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Primas, Assolutas, Ballerinas and Nobles


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In another thread (Room 101) in another forum (Not Dance) the subject came up of what does "Prima Ballerina Assoluta" mean and who has worn the title?

 

The title (from what I've read) is bestowed by general acclamation: critics, press, audience, ballet movers and shakers - it's a case of you know it when you see it.  

 

 

The first was Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani - mostly for her career on the Russian stage.  The first Russian Assoluta was Mathilde Kchessinskaya.  Two more Russians were so acclaimed:  Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya.

 

Two from Britain: Alicia Markova - (the first Assoluta who did not spend her career on the Russian stage) as well as, of course, Margot Fonteyn.  

 

Alicia Alonso is another - a dancer from Cuba, the first from the Western Hemisphere.

 

Today there are two living Assolutas: Alonso and Plisetskaya.

 

For the men - the title is Danseur Noble and I can only think of Erik Bruhn as having been so acclaimed.  

 

But, I could be wrong about any of the above and left someone out.

 

Prima Ballerina means "first ballerina" - Assoluta is much broader than that - a First among firsts.  

 

Ballerina traditionally meant a female dancer of the classical dance - ballet - dancing in a professional company on a known stage, in the classical repertoire.

 

 

 

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http://www.danceforall.co.za/history

 

Here is some info on Phyllis Spira a South African dancer who had this title who until today had never heard of but who also appears to have done a lot for ballet in the townships around Capetown.

Sounds like she was a rather wonderful lady.

 

There is a clip on YouTube if you google her name where the lovely use of her eyes is something to learn from.

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In continuing from Room 101... Silly little girls who have often had hardly any ballet training at all and call themselves "Ballerinas". I got into a debate with one on the internet a few years back. She was 14 I think. She just didn`t understand that she was supposed to call herself a ballet student. She insisted that she really was a ballerina. Oh ,and she insisted that ballet was a sport,not an art form. Silly cow.!!!!!

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To this day it makes me very uncomfortable when anyone calls me in any context a "ballerina."  I consider myself to have been a ballet dancer and teacher - and no more.  I'm very content with that.  

 

But, I've also learned that trying to correct people who use the  word "ballerina" so loosely is a lost cause.  

 

So inwardly I wince and outwardly I smile and try to remember their intentions are good..

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In another thread (Room 101) in another forum (Not Dance) the subject came up of what does "Prima Ballerina Assoluta" mean and who has worn the title?

 

The title (from what I've read) is bestowed by general acclamation: critics, press, audience, ballet movers and shakers - it's a case of you know it when you see it.  

 

 

The first was Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani - mostly for her career on the Russian stage.  The first Russian Assoluta was Mathilde Kchessinskaya.  Two more Russians were so acclaimed:  Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya.

 

 

I think I read somewhere that Kchessinskaya more or less demanded that she be given the title, because she was very well connected and powerful.  I believe there was some controversy about this, and various people very high up in the ballet world felt she did not deserve it for her dancing.  That may, of course, be just rumour.

 

The clip I saw on youtube of Phyllis Spira showed her doing a piece from Le Corsaire.  I thought she was very Fonteyn-like in the way she danced.  She also looked mixed race to me, but I say that just by looking at the clip, and I have not had a chance to read up anything else about her.

 

Now here is a good topic - who among the ballet dancers of the last few years should have received this title officially, do you think?

 

I shall now settle down and wait for the debates to begin!  :)

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I to correct several little girls the other day who in all seriousness thought my sons job title was ballerina!

Haha hfbrew! That is funny. Have you heard the tounge-in-cheek term "ballet-rhino" for a male dancer? My son is called this at home :) Better than ballerina! 

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Phyllis was Jewish in origin which may explain her looks.

 

Have no idea who should receive title today. Most seem to be strongly linked to a particular company as well but everyone dances everywhere these days(more or less) and has to be someone who has had reasonably long career.

Most likely candidate for me is Diana Vishneva.

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"The second ballerina to be given the title was Legnani's contemporary Mathilde Kschessinska. Petipa, however, did not agree that she should hold such a title; although an extraordinary ballerina, she obtained the title primarily via Imperial prestige."

 

Just found this quote regarding Kschessinska.

 

As far as I can see, Danseur Noble seems to indicate more the type of role a male dancer is judged to be a supreme example of, rather than his dancing overall.  It seems it doesn't carry the same indication of being "the best of the best". 

 

I am struggling to think of any of the recent Principal females that I have seen that could possible fit into that category.  I suppose the reason the title isn't handed out any more is because the names on the list were, in their own ways, ground breaking in terms of achievement.  I can't really think of anyone who towered or towers above the others in quite the same way today. 

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And just going on from my previous post, I think choreographers appear to have had a large say in the matter as well.  Having said that, Balenchine didn't think to name any of his ladies in that way - maybe because, from what I have read about him, he was hugely jealous and went off them if they dared to spurn his attentions off stage? 

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Dance is Life:   Thank you for thinking of her.  :)

 

 

From what i recall, Kschessinskaya and Petipa did not have a smooth relationship - at all.  He did not favor Russian ballerinas - he favored the Italian ballerinas.  It is true she was powerfully connected (two Grand Dukes and the Tsar), however one needed to be powerfully connected in order to get stage time - so it became a chicken-egg thing.  

 

I agree that the male title "Danseur Noble" is a type and there doesn't seem to be a male title which directly equals "assoluta."

 

I think the Balanchine ballerinas - while marvelous dancers - spent most of their careers working very closely with a specific choreographer and style and so, in my opinion, for the most part did not dance the full length classics..

 

My personal definition of an assoluta is:

 

"A ballerina who artistically dominates any stage upon which she steps - an international reputation.  She has danced and defined  the roles of the classical repertoire from the white ballets (Swan Lake, etc.) to the bravura roles such as Kitri (Don Quixote).  Not only danced these leading roles, but put her personal stamp upon them.  Her performance lingers in the eye of the beholder and  sets a standard for artistic portrayal against which others are compared.  Her artistry transcends technique."  

 

 

I repeat....the above definition is my personal view - nothing more.

 

I have been fortunate to have seen three Assolutas dance:  Alonso, Fonteyn and Plisetskaya.  Each for me became the standard  against which I found myself comparing all others.  I have seen many splendid "Giselles" - but none to equal Alonso.

 

I, too, do not see such a ballerina today - yet.

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But also I think that neo-classicism has done away somewhat with the superstar ballerina image. There are no Grand pas de deux in Balanchine's ballets for them to show off their "tricks" in the codas with the 32 fouettes etc.  MacMillan, Cranko and Ashton have beautiful full length ballets with wonderfully dramatic and meaningful pas de deux, whowever they are not showy set pieces, but integral parts of the actual scenarios.  Petipa was the choreographer who gave the ballerinas their chance to bask in the limelight, so that was probably what created the "assolutas".

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I don't knkow if this link will work or not - but I had the unique experience of being the only "outsider" permitted to watch Alicia Alonso take class many years ago.

 

I wrote about it for the "old" Ballet.co forum.  For those newer members it might be of interest - hope this link works:

 

http://www.ballet.co.uk/magazines/yr_03/nov03/ab_working_with_alicia_alonso.htm

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Many years ago, when Margot Fonteyn was doing a tour to promote her book "The Magic of  Dance", she was a house guest of Ruth page, with whom she was great friends and who owned our ballet school. Miss page came to the studio one morning with Fonteyn in tow and asked me to give her a building tour, show her where she would dress in Miss page's own dressing room, where the studios etc. were.  We had her with us for two days, during which she was ever so kind to the students she met (she never did class with anyone, but didn't seem to mind if a student looked into the studio where she was doing her barre), and when she left she took an entire hour in our building's lobby, surrounded by the students, signing anything and everything they presented to her with great patience, after which she made a point of thanking me "for everything". 

 

No disrespect to Miss page's last name, but for some reason my machine is having trouble with capitalizing the letter "p".   :D 

Edited by victoriapage
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Maybe one of the reasons we don't at present see an assoluta on the horizon is because the horizon is more complex...so many stylistic models even within the ballet.  Careers - perhaps because of greater physical demands - are shorter.  The audience, itself  much more diverse, and demanding more diversity.

 

Anna Pavlova is an interesting example when discussing the title assoluta.  Why does she not meet the standard?  She certainly was an exquisite dancer - had an international reputation and a long career.  I think it is because she did not make it her career to dance the standard classical repertoire.  Her career consisted for the most part of shorter pieces individualized for her gifts and suited to constant traveling.

 

Cynthia Gregory is an example of a marvelous dancer who was, in my opinion, held back from exploring the full potential of her gifts.  She was never given the opportunity, so far as I know, to dance "Juliet".  I would have loved to see what she would do with that role.  She did dance other dramatic roles.  One of the problems she faced was finding a suitable male dancer - both physically and artistically.  Patrick Bissell certainly met both requirements - but unforunately had other problems he could not overcome.

 

I had the marvelous experience of observing him teach a men's class - which I will never ever forget.  

Edited by Anjuli_Bai
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