Mathilde Kschessinska
Mathilda-Marie Feliksovna Kschessinskaya was a Russian ballerina
A ballerina is a title used to describe a principal female professional ballet dancer in a large company; the male equivalent to this title is danseur or ballerino...

 from a family of Polish origin. Her father Feliks Krzesiński and her brother both danced in St. Petersburg. She eventually attained the highest rank, that of prima ballerina assoluta
Prima ballerina assoluta
Prima ballerina assoluta is a rank or title given to notable female ballet dancers. To be recognised as a prima ballerina assoluta is a very rare honour, reserved only for the most exceptional soloists, usually those who have achieved international acclaim....

. She was also a mistress of the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
Nicholas II of Russia
Nicholas II was the last Emperor of Russia, Grand Prince of Finland, and titular King of Poland. His official short title was Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias and he is known as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church.Nicholas II ruled from 1894 until...


She was known in the West as Mathilde Kschessinska or Matilda Kshesinskaya.


Kschessinska was born at Ligovo, near Peterhof. Like all her Polish family
thumb|right|180px|The state flag of [[Poland]] as used by Polish government and diplomatic authoritiesThe Polish people, or Poles , are a nation indigenous to Poland. They are united by the Polish language, which belongs to the historical Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages of Central Europe...

, to whom she was known as Matylda Krzesińska, Mathilde performed at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Mariinsky Theatre
The Mariinsky Theatre is a historic theatre of opera and ballet in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Opened in 1860, it became the preeminent music theatre of late 19th century Russia, where many of the stage masterpieces of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov received their premieres. The...

 of St Petersburg with the renowned Imperial Ballet
Mariinsky Ballet
The Mariinsky Ballet is a classical ballet company based at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Founded in the 18th century and originally known as the Imperial Russian Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet is one of the world's leading ballet companies...

. Kschessinskaya made her début in a pas de deux
Pas de deux
In ballet, a pas de deux is a duet in which ballet dancers perform the dance together. It usually consists of an entrée, adagio, two variations , and a coda.-Notable Pas de deux:...

from La Fille Mal Gardée
La Fille Mal Gardée
La Fille mal gardée is a comic ballet presented in two acts, inspired by Pierre-Antoine Baudouin's 1789 painting, La réprimande/Une jeune fille querellée par sa mère...

during a graduation performance in 1890 attended by Emperor Alexander III
Alexander III of Russia
Alexander Alexandrovich Romanov , historically remembered as Alexander III or Alexander the Peacemaker reigned as Emperor of Russia from until his death on .-Disposition:...

 and the rest of the Imperial family, including the future Nicholas II. At the post-performance supper, Tsar Alexander sought out the young Kschessinskaya and told her to "Be the glory and adornment of our ballet."

In 1896, she obtained the rank of prima ballerina assoluta of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, a title Marius Petipa
Marius Petipa
Victor Marius Alphonse Petipa was a French ballet dancer, teacher and choreographer. Petipa is considered to be the most influential ballet master and choreographer of ballet that has ever lived....

 had created especially for the Italian virtuosa Pierina Legnani
Pierina Legnani
Pierina Legnani was an Italian ballerina, a terre-à-terre virtuosa extraordinaire, considered one of the greatest ballerinas of all time.-Career:...

 in 1894. The old maestro
Maestro is a title of extreme respect given to a master musician. The term is most commonly used in the context of Western classical music and opera. This is associated with the ubiquitous use of Italian vocabulary for classical music terms...

 did not consent to its granting to Kschessinskaya, and although she possessed an extraordinary gift as a dancer, she obtained it primarily via her prestige at the Imperial Russian Court.

Petipa allowed Kschessinskaya to create only a small number of new roles, as he considered Legnani to be the superior ballerina. Although she was able to command top billing in theatre programs or on posters, her efforts to obtain more new roles were thwarted by Petipa, whose authority over the artistic direction of the Imperial Ballet was not challenged by the Emperor himself. Among the few roles Kschessinskaya created were Flora in Le Réveil de Flore
The Awakening of Flora or Le Réveil de Flore
The Awakening of Flora , is an anacreonic ballet in one act, with choreography by Marius Petipa, music by Riccardo Drigo, and a libretto written by Petipa and Lev Ivanov.The ballet was first presented at a court performance...

(1894) and Columbine in Harlequinade
Les Millions d'Arlequin
Les millions d'Arlequin is a ballet in two acts with libretto and choreography by Marius Petipa and music by Riccardo Drigo. First presented at the Imperial Theatre of the Hermitage by the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia on Friday,...

(1900). She also became the first Russian danseuse
A ballerina is a title used to describe a principal female professional ballet dancer in a large company; the male equivalent to this title is danseur or ballerino...

 to master the 32 fouettés
32 fouettés en tournant
32 fouettés en tournant is a movement in classical ballet.-Movement:A fouetté rond de jambe en tournant is an action where the dancer stands momentarily on flat foot with the supporting knee bent as the other "working" leg is whipped around to the side, creating the impetus to spin one turn...

 of Legnani.

Although Petipa had a great respect for Kschessinskaya as a dancer, he apparently despised her as a person, referring to her in his diaries as " ... that nasty little swine." Even so, he chose her for the lead roles in many of the final revivals of his older masterworks, often devising intricate choreography for her to execute — the shade of Mlada in Mlada
Mlada (ballet)
Mlada is a Fantastic ballet in 4 Acts/9 Scenes, with choreography by Marius Petipa, and music by Ludwig Minkus.The ballet was first presented by the Imperial Ballet on December 2/14 , 1879 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia...

(1896), Queen Nisia in Le Roi Candaule
Tsar Kandavl or Le Roi Candaule
Tsar Kandavl; AKA Le Roi Candaule is a Grand ballet in 4 Acts-6 Scenes, with choreography by Marius Petipa, and music by Cesare Pugni. Libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, based on the history of King Candaules the Ruler of Lydia, as described by Herodotus in his Histories...

(1897), the Goddess Thetis in Les Aventures de Pélée
Les Aventures de Pélée
Les Aventures de Pélée is a ballet in three acts and five scenes, with choreography by Marius Petipa and music by Ludwig Minkus, with additional music adapted from the airs of works by Léo Delibes...

(1897), Aspicia in The Pharaoh's Daughter
The Pharaoh's Daughter
The Pharaoh's Daughter , is a ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, to the music of Cesare Pugni, with libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges from Théophile Gautier's Le Roman de la Momie...

(1898), the title role in La Esmeralda
La Esmeralda (ballet)
La Esmeralda is a ballet in 3 acts, 5 scenes, inspired by Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, originally choreographed by Jules Perrot; with music by Cesare Pugni and design by William Grieve , D. Sloman , Mme...

(1899), and Nikiya in La Bayadère
La Bayadère
La Bayadère is a ballet, originally staged in four acts and seven tableaux by French choreographer Marius Petipa to the music of Ludwig Minkus. La Bayadère was first performed by the Imperial Ballet at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on...

(1900). Such roles became notoriously difficult once Petipa revised them for Kschessinskaya.

In 1899, Prince Serge Wolkonsky
Serge Wolkonsky
Prince Serge Wolkonsky was an influential Russian theatrical worker, one of the first Russian proponents of eurhythmics, pupil and friend of Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, and creator of an original system of actor's training that included both expressive gesture and expressive...

 became Director of the Imperial Theaters. Although he held the position only until 1902, he achieved a great deal. Sergei Diaghilev
Sergei Diaghilev
Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev , usually referred to outside of Russia as Serge, was a Russian art critic, patron, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, from which many famous dancers and choreographers would arise.-Early life and career:...

 was his immediate assistant, and Wolkonsky entrusted him with the publication of the Annual of the Imperial Theaters in 1900. During this period, new names appeared in the theaters, such as painters Alexandre Benois
Alexandre Benois
Alexandre Nikolayevich Benois , an influential artist, art critic, historian, preservationist, and founding member of Mir iskusstva , an art movement and magazine...

, Konstantin Somov
Konstantin Somov
Konstantin Andreyevich Somov was a Russian artist associated with the Mir iskusstva. Born into a family of a major art historian and Hermitage Museum curator, he became interested in the 18th century art and music at an early age.Somov studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts under Ilya Repin from...

, and Léon Bakst
Léon Bakst
Léon Samoilovitch Bakst was a Russian painter and scene- and costume designer. He was a member of the Sergei Diaghilev circle and the Ballets Russes, for which he designed exotic, richly coloured sets and costumes...

. However, Wolkonsky was forced to send in his resignation after refusing Kschessinskaya's request for a revival of the romantic ballet Catarina
Catarina or La Fille du Bandit
Catarina or La Fille du Bandit is a ballet in 3 Acts-4 Scenes, with choreography by Jules Perrot, and music by Cesare Pugni. Libretto by Jules Perrot, based on an incident in the life of the Italian painter Salvatore Rosa....


Scandals and rumours around her name developed and persisted as she engaged in a sexual relationship with two Grand Dukes of the Romanov family: Sergei Mikhailovich
Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich of Russia
Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich of Russia was the fifth son of Grand Duke Michael Nikolaievich of Russia and a first cousin of Alexander III of Russia. He followed a military career and served as General Inspector of the Artillery with the rank of Adjutant General during World War I...

 and his cousin Andrei Vladimirovich
Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia
Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia was a Russian grand duke, the youngest son of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna.-Biography:...

. In 1902, she gave birth to a son, Vladimir (known as "Vova"; 30 June 1902 - 23 April 1974); he was later given the title Prince Romanovsky-Krasinsky, but said that he never knew for sure who his father was.

Earlier, Kschessinskaya had been involved with the future Nicholas II, from 1890, when he was a grand duke
Grand Duke
The title grand duke is used in Western Europe and particularly in Germanic countries for provincial sovereigns. Grand duke is of a protocolary rank below a king but higher than a sovereign duke. Grand duke is also the usual and established translation of grand prince in languages which do not...

 and she was just seventeen, having met him in the presence of his family after her graduation performance. The relationship continued for three years, until Nicholas married Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt—the future Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna -- in 1894, shortly after the death of his father, Tsar Alexander.

While Kschessinska could be charming and kind to colleagues, such as the young Tamara Karsavina
Tamara Karsavina
Tamara Platonovna Karsavina was a famous Russian ballerina, renowned for her beauty, who was most noted as a Principal Artist of the Imperial Russian Ballet and later the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev...

, she was not afraid to use her connections with the Tsar to strengthen her position in the Imperial Theatres. She was known to sew valuable jewels into her costumes and came on stage as the Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh's Daughter wearing her diamond encrusted tiaras and chokers. She could also be ruthless with rivals. One of her most famous miscalculations occurred when, while pregnant in 1902, she coached Anna Pavlova in the role of Nikya in La Bayadère. She considered Pavlova to be technically weak and believed that the other ballerina could not upstage her. Instead, audiences became enthralled with the frail, long-limbed, ethereal-looking Pavlova, and a star was born.

Another notorious incident occurred in 1906 when Kschessinskaya's coveted role of Lise in the Petipa/Ivanov production of La Fille Mal Gardée was given to Olga Preobrajenska
Olga Preobrajenska
Olga Iosifovna Preobrajenska was probably the best loved ballerina of the Russian Imperial Ballet....

. One feature of this production was the use of live chickens on stage. Before Preobrajenska's variation in the Pas de ruban of the first act, Kschessinskaya opened the doors to the chickens' coops and, at the first note of the music, the chickens went flying about the stage. Nevertheless, Preobrajenska continued her variation to the end and received a storm of applause, much to Kschessinskaya's chagrin.

Through her aristocratic connections, she managed to amass much valuable property in the Russian capital. It was from the balcony of her elegant house that Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a Russian Marxist revolutionary and communist politician who led the October Revolution of 1917. As leader of the Bolsheviks, he headed the Soviet state during its initial years , as it fought to establish control of Russia in the Russian Civil War and worked to create a...

 addressed the revolutionary crowd when he returned from Finland in 1917.

After the Russian Revolution
October Revolution
The October Revolution , also known as the Great October Socialist Revolution , Red October, the October Uprising or the Bolshevik Revolution, was a political revolution and a part of the Russian Revolution of 1917...

, Kschessinska moved first to the French Riviera
French Riviera
The Côte d'Azur, pronounced , often known in English as the French Riviera , is the Mediterranean coastline of the southeast corner of France, also including the sovereign state of Monaco...

 and then to Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

, where she married, in 1921, one of the tsar's cousins, Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia
Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia
Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia was a Russian grand duke, the youngest son of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna.-Biography:...

, the possible father of her son Vova. Although Kschessinska's life in Paris was modest compared with the lavish life she had enjoyed in Russia, she lived on happily for over fifty years. In 1929, she opened her own ballet school, where she taught such students as Dame Margot Fonteyn
Margot Fonteyn
Dame Margot Fonteyn de Arias, DBE , was an English ballerina of the 20th century. She is widely regarded as one of the greatest classical ballet dancers of all time...

, Dame Alicia Markova
Alicia Markova
Dame Alicia Markova, DBE, DMus, was an English ballerina and a choreographer, director and teacher of classical ballet. Most noted for her career with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and touring internationally, she was widely considered to be one of the greatest classical ballet dancers of the...

, André Eglevsky
André Eglevsky
André Eglevsky was a Russian-born American ballet dancer and teacher.Eglevsky was born in Moscow, but was taken to live in France when he was eight, his mother having decided that his talent as a dancer demanded that he be properly trained...

, Tatiana Riabouchinska
Tatiana Riabouchinska
Tatiana Mikhaylovna Riabouchinska was a Russian-born prima ballerina.She was born in Moscow in 1917. She was trained by the great Mathilde Kschessinska, and was later a prima ballerina in France. Together with Irina Baronova and Tamara Toumanova she was the third of Colonel W. de Basil's "baby...

 and Tamara Toumanova
Tamara Toumanova
Tamara Toumanova was an American ballerina and actress. "Toumanova" was a stage name proposed by Olga Preobrazhenskaya, after her mother’s family name of Tumanishvili.-Personal life:...

. She performed for the last time at the age of 64, for a charity event with The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden
Covent Garden
Covent Garden is a district in London on the eastern fringes of the West End, between St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane. It is associated with the former fruit and vegetable market in the central square, now a popular shopping and tourist site, and the Royal Opera House, which is also known as...


In 1960, she published an autobiography
An autobiography is a book about the life of a person, written by that person.-Origin of the term:...

 entitled Souvenirs de la Kschessinska (published in English as Dancing in St. Petersburg: The Memoirs of Kschessinska). In later years, she suffered financial difficulties but remained indomitable. She died in Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

, eight months short of her 100th birthday.


  • Matilda Kshessinskaya. Dancing in Petersburg — London, 1960, 1973
  • Matilda Kshessinskaya. Souveniers de la Kshessinskaya. — Paris, 1960.

Further reading

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