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150 years ago, on August 9 [31], 1872, the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya was born

Sergei Makin

In Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, the opera first staged at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1892, when Tsarevich Nikolai was fascinated by the ballerina Kshesinskaya, Duke Roberto of Burgundy sings the famous aria:

Who can compare with my Matilda,

Whose black eyes sparkle

Like stars in the autumn night sky!

She is wonderfully full of passionate bliss,

Everything about her is intoxicating, everything about her is intoxicating,

And everything is as hot as wine…

The opera is based on the play King René’s Daughter by the Danish playwright Henrik Hertz. The libretto was written by Modest, the composer’s brother. Hertz’s play was published in 1845. In 1849, the Russian translation by Vladimir Zotov was published in the collection Pantheon and repertoire, Book 4. Moreover, the authorship was attributed to the great storyteller as “the work of the Danish poet Andersen”. In 1888, the Maly Theatre presented the play in this translation to Moscow audiences. In Zotov’s text, which Modest Ilyich revised for the opera, the Duke of Burgundy really burns with passion for Countess Matilda of Lorraine:

…and I am pre-engaged,

But my passion for Matilda is so strong,

And she loves me so much… Marriage with Iolanta

Will make us miserable…

Be that as it may, but Roberto’s aria became not an obsequious reaction to the romance between the heir and the ballerina, but its beautiful musical accompaniment.

In those days aristocrats bowed before ballerinas, although they did not often conclude a church marriage with them. Baron Victor Dandré adored Anna Pavlova, he was her impresario, but after her death he failed to prove that they performed a marriage ceremony. Matilda Kshesinskaya was more fortunate: in 1921, already abroad, Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich went down the aisle with her. And in 1935, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich granted Matilda Feliksovna and her descendants the title of the most Serene Princes Romanovsky-Krasinsky (according to the legendary genealogy of the Kshesinsky family, they descended from the Polish counts Krasinsky).

Matilda Kshesinskaya in costume for the ballet La Bayadére (circa 1900–1902)

Although Kshesinskaya was distinguished by her phenomenal technique and was the first among Russian ballerinas to spin 32 fouettés in the part of Odile, the majority relates her not with swan tutus, but with alcove adventures. At the same time, Kshesinskaya aroused among her fans not rude lust, but sincere, even selfless love. Shot in Alapaevsk, Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich until his death did not part with a gold medallion, where a photograph of Matilda was inserted and her diminutive name Malya was engraved.

The purest art

There is still no film dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Marius Petipa. But it is better to shoot nothing than to create a “masterpiece” like the film Matilda. Its director Alexei Uchitel, who can safely be called a false history teacher, should have given the film a different name: say, Clotilda, and it would have become clear to everyone that we were facing a fantasy. There are countless anachronisms, blunders, outright manipulations in the film. The characters of Matilda beg to be called “your ignobility”, “your implausibility”, “your absurdity”. The latter refers entirely to the director of the Imperial Theatres Ivan Karlovich (actor Yevgeny Mironov), who is a fantastic hybrid of Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky and Karl Karlovich Kister.

But the worst thing about the film is its concept. The mythical hero represented by Mironov calls the Mariinsky Theatre a “brothel receiving government subsidies”. Proof of it? At the beginning of Matilda, graduates of the ballet school Kshesinskaya and Karsavina are secretly photographed for the Tsarevich “in an interesting perspective”.

There is complete confusion with the chronology in the film: if the “fact” refers to 1890, the year Kshesinskaya graduated from the school, then at that time Karsavina did not even entered a regular school: she was only five years old. And by 1888 (the Borki train disaster scene, before which, according to the film, explicit pictures are viewed in the royal carriage) – she was only three years old. Apparently, in this way it was supposed to engage those moviegoers who do not watch ballet, do not listen to opera, but read the tabloids with pleasure. It seems that Matilda was aimed at throwing dirt at Russian ballet.

When asked if the people who claim that the Mariinsky Theatre was the harem of the House of Romanov were telling the truth, Oleg Vinogradov, who was the chief choreographer of the Mariinsky Theatre for a long time, angrily replied: “This is absolute nonsense and untruth. Ballet is the purest art. Absolutely. And ballerinas, they are more like nuns, they are detached from real life, most often they have an insular nature and it takes longer than anyone else to get through to them, to achieve openness. This is connected with discipline, with a tough regime, and with traditions”.

Kshesinskaya was not a nun. But every person plays own role in life. Matilda performed her difficult role brilliantly. After all, we remember the words of the real history teacher Melnikov from the film We’ll Live Till Monday: “From most people remains only a dash between two dates”.

In the film, Tsarevich Nikolai, looking at the stage through binoculars, saw the naked breasts of the young Kshesinskaya and was inflamed with insane passion. The plot of the film is shoddy, and most importantly, false: in fact, everything was decorous and noble.

My dear lady

Matilda’s acquaintance with the future Emperor Nicholas II took place on March 23, 1890, after the graduation performance of the Imperial Theatre School, which was attended by the royal family. Then Alexander III said to the graduate: “Be the glory and jewel of our ballet”. The performance was followed by a dinner. Kshesinskaya recalls:

“The sovereign sat at the head of one of the long tables, a pupil was sitting on his right, who was supposed to read a prayer before the dinner, and another was supposed to sit on his left, but he pushed her away and turned to me:

‑ And you sit next to me.

He pointed out to the heir a place nearby and, smiling, said to us:

‑ Just don’t flirt too much…

I do not remember what we talked about, but I immediately fell in love with the heir. As if it were today, I see his blue eyes with such a kind expression… When I said goodbye to the heir, who spent the whole dinner next to me, we looked at each other not the same way as when we met; a feeling of affinity had already crept into his soul, as well as into mine, although we were not aware of it”.

Matilda Kshesinskaya in the year of graduation from the Imperial Theatre School. 1890

The 20th century was not far off, the serf attitude towards the actress had gone far into the past: “Dress up as a shepherdess and enter my bedchamber”. Nevertheless, it was considered shameful to marry a stage star: a military officer could marry an actress, but was obliged to resign after that. But it was not an ordinary nobleman, nor a count, nor a prince – it was a crown prince…

Nikolai, we must give credit where it is due, was very embarrassed at the thought that he would enter into an intimate relationship with a girl without marrying her. Kshesinskaya wrote in her diary: “Niki struck me… In the summer, he himself repeatedly reminded in letters and in conversation about a closer acquaintance, and now he suddenly said quite the opposite, that it could not be my first, that it would torment him all his life…”

Matilda turned out to be bolder, although she also worried in her own way:

“But how can I tell my parents about this?.. Mother, I told myself, would still understand me as a woman, I was even sure of this, and I was not mistaken, but how can I tell my father? He had been brought up with strict principles, and I knew that I was dealing him a terrible blow… Until now, remembering that evening when I went to tell my father, I relive every minute. He was sitting at his desk in his office. When I got to the door, I couldn’t dare to enter. Whether I dared or not… but my sister saved me. She entered his office and told our father about everything. Although he knew how to control himself, I could notice with ease what was happening to him and immediately felt how he was suffering. He listened to me carefully and only asked if I was aware that I could never marry the heir and that I would soon have to part with him…

I found a small, charming mansion at No. 18 Angliisky Prospekt, which belonged to Rimsky-Korsakov. It was built by the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich for the ballerina Kuznetsova, with whom he lived… (Unable to divorce his wife, the liberal-minded Grand Duke Konstantin, brother of Emperor Alexander II, established a second family with the ballerina Anna Vasilievna Kuznetsova. Five children were born to this family. – S. M.).

I hosted a housewarming party to celebrate my move and the start of my independent life. All the guests brought me housewarming gifts, and the heir presented eight gold, jeweled vodka cups…

After the move, the heir gave me his photograph with the inscription: “My dear lady,” as he always called me.”

The suffering of young Matilda

Kshesinskaya celebrated a housewarming party in 1892. Then she decided to supplement her personal happiness with stage success.

“I really wanted to perform the ballet Esmeralda, in which Zucchi danced so amazingly (Virginia Zucchi was a virtuoso Italian ballerina and the prima of the Mariinsky Theatre in 1885-1888. – S. M.). I asked our famous, all-powerful choreographer Marius Ivanovich Petipa about this.

He always spoke Russian, although he knew it very poorly and never learned it during the long years of his stay in Russia. He addressed everyone on first-name terms. He usually came wrapped in his checkered blanket and whistling…

After listening to my request for the ballet Esmeralda, he asked:

– Have you ever loved?

I enthusiastically told him that I was in love and still in love. Then he asked his second question:

– Did you suffer?

This question seemed so strange to me, and I immediately answered:

– Of course, I did not.

Then he told me what I later remembered often. He explained that only by experiencing the suffering of love can one truly understand and fulfill the role of Esmeralda. How bitterly I later recalled his words when I achieved the right to dance Esmeralda through suffering and she became my best role”.

Matilda was ready for the fact that she would have to part with Nikolai, but still suffered when their fleeting happiness came to end: in November 1894 in the Grand Church of the Winter Palace, Nicholas II married Alexandra.

“What I experienced on the sovereign’s wedding day can only be understood by those who are able to really love with all their soul and with all their heart and who sincerely believe that true, pure love exists,” she later admitted. “I went through incredible mental anguish, watching hour after hour in my mind how this day went by. I realised that after the separation I had to prepare to be strong, and I tried to dull the oppressive feeling of jealousy in my mind and perceive the one who took my dear Niki from me, since she became his wife, already as an empress. I tried to pull myself together, not lose heart under the yoke of grief and go boldly and bravely towards the life that awaited me ahead…”

Kshesinskaya remained independent until the end of her days, but in the depths of her soul a bitter resentment lurked, which splashed out purely in a feminine way: the ballerina did not allow her rivals to take the stage.

Throne for love

Was it possible to give up the throne for the love of the incomparable Matilda? According to the Supreme Manifesto of March 20 (April 1), 1820, a representative of the Russian Imperial family could enter into a morganatic marriage. What is different about it is that the children born during such marriage did not have the right to inherit the throne. The situation changed after Alexander III signed the Supreme Decree of March 23 (April 4), 1889, which prohibited misalliance among members of the Imperial House.

It was in our democratic time that Prince William easily went down the aisle with the “commoner” Kate Middleton and at the same time did not become a “disinherited knight”. And when, in 1936, the young British King Edward VIII decided to marry the divorced American beauty Wallis Simpson, he was forced to abdicate: as the leader of the Anglican Communion, Edward had no right to such a marriage. “I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of king, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love,” he announced to the whole country on the radio. If Nicholas had loved passionately, recklessly, he would also have given up the right to the throne for the sake of Matilda. In this case, he would have been succeeded by his brother George, and after his death (as the Grand Duke died at the age of 28 from tuberculosis), Michael. However, Nikolai was not able to go silly over a woman.

In the role of Esmeralda (1899). Photo provided by the Russian
magazine Ballet

While the heir was indulging in bliss with the ballerina Matilda, Alexander III concluded a Franco-Russian alliance and wanted to supplement it with a marriage union by marrying the heir to the daughter of the Count of Paris, Hélène of Orleans. However, an obstacle arose: the Catholic did not agree to convert to Orthodoxy, as required by the customs of the Romanov dynasty. The Tsarevich did not suffer like the young Werther, but was carried away by the German princess Victoria Alisa Elena Louise Beatrice Hesse-Darmstadt. Not only German, but also English blood flowed in her veins: the girl was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria (as the French ambassador Maurice Paléologue wrote, she was also a distant descendant of Mary Stuart). She was ready to overcome the only obstacle to marriage – the difference in religion. “Apart from this obstacle, nothing stands between us – and I am almost sure that the feelings are mutual! Nikolai writes in his diary. – All is in the lap of the gods. I bow before His goodness and calmly look to the future”. Nikolai was not tormented that Matilda was of “base” descent – so, it was fated to fail. He did not worry that the beautiful Hélène turned out to be an obstinate Catholic – so, it was not to be. He believed that his fate was Alisa…

After the February Revolution, hard times came for Kshesinskaya. She was mocked in the press with obscene caricatures printed: the reign of freedom replaced the reign of the Romanovs. Therefore, Matilda Feliksovna did not expect anything good when she was invited to perform in the Petrograd theatre of the Conservatory in front of the soldiers of the Life Guards of the Keksholm Regiment. She was afraid that she would be greeted with hoots and shouts of “royal big-head”, if not worse. As the ballerina writes, her friends “mingled with the soldiers and listened to what was being said among them. At first, they found a rather hostile attitude towards me on the part of the soldiers… But when they began to tell them that I was a wonderful performer and that when they saw me, they would be delighted, the mood of the soldiers gradually changed”. Finally, Kshesinskaya decided to go on stage.

“After I danced my Russian dance, there was no end to the applause, and I had to repeat it again and, should I have energy, I could repeat it for the third time, so they accepted me, but I had no more strength. The soldiers threw their caps onto the stage with delight… I returned home tired, but with a relieved heart that I had fulfilled my promise and everything turned out well, but few knew what it cost me”.

One of the episodes of the film Lenin in 1918 is a fragment when the revolutionary sailors are fascinated watching Swan Lake in the Bolshoi Theatre. After the revolution, the “new spectator” immediately accepted the ballet, and not only because it was possible to gawk at girls with bare legs. That viewer was charmed and bewitched. “Charmed” derives from the word “charm”. Ballet belongs to white magic.

And yet Matilda emigrated. Abroad she offered classical dance lessons, she never raised her voice in class. She wrote in her memoirs: “In my life I have seen love, and affection, and care, but I have seen, in addition to grief, a lot of evil… I don’t want to settle accounts with anyone, I don’t want to talk bad about anyone“. She corresponded with the director of the Tchaikovsky House-Museum in the town of Klin, and during the Bolshoi Theatre’s Paris tour in 1958, she cried with happiness. And she tactfully conveyed her admiration to Galina Ulanova through the British ballet critic Arnold Haskell, realising that direct contact with an emigrant, especially associated with the House of Romanov, could harm the Soviet artist. Matilda Feliksovna Kshesinskaya, the most Serene Princess Romanovskaya-Krasinskaya, died in 1971 in Paris at her 100th year of life.

And will there be a match for you?

Not all pre-revolutionary female artists led such a lifestyle as Kshesinskaya. Karsavina, a girl of the most strict rules, even considered dinner in a restaurant as “immoral” and was afraid of going to theatre salons for a long time: she was afraid that balletomanes would kidnap her from there with known goals. Finally, she went – and no one abducted her, although Tamara Platonovna was wonderfully beautiful and later married a British diplomat.

As Igor Severyanin wrote:

In a noisy moire dress, in a noisy moire dress –

You are so aesthetic, you are so graceful…

But who are the lovers? And will there be a match for you?

And how many pre-revolutionary ballet dancers were mistresses? And if they married someone, then whom? Olga Kovalik’s book The Daily Life of Ballerinas of the Russian Imperial Theatre (Moscow, Molodaya Gvardiya, 2011) provides the following figures: “Out of all these nymphs, 129 girls tied themselves up with an “artistic” marriage, 26 married merchants and officials, 306 with various persons, 19 with the highest aristocracy, 34 beauties were kept, 343 actresses were officially celibate.

Whether the ballerinas are celibate, whether they are married to colleagues or to the powers that be, whether they behave not quite decently from an ordinary point of view, their body and soul live in their own world, and neither the prince, nor the king, nor the hero is their real bargain.

The 19th century made a goddess out of a classical dancer, and ballerinas willingly took such image. It was nymphomania, but not in the vulgar sense. In ancient mythology, nymphs are deities, albeit not of the highest rank. Ballerinas on stage and in real life played the role of goddesses, and aristocrats, up to the Grand Dukes, made much of their theatrical girlfriends and sometimes established parallel families with them, considering them as the main ones. The superiority complex in relation to the ballerinas was intertwined with the inferiority complex. The mind told the aristocrats that they were above the dancers, but the feelings whispered the opposite: the nobles dreamed of a woman whom they could pray to like a goddess, and at the same time squeeze in their arms. Ballerinas have become such women for lovers of beauty.

In 2017, Eleonora Sevenard, the great-great-granddaughter of Kshesinskaya’s older brother Joseph Feliksovich, graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Saint Petersburg (he remained in Russia and died during the siege of Leningrad). In 2017, Eleonora won the 1st prize at the All-Russian Competition for Young Performers Russian Ballet, where she danced Odile in the pas de deux from Swan Lake. In the same year, she was accepted into the troupe of the Bolshoi Theatre. Amazing girl. May the hosts of heaven keep her safe!

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