Kshesinskaia, Matilda (1872–1971)
Kshesinskaia, Matilda (1872–1971)
One of the foremost classical Russian ballerinas between 1890 and 1917. Name variations: at least nine different transliterations from the Russian, the most common being Mathilde or Matilde Kchessinska, Kcshessinskaya, Kschessinska, Kshesinskaia, Kshesinskaya, Kshessinskaya, Kshessinskaia; Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky (after 1935). Pronunciation: Ke-SHES-in-sky-ya. Born Matilda Feliksovna Kshesinskaia on August 19, 1872 (o.s.) in Ligovo, Russia; died on December 6, 1971, in Paris, France; daughter of Feliks Ivanovich Kshesinskii (Krzhesinskii-Nechui), a ballet dancer, and Julia Kshesinskaia; attended Imperial Ballet School, 1880–90; married Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich, in 1921; children: Vladimir (b. 1902).
Was a member of the Maryinsky Theater company (1890–1917), as ballerina (1892–93), as prima ballerina (1893–95), as prima ballerina assoluta (1895–1904), as guest artist (1905–17); was mistress of the future tsar of Russia, Nicholas II (1892–94); danced in Vienna (1903), Monte Carlo (1895, 1912), Paris (1908, 1909), London (1911, 1912) and Budapest (1912); lived abroad near Monte Carlo (1920–28) and in Paris (1929–71); taught ballet (1929–64).
her best known and favorite roles were in La fille mal gardée, La fille du Pharaon, Esmeralda, La Bayadere, Le Talisman and Swan Lake. Publication: (under the name Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky) Dancing in Petersburg: The Memoirs of Kschessinska (London, 1960).
"Where is Kshesinskaia?" bellowed Tsar Alexander III. The date was March 23, 1890, and the graduating class of the Imperial Ballet School had just completed their final examination dances before their teachers and the royal family. Matilda Kshesinskaia's rendition of a scene from La fille mal gardée had clearly been the best of the day. The 17-year-old dancer was taken to meet her imposing sovereign, curtsied, and was told, "Be the glory and the adornment of our ballet!" Much to everyone's surprise, the tsar then asked her to be his dinner partner at the graduation banquet, and he placed on her other side his 21-year-old son and heir, the tsarevich Nicholas (II) Aleksandrovich. The nonplussed dancer remembered little of the subsequent conversation except that Alexander, upon leaving the table, warned her: "Careful now! Not too much flirting!" These two imperial commands shaped the course of Kshesinskaia's life: one of them she obeyed, the other she did not. Within five years, she had risen to the rank of prima ballerina assoluta, the highest position in Russian ballet. During the same time, she was involved in a celebrated romance with the tsarevich. Although the affair came to an end when Nicholas married Alexandra Feodorovna and became tsar of Russia in 1894, Kshesinskaia's dancing flourished for the next two decades while Russian ballet became the finest in the world. Long after Nicholas and Alexandra perished at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918, she continued to dance and teach ballet in Western Europe.
Matilda Kshesinskaia was born in Ligovo, near St. Petersburg, into a family of ballet dancers. Her father, Feliks Ivanovich Kshesinskii, was a Polish character dancer brought from Warsaw to perform in St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater. Her mother Julia Kshesinskaia and her two older siblings, Iosef and Julia, were also dancers. "I had a very happy childhood," Kshesinskaia later recalled. Her summers were spent at the family's country estate, and during the rest of the year they lived in a large, comfortable apartment in the capital. In this "marvellous enchanted atmosphere," her father taught the mazurka to members of St. Petersburg's high society. Matilda often watched her father dance professionally, began dancing herself when she was three, and at the age of eight passed the highly competitive entrance examination for the Imperial Ballet School. At her parents' insistence, she was one of the few students allowed to live at home. She nevertheless spent most of her time during the next ten years at the school, studying academic subjects, learning good manners and above all else being rigorously taught to dance by Russian and European masters. Upon graduating first in her class, she was given a coveted position in the corps de ballet at the Maryinsky Theater.
Her rise in the company was unparalleled. Within two years she was named ballerina, in 1893 prima ballerina, and in 1895 prima ballerina assoluta. Serge Lifar has called her "the best dancer of her time" and praised her for her lightness, purity and artistic instinct. Like most graduates of the Imperial School, she was well trained in classical techniques and was particularly adept at mime. What set her apart from her Russian contemporaries was her virtuosity, which up to this point had been the monopoly of Italian ballerinas brought in to star in Russian ballets. When Kshesinskaia successfully completed the 32 fouettés in the Black Swan pas de deux of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, it was hailed as a national triumph and a sign that Russian ballet had come of age.
There were some in St. Petersburg who uncharitably attributed Kshesinskaia's quick success to her "flirting" with various members of the royal family and in particular with Nicholas II, the official patron of the Maryinsky Theater. Kshesinskaia later admitted that when she first met Nicholas at her graduation dinner
I fell in love with [him] on the spot! I can still see his magnificent eyes, his tender, kind expression. Almost from his first words he was something more to me than the Tsarevitch, heir to the throne. It was like a dream. … When we finally parted, we saw each other in a new light. In both of our hearts an attraction had been born impelling us irresistibly towards each other.
Several months later, in July 1890, she started dancing with her new company at Krasnoe Selo where Nicholas' regiment was conveniently stationed for the summer. He came to all of her performances, visited her backstage, and later confided to his diary that "ever since camp in 1890 I have loved little K passionately." His love was initially platonic, and then it was interrupted by a nine-month world tour dictated by his father. Upon his return, Nicholas resumed his intense interest in ballet, visited Kshesinskaia at her father's home, and began giving her expensive gifts. It suited both of them when she moved into an apartment with her older sister and later into a two-storey house on the English Quay purchased for her by the tsarevich. "I knew indeed that this was one of the things that 'just is not done,'" Kshesinskaia wrote in her memoirs:
My father was shattered. … He listened to my account and merely asked me if I realised that I could never marry the Tsarevitch and that our idyll would be short. I replied that I fully understood, but that I loved him with all my heart, that I did not care what happened in the future. I wanted to take advantage of the happiness open to me, even if it proved of short duration.
She realized all too well that tsars of Russia married foreign royalty, not Russian ballerinas. Nicholas was in fact seeking the hand of Alexandra Feodorovna (then Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt) at the same time that he was spending many of his nights on the English Quay. "I never imagined that two identical feelings, two loves could co-exist simultaneously in one's soul," he confessed to his diary in April 1892. Matilda's "idyll" ended precisely two years later when Princess Alix finally agreed to give up her Lutheran faith, took the name Alexandra, and by the end of 1894 married Nicholas, now the tsar of Russia. "It was something which I had foreseen, expected, known must happen," Kshesinskaia later wrote. "Nevertheless it brought me inconsolable sorrow." In subsequent years, she corresponded with the tsar on occasion but never again saw him privately.
Crowned with honors, rich in memories, hallowed by a great romance, [Kshesinskaia] represents a bygone century of ballet.
Kshesinskaia's "dark curls and merry eyes" as well as the glamour of being a prima ballerina did, however, attract other members of the royal family to her side. In 1895, the Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, Nicholas' cousin, became her "protector" and she his mistress. Five years later, she formed a lasting relationship with the tsar's nephew, the Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich, and gave birth to their son in 1902. It was in part because of these friends in high places that Serge Lifar has referred to "the all-powerful Kshesinskaia" as the "greatest and most influential of the stars of the Maryinsky Theatre."
During the first decade of the 20th century, she was widely considered to be the "doyenne of the traditionalists" and even Isadora Duncan , anything but a traditionalist herself, said that Kshesinskaia danced "more like a lovely bird or butterfly than a human being." She helped spread the growing fame of Russian ballet by dancing in Vienna in 1903 and Paris in 1908 and 1909. As one critic wrote in 1904, "Kshesinskaia, with her great natural gifts, holds an exceptional place on the contemporary Russian stage, and even in Europe as a whole." Her salary of 3,000 rubles a year, plus the gifts of her many admirers, allowed her to live in considerable style. Grand Duke Sergei gave her a dacha on the Gulf of Finland where she spent many of her summers, and she purchased a villa on the French Riviera for use when abroad. In 1907, she sold her house on the English Quay and built an opulent mansion on Kronversky Prospekt in St. Petersburg. Looked after by 14 servants, it soon became the focal point for much of the capital's social life. Perhaps wishing to surpass scenes from The Nutcracker, Kshesinskaia hired Russia's foremost clown and brought a large elephant into her ballroom to entertain guests at one of her son's Christmas parties.
This was also a decade of change and turmoil for Russian politics and Russian ballet. In 1905, an unsuccessful revolution broke out in St. Petersburg which even spread to the Maryinsky Theater. A number of the ballet company, including Kshesinskaia's brother Iosef but not Matilda herself, went on strike demanding better working conditions, less authoritarian control, and an end to what they considered to be growing artistic stagnation. Four years later, Serge Diaghilev harnessed some of these sentiments and started to revolutionize European dance. He proposed to take many of the Maryinsky company to Paris and to stage less traditional ballets based on the innovative choreography of Michel Fokine. Initially, Kshesinskaia used her influence to get royal patronage and a subsidy for what came to be known as the Ballets Russes as well as permission to use Maryinsky sets and costumes. When she found out, however, that the major roles had been offered to her younger and more versatile colleagues, Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina , she decided to stay home, and the royal family withdrew its patronage. In 1911 and 1912, Kshesinskaia did appear as a guest performer for the Ballets Russes in London. And while the conservative audience at Covent Garden showed more appreciation for her virtuosity in Swan Lake than for the soaring leaps of her partner Vaslav Nijinsky, it is indicative that she was not asked to dance the new roles from Igor Stravinsky's Firebird, Petrushka and Rite of Spring which Diaghilev had staged in Paris and which were to lay the groundwork for modern ballet of the 20th century.
The outbreak of the First World War varied the rhythm if not the substance of Kshesinskaia's privileged existence. Her foreign tours came to
an end but the ballet still functioned every Wednesday and Sunday night at the Maryinsky Theater. In 1915, she traveled extensively in Russia, dancing in provincial cities and staying in a special railway carriage loaned to her by the Grand Duke Sergei. She contributed to the war effort by visiting the front to distribute gifts and by opening a temporary hospital near her mansion in Petrograd for recuperating soldiers. Unlike the British ambassador, who could not get coal to heat his embassy during the coldest part of 1916, Kshesinskaia was regularly supplied with fuel by army trucks. While most of the city was suffering from bread rationing, she had no difficulty feeding 24 guests off of her Limoges china at a special banquet on February 22, 1917. The next day people protesting their own lack of fuel and food as well as the continuation of the war began to demonstrate in Petrograd, and by the 26th the unrest had become so widespread that the chief of police urged Kshesinskaia to seek sanctuary elsewhere. Perhaps realizing that the mansion of the tsar's ex-mistress was a very visible symbol of the detested old order, she heeded this warning and 12 hours later fled with her fox terrier and a suitcase full of jewelry. It was a wise decision, for her house was soon sacked from top to bottom and then taken over by the Bolsheviks to serve as their temporary headquarters. The ballroom in which clowns and elephants had once entertained became the site of Lenin's Seventh Party Conference in April 1917.
As a result of the Bolshevik seizure of power in October, Kshesinskaia lost not only her mansion but also her dacha, her job, her pension, and a fortune in jewelry. Unlike her former lovers, Nicholas II and the Grand Duke Sergei, she did not lose her life. In the middle of 1917, using a safe-conduct pass issued to her by the Provisional Government, she and her son Vladimir left Petrograd and made their way to the Caucasus, where she spent most of the Civil War with the Grand Duke Andrei, trying to keep one step ahead of the Bolshevik forces. Finally accepting the fact that the monarchy would not be restored, they sailed from Russia on an Italian liner bound for France in February 1920. A year later Matilda and Andrei were married in Cannes. For the next eight years, they lived a comfortable emigre life in her villa overlooking the Mediterranean. In 1929, financial circumstances forced them to move to Paris so that Matilda could open a dance studio, where for 35 years she taught classical Russian ballet to several generations of aspiring ballerinas. Her long career as a dancer came to an end in 1936, at age 64, after 18 curtain calls before a standing audience at Covent Garden. She spent the postwar years in Paris teaching, writing her moving memoirs, caring for her aged husband, and taking an active role in the Federation of Russian Classical Ballet. Matilda Kshesinskaia died in her 100th year on December 6, 1971.
Lifar, Serge. A History of Russian Ballet. Translated from the French by Arnold Haskell. London: Hutchinson, 1954.
Maynard, Olga. "Kchessinska at Ninety-Nine," in Dance Magazine. November 1971, pp. 22–24.
Romanovsky-Krassinsky, Princess (Matilda Kshesinskaia). Dancing in Petersburg: The Memoirs of Kschessinska. Translated from the French by Arnold Haskell. London: Victor Gollancz, 1960 (most of the quotations used above, unless otherwise indicated, come from this source).
Massie, Robert K. Nicholas and Alexandra. NY: Antheneum, 1968.
R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada