From the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum comes an interview with Pierina Legnani. This interview was given by a journalist from a former London newspaper The Sketch and was published on the 26th April 1893 during Legnani’s appearances in London and months before she went to Russia. Despite her huge role in ballet history, information on Pierina Legnani is very scarce, especially in the West, which makes this interview all the more vital since it offers a rare off-stage insight to her.
A Chat with Signorina Legnani
It was when playing whist that the idea came to me. During a pause I made some remark about dancing, when one of the three old gentlemen said, “Oh, but you should have seen Taglioni.” “Or Fanny Elssler,” broke in the second. “Or Cerrito, or Carlotta Grisi,” added the third. Then my partner, the first speaker sighed, and, looking scornfully at me, remarked, “Ah! dancing was something like dancing in my young days.” Of course, I did not argue with them. You may as well argue with a steam-roller as with old gentlemen on such a subject; but it occurred to me that if the system of training is such as it was, then the dancers cannot be inferior to those of the past, since in physique we are far from inferior to our ancestors.
The next night I went to the Alhambra for the new ballet Chicago, and, coming expressly too soon, saw Aladdin, which is one of the most charming ballets ever produced, and in Aladdin behold Legnani, who – first in serpentine skirts, then in Chinese costume, and ultimately in ordinary ballet dress – was delightful, for she is pretty in face and figure, graceful in every movement, remarkable in technique, and dances as if she enjoyed it. So I was determined to ask about her education. The Open, Sesame to the stage-door is hard to find, but the interviewer, like the influenza, forces his way everywhere, and in the end, with the aid of the amiable Mr. Frank Gilmer, I found myself outside her dressing-room.
“Signorina,” he called out, “can I come in? I want to introduce a gentleman.”
“Avec ça!” came the answer in a pretty voice.
“But he is from The Sketch to interview you.”
That settled it. I found her sitting on a sofa in a very plainly furnished dressing-room, the only unusual thing in which was a practice bar against the wall at about three feet from the ground. She was dressed in a grey robe de chambre and shawl, and looked very tired and hot. With her was her aunt, who played duenna or Argus – at least, that sounds rude, since Argus kept watch over a cow.
“I began dancing at seven years of age” – she is now, I discovered incidentally, just about twenty-two – “and after a year’s private teaching passed the examination and became one of the sixty pupils at the La Scala school in my birthplace, Milan. I remained the full course, ten years, receiving a thorough training in pantomime and in dancing, working hard all the time under the great teachers. And I also received a general education.”
“You learnt French there, then, and that’s why you speak it so well,” I remarked. She does speak very well for a foreigner.
“Oh yes, but not English or German – I wish I had. I paid nothing – oh, dear, no – and in the winter months received one lira a night for performing on the stage. When I had been four years I was paid forty lire a month, then sixty, and finally eighty. Of course, we worked very hard. The last year I was understudy to Giuri. Indeed, I was a favourite pupil, and got on so fast that during the last year my name appeared in the programmes in red letters.”
“A real red-letter day for you, and then did we not see you at the Eden Theatre, Paris during the Exposition?”
“Yes, yes in Excelsior. I was première danseuse, and very successful, too.”
Small wonder is it that such a dainty, graceful dancer and pretty girl should be very successful.
“Then I came to London, to the Alhambra. How do I like London? Well, really, I’ve seen nothing of it. I spend all my time at home or in the theatre. You see, ours is a very hard life, and I have to work a great deal, and rest a good deal, too. I will tell you how I live, if you like. I get up at 7:30, then I have breakfast, quite a heavy breakfast – café au lait, with yolks of egg in it, and fillet of beef, or other solid things.”
“She eats almost nothing,” interrupted the aunt. However, Italians are such heavy eaters that I think the “presque rien” is really substantial. By-the-bye, it is curious that we should have the reputation of being good trenchermen. A visit to the foreign restaurants in London will prove to you that the average foreigner can give the average Englishman half a pound and a beating at dinner.
“After breakfast I remain in the house till about eleven, then I go to the theatre – it is close by – and practise for two hours every day. Afterwards, at two, I have a good dinner, five or six dishes, and some Chianti.”
“She eats almost nothing,” chimed in the aunt again.
“In the afternoon I rest in the house till I go to the theatre for the performance. When it’s over, home, a bouillon with egg-yolks in it, and bed. That’s my life, except when there are rehearsals for new ballets, then it is harder still.”
“But you’ve forgotten afternoon tea and…”
“Oh, no, I never take any, and I touch nothing between midday meal and supper. I could not dance if I did. Sundays I rest. That’s one reason why I like England, for the Sunday rest.”
It seemed strange that a pretty girl, full of life and natural gaiety, and earning a heavy salary should be living such a hard, dull life.
“The crinoline! I don’t bother about dress, I’ve no time to. Well, anyhow, I hope we shall be spared crinoline and cholera. I’ve no pets, and, no, I don’t think I’ve any amusements except M. Jacobi’s annual ball. Yes, I’ll give you some dances next time, if you write pretty things about me. You see, I love dancing, and I’ve all sorts of ideas I feel and want to express when I dance. I did not know really how much I loved it till I hurt my knee in dancing. See, I still wear a knee-cap – then I went to Brighton a week and felt sad. I did not look at the place, only at the sea; I used to gaze at the waves and watch them dancing, and I grew so envious.”
“Am I very discreet in asking?”
“Oh, no!” said the aunt. “She is not married or engaged; we live and travel together. We’ve been to Brussels, Théâtre de la Bourse, the one burnt down, and last winter to La Scala, always with great success. Next June we go from London for a year; the climate does not suit my niece.”
“And what do you think of the English dancers and the skirt dancing, serpentine dancing, and high kicking?” I asked, hoping for indiscreet criticisms.
None came. “I have not seen any important English dancers. The dances you speak of seem pretty, but they are not quite serious dancing. As for the high kicking, why, I can do that; yes, and even the ‘grand écart‘, and I did it here the other night, to show I could. But you are not going to write that?”
“No, I have already, and I’m sorry to say I have no indiarubber to take it out with. Are your shoes made in a peculiar way to enable you to stand on tiptoe so easily?”
“Oh yes; they come from Italy – see.” Then she handed me a pretty little shoe, with a narrow sole that ended about the middle of the great toe, and had stiffening in the part of the “upper” which covers the toes, giving it a rather Indian canoe shape in front. “With these I hardly get tired; in fact, in the last tableaux of Aladdin I turn thirty-two pirouettes on tiptoe without dropping my foot. Not many dancers can do that.”
Goodness knows what I should have asked next, but at that moment Signorina Pollini burst into the room in full Spanish costume, and I learnt that the ballet I had come to see and describe was half over, so I bade farewell hastily to the charming dancer and her formidable aunt, and spent the next half-hour in wandering about the maze of corridors at the back of the Alhambra stage. I am now thoroughly convinced that Signorina Legnani could hold her own against any of the great dancers about whom the old gentlemen rave, just as I am that she is a charming, honest, merry, pretty girl.