imperial Theatres with her colleagues and audiences alike. In his memoirs, Nikolai Legat reflects on his friendship and partnership with Legnani, stating how keen they were to learn from one another. He writes that Legnani was keen to learn all about the style of the old French school, while Legat was keen to learn about the style of the Italian school. Legat also writes that his father had hoped his son would marry Legnani, which never happened.
After an eight-year career with the Imperial Ballet, Pierina Legnani left Russia for good in 1901, having given up on her very escalating, one-sided rivalry with Matilda Kschessinskaya. For her farewell benefit performance, Legnani chose to dance in Petipa and Minkus’s 1872 ballet La Camargo, which told the story of how the 18th century dancer Marie Camargo and her sister Madeline were abducted for one night by the Comte de Mulen. This was a perfect choice as Pierina Legnani was without doubt the greatest ballerina of the 19th century, so it was only appropriate that she should dance in a ballet about the greatest ballerina of the 18th century. Ivanov revived the ballet and the performance took place on the 30th January [O.S. 17th January] 1901. Legnani’s farewell benefit performance is legendary in the annals of ballet history. On that very evening, she proved just why she was the first to obtain the official rank of Prima Ballerina Assoluta.
After her departure from Saint Petersburg, Legnani continued to perform around Europe, especially in Italy, London and France until 1910. Afterwards, she retired to her villa at Lake Como in the Northern Italian Lakes and continued to officiate on the examining board of La Scala Ballet School, alongside Enrico Cecchetti and Virginia Zucchi, until four months before her death.
Pierina Legnani died on the 15th November 1930, aged 62; she is buried in the Cemetery of Pognara Lario at Lake Como.
Pierina Legnani’s Imperial Ballet repertoire
- Cinderella in Cinderella (1893)
- Swanhilda in Coppélia (*1894)
- Odette/Odile in Swan Lake (*1895)
- Ella in The Talisman (*1895)
- The Tsar Maiden in The Tsar Maiden, or The Little Humpbacked Horse (*1895)
- The White Pearl in The Pearl (1896)
- Ysaure de Renoualle in Bluebeard (1896)
- Teresa in The Cavalry Halt (1896)
- Raymonda in Raymonda (1898)
- Medora in Le Corsaire (*1899)
- Camargo in Les Élèves de Dupré (*1900)
- Marie Camargo in La Camargo (*1901)
(* – original cast member of role in revival)
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.