Preobrazhenska, Olga (1871–1962)

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Preobrazhenska, Olga (1871–1962)

Foremost Russian dancer who devoted the last 40 years of her career to teaching in Paris, where she left a profound mark upon ballet in the Western World. Name variations: Ol'ga Iosifovna (or Ossipovna) Preobrazhenskaia; Preobrazhenskaya; Preobrajenska; known to her students as Madame Préo. Born Ol'ga Iosifovna (or Ossipovna) Preobrazhenska on January 21 (February 2, old style), 1871, in St. Petersburg, Russia;died in a nursing home in Sainte-Mande, France, on December 27, 1962; never married; no children.


Honored Artist of His Majesty's Theaters (1909); granted the Medal of Merit by the Club International de la Danse (1955); Gala Hommage à Olga Preobrazhenska, Paris (1957).

Graduated from the St. Petersburg theater school (1889) and immediately entered the Maryinsky Company (1889–1917); became a soloist (1896), a prima ballerina (1900); debuted as Giselle (1899), Raymonda (1903), Aurora and Odette-Odile (1904); taught at the St. Petersburg theater school (1901–02); taught at Akim Volynsky's School of Russian Ballet (1917–21); emigrated to Berlin (1921); danced there and at La Scala, Milan, Covent Garden, London, and the Theatro Colon in Buenos Aires (1922); settled in Paris, where she opened a prominent school of ballet (1923); retired (1960).

[The] absence of natural gifts was compensated by ideal training, constantly reinforced and perfected.

—Gennady Smakov

Olga Preobrazhenska was born in St. Petersburg on January 21, 1871 (February 2, according to the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time). Her mother died shortly after her birth and her father took little interest in her. Though she came from a family that had no connections whatsoever with the ballet or any of the other arts, Preobrazhenska early decided to become a dancer. At first, she simply took lessons with Leopoldina Lozenskaya , a former dancer with the Maryinsky Theater, but by age ten, after numerous rejections, she was accepted into the St. Petersburg theater school. There she studied under Lev Ivanov (intermediate), then Christian Johansson, and the famed choreographer Marius Petipa (advanced classes). Short, squat, and plain of face, with mild scoliosis and a hyperextended knee, Preobrazhenska had limited possibilities as a ballet dancer, much less a soloist or ballerina, but over the years, through continuous self-discipline and hard work, she overcame her shortcomings, achieving such success as a pupil that upon graduation in 1889, she immediately entered the Maryinsky Company for which the theater school existed. She remained a leading dancer there for nearly 30 years. Despite her poor figure and lack of allure, Preobrazhenska was an indefatigable worker and through sheer determination saw her career advance steadily. Gifted with a lively personality, a dazzling smile and great personal charm which she conveyed easily across the footlights, she became increasingly popular with St. Petersburg audiences. Artistic and curious, she studied music, learned to play the piano, took voice lessons, and sought out the best teachers of dance in the capital.

At first relegated to the back row of the corps de ballet with apparently no hope of becoming a soloist, Preobrazhenska nevertheless achieved this distinction by 1896 and was elevated to the rank of ballerina by 1900. By this time, she had become one of the most important dancers at the Maryinsky, performing a broad and varied range of roles, including almost all of those in the ballets choreographed by Petipa, Ivanov, and Legat. These included a number of parts that she was the first to perform: Anne in Petipa's Barbe-Bleu (Blue Beard), Henriette in his Raymonda (1898), Pierette in his Les Millions d'Arlequin (Harlequinade, 1900), the title role in Pavel Gerdt's Javotte (1902), and Cleopatra's slave in Fokine's Une Nuit d'Egypte (A Night in Egypt, 1908). She also danced in Fokine's Chopiniana (1908, 1909), and as late as 1915 he staged Tchaikovsky's Romance for her, when she was 44. As she matured, she returned in some of these ballets playing other parts, Isaure in Barbe-Bleu (after 1900), the title role in Raymonda (after 1903), and Bérénice in Une Nuit d'Égypt (after 1910). She also appeared in Petipa's Esmerelda, Paquita, and The Talisman, and in Lev Ivanov's Acis et Galathée (Acis and Galathea), Camargo, and La Fille du Mikado (The Mikado's Daughter). Never satisfied with her art, when already a mature and respected dancer Preobrazhenska took lessons from Enrico Cecchetti (1898–1900) and Nicolai Legat in Russia, Caterina Beretta in Milan, Joseph Hansen in Paris, and Katti Lanner in London.

In 1895, Preobrazhenska made her first trip abroad touring for the Maryinsky in the company of Matilda Kshesinskaia and her brother Joseph Kshesinsky. Preobrazhenska appeared in Dresden, in Monte Carlo and at La Scala in Milan (1904) and in Paris in 1909. In 1910, she danced Swan Lake in London for the first time, if only in a shortened version of the original, and in 1912 toured in South America.

The coming of the First World War demonstrated sharply Preobrazhenska's perfectionism in all things. Training as a nurse, she went on to work in several hospitals in order to learn as much as possible about her new craft, serving in various military hospitals and conducting a small hospital in the courtyard of her home, all the while continuing to teach her classes in ballet under increasingly difficult conditions.

From time to time, Preobrazhenska had taught at the St. Petersburg Theater School (1901–02, 1914–17, 1919–21), and after the Russian revolutions of March and November 1917, she continued her career by joining the new School of Russian Ballet just founded by Akim Volynsky. Here, where the newest and most innovative ballet techniques were being developed and taught, she served as a teacher until 1921. Working with the brilliant Agrippina Vaganova , Preobrazhenska taught ballet to students who at one time or another included Alexandra Danilova, Olga Mungalova, Vera Volkova , and even Vaganova herself, who would eventually go on to become the greatest dance teacher in the Soviet Union and the virtual founder of Soviet ballet.

But the destruction of the old world of Imperial Russia of which the ballet had been so much a part was difficult for Preobrazhenska to cope with, and in February 1921 she left Russia for Finland. After a few gala performances in Riga, Latvia (which was no longer part of Russia), she went on to Berlin where for some months she endured the life of an émigré, dancing wherever she could obtain an engagement. Then, she had the happy idea of writing to La Scala in Milan where she had performed four times in the past, and immediately received an invitation to choreograph there for an entire opera season. Heartened by her success, she realized that Berlin had nothing to offer her, and she left for France shortly after her return from Milan.

In 1923, Preobrazhenska settled in Paris, where she opened a private school at the Studio Wacker. At first, her pupils were drawn mostly from the Russian émigrés then so numerous in the city, but gradually, as her fame spread, she became one of the most distinguished and sought-after teachers in Europe until her retirement in 1960 at the age of 89.

The great roles of Preobrazhenska, the ones which brought out the best in her and in which her talents were shown at their best were those of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Lise in La Fille Malgardé, and The Nutcracker. She also shone in certain demi-caractère roles such as in Muzhichok by Petipa, the Liszt Czardas by Ivanov, etc. Her other roles included those of Swanilda in Coppélia, Butterfly in Les Caprices du Papillon, Téresa in The Cavalry Halt, Galatea in Acis et Galatea, Isabelle in The Trials of Damis, and Summer in Petipa's Four Seasons. She also appeared as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake and in the title role in Giselle, but in neither of these great classics was she considered a success. In her early years and often in her later ones, she danced in subordinate roles in many other ballets, among them Bluebeard, La Source, Esmeralda, The Pearl of Seville, Catarina, Paquita, Sylvia, The Fairy Doll, Puss in Boots, Le Matelot, Carmen, Les Hu guenots, and as Columbine in the Ivanov-Petipa Nutcrack er. Had it not been for the dominance over the Maryinsky enjoyed by Kshesinskaia, whose position was secure through the patron age of members of the imperial family, it is likely that Preo brazhenska's career would have led her to the soubrette, i.e. comic, roles in which her sparkling personality, joie de vivre, and sheer exuberance would have made her a great success, but which were almost monopolized by Kshesinskaia.

As a dancer Preobrazhenska's assets were the precision and perfection of her technique, her soaring leaps, her elegance in motion, her graceful arms, her great musicality, and her naturalism as an actress. She was best suited to lyrical-comic parts, and the adjectives "imaginative," "creative," "sweet," "playful," and "arch" were among those used to describe her performances. She was also renowned for her nuanced interpretations of her roles and the brilliant improvisations for which she had a great gift, especially evident when she was called upon to do an encore. Critics were enthralled by her artistry, hailing her as "poetess of the dance," "queen of dances," and "poetesse par la grace de Dieu."

But it was as a teacher that Preobrazhenska left her mark on the world of classical dance, devoting herself to passing on the traditions of the Russian ballet. Technically perfect herself, she had a firm grasp of the various techniques of choreography and an ability to detect and weed out the defects in her pupils' work that made her a born mistress of ballet instruction. A firm believer in the dictum of Cecchetti that ballet dancing must be mastered in the classroom first and could not be mastered later on the stage, Preobrazhenska, with her strength of character, her authority, and the rigid discipline that she imparted, gave her pupils an extraordinary command of technique. When the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was formed in 1930–31, most of the dancers were former pupils of Preobrazhenska's, including its earliest two stars, Tamara Toumanova and Irina Baronova , the first of whom Preobrazhenska had taught from the outset.

An intensely private person, Preobrazhenska never married and with few exceptions tended to keep people at a distance. Her closest confidante was her former pupil and later assistant Elvira Roné , who especially in her later years tended to manage her studio for her. Preobrazhenska never recovered from the realization that her career as a dancer was over and suffered from recurrent depression; it was only on the stage of the Maryinsky that she had felt herself fulfilled. Melancholy and difficult, she could be abrupt to the point of rudeness and tended to be self-centered, yet she was kind and generous (she often taught children of impoverished Russian émigrés for nothing) and a great lover of animals and birds. To her pupils, she was a severe taskmaster but the best ones never forgot the skills that she had taught them, and in her last years, clouded with poverty and illness as they were, she depended very much upon the charity of Toumanova.

Among the dancers who studied under her formally or who came to take classes with her in both St. Petersburg and Paris were such luminaries as Margot Fonteyn , Hugh Laing, Mialord Miskovitch, Vladimir Skouratoff, Ludmilla Tcherina, Nina Verchinina, Nina Vryoubova, Margarethe Wallmann , and Igor Youskevitch, as well as such company directors and other teachers as Serge Golovine and Georges Skibine. Other established dancers who joined her classes were Rosella Hightower, Nadia Nerina , Tatiana Riabouchinska , Mia Slavenska , and Marjorie Tallchief .

When Preobrazhenska died in a nursing home in Sainte-Mande, France, on December 27, 1962, just a few weeks short of her 92nd birthday, she was mourned as one of the last survivors of the Golden Age of the Russian Imperial Ballet.


Dolin, Anton. "Preobrazhenskaya—Great Ballerina and Teacher," in Dance and Dancers (London). May 1953.

Finch, Tamara. "Les Ballets 1933," in Dancing Times (London). October 1985.

Legat, Nikolai. "Great Dancers I Have Known," in Dancing Times. May–June, 1931.

Music Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Roné, Elvira. Olga Preobrazhenskaya. Trans. and adapted by Fernau Hall. New York, 1978.

Smakov, Gennady. The Great Russian Dancers. New York, 1984.

suggested reading:

Svetlov, Valerian. Preobrazhenskaya. St. Petersburg, 1902.

Robert H. H. , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey