You might think that you know what a ballerina is – someone who does ballet dancing for a living. Well, yes…but it’s not that simple. The title of ballerina is only bestowed on those who have proved their talents and are dancing principal roles. It’s not applied to any member of the corps de ballet who picks up a pay packet at the end of the month. Ballerinas are special.
But it doesn’t end there. There are further ranks. The most important ballerina in a company is known as the Prima Ballerina. And then there’s the very special few who gain the ultimate title – that of a Prima Ballerina Assoluta. That means that a dancer is among the very best ballerinas to ever have struck an arabesque. Only 10 people have ever been given that title, so for this list we’re breaking the top 10 mould to bring you the Top 10 Prima Ballerina Assolutas.
10. Alessandra Ferri
Another surviving Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Alessandra Ferri was granted the title in 1992 and so is the most recent entrant on the list (although some argue that Darcey Bussell and Cynthia Gregory are also deserving of the title). Ferri studied at the most famous of all Italian ballet schools – La Scala Theatre Ballet School – although she did not dance with the company until after completing stints with the Royal Ballet in London and the American Ballet Theatre. She has won several awards, including the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, the highest honor an Italian citizen can gain. She retired from dancing in 2007, aged 44.
9. Maya Plisetskaya
Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya was a Russian dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, Her early life was struck by tragedy as her family suffered under the Stalinist Soviet regime – her father executed for associating with someone who used to work with Trotsky, her mother and baby brother sent to a labor camp. But she went to live with an aunt, joined the Bolshoi and first performed with them at the age of 11. As she developed her skills, she moved form corps de ballet to soloist to Prima Ballerina Assoluta and she was a dancer quite like any other, particularly with her striking red hair and her long arms. Life under Stalin continued to be difficult for her, and she wasn’t allowed to work abroad until Khrushchev took over in 1953. She was named President of the Imperial Russian Ballet in 1996 and still works in the ballet world, aged 87.
8. Mathilda Kschessinskaya
Mathilda-Marie Feliksovna Kschessinskaya was a Russian ballerina who was no stranger to controversy. She was the second person to be granted the title of Prima Ballerina Assoluta (around 1906), but the first recipient of the title – Pierina Legnani – did not believe Kschessinskaya to be worthy of it, and alleged that she was only given the title because of her influence at the Imperial Court, particularly over the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II who took her as his mistress while he was just a Grand Duke. She later became involved with another couple of Grand Dukes and gave birth to a son by one of them, although she never confirmed which was the father. She also had a fierce rivalry with other ballerinas, such as Olga Preobrajenska whose performance she tried to sabotage by setting live chickens loose about the stage. After the Russian Revolution, she moved to Paris, when she coached two future Prima Ballerina Assolutas (Margot Fonteyn and Alicia Markova) before dying just short of her 100th birthday.
7. Galina Ulanova
Galina Sergeyevna Ulánova is often referred to as one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. A favourite of Stalin himself, she performed at the Bolshoi Theatre for him for 16 years, including the principal role in the premiere of Prokofiev’s Cinderella. As well as being a Prima Ballerina Assoluta, she was also given another highly sought after title in Soviet Russia – that of a “Hero of Socialist Labour”. She was the only dancer to ever gain such acclaim, and one of the few to be a People’s Artist of the USSR. She also coached future Prima Ballerina Assoluta Anneli Alhanko and was highly regarded by the other holders of the title, such as Margot Fonteyn who had this to say about her: “I cannot even begin to talk about Ulanova’s dancing, it is so marvellous, I am left speechless. It is magic. Now we know what we lack” She died in 1998.
6. Alicia Alonso
The only Central American dancer to make the list, Alicia Alonso Martínez suffered from eye problems throughout her career and was diagnosed with a detached retina in 1941. Her partial blindness meant that her partners had to be in exactly the right place for her, and the technicians used specially colored spotlights to stop her getting too close to the edge of the stage. While recovering from an operation that tried – and failed – to save her sight, her husband sat with her and taught her the role of Giselle using his fingers. This would later become one of her signature roles, along with the ballet version of Carmen. In 1948, she set up the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which survived a ban in the anti-communist USA, and she continues to direct it today, at the age of 91.
5. Eva Evdokimova
This next Prima Ballerina Assoluta is considered to be somewhat international, as her parentage was a mix of Bulgarian and American and her training took place in London, Leningrad and Copenhagen. She was also born in Switzerland and spent some time in Germany! She herself said “Travelling has been a part of my career from the beginning. I lead a sort of gypsy life” and she also said that the different schools she’d attended had contributed different things to her technique – a kind of “legato elegance” from the Russian ballet, vitality from the Danes and technical brilliance from Royal Ballet. She was an exceptionally ethereal dancer, making roles in Romantic ballets like La Sylphide her own, and she was a favored partner of Rudolf Nureyev. She died of cancer in 2009 at just 60.
4. Pierina Legnani
The very first ballerina to be named as a Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Legnani was an Italian dancer under the direction of choreographer Matius Petipa, who bestowed the title upon her. She was the first dancer to ever complete 32 fouettés en tournant, which is now a very famous part of the Swan Lake choreography. Among 19th century ballet fans, counting the number of turns was apparently a popular past-time! She retired from dancing in 1901, aged 27, and continued to work with La Scala until just before her death in 1930.
3. Phyllis Spira
Africa isn’t famed for producing notable ballet dancers, but Phyllis Spira was exceptional from an early age, with her ballet teachers referring to her as a “baby Markova”, and in 1984 she was named as South Africa’s first Prima Ballerina Assoluta. She danced with the Cape Town City Ballet Company (previously known as CAPAB) until an injury on the opening night of Giselle in 1988 forced her into retirement. She remained involved with the company for another 11 years and died in 2008 after surgery on her legs ran into complications. She was aged just 64, and is remembered as South Africa’s greatest ever ballerina.
2. Alicia Markova
From baby Markova to the real thing – Lilian Alicia Marks was born in London in 1910 and started dancing on the advice of her doctor, as she had weak limbs. Limbs strengthened, she was invited to join the Ballets Russe and did so as soon as she turned 14. It was there that her name was changed to the more Russian-sounding Markova. From then, she became one of the greatest dancers who ever lived, founding the Rambert Dance Company as well as dancing with the English National Ballet, the Royal Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. She made many roles her own but is probably best remembered for her interpretation of the Dying Swan. She died of a stroke the day after her 94th birthday in 2004.
1. Anneli Alhanko
Also known by her full name, Anneli Elisabeth Alhanko Skoglund, Anneli Alhanko was born in Columbia, with Finnish parentage, but is danced with the Swedish Ballet and it was in Sweden that she made her name. She was the first ballerina ever to be granted the title of “Court Dancer” by King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1990. She’s also one of the few Prima Ballerina Assolutas to still be alive, and she was coached by another of the 11 – Galina Ulanova. Alhanko’s Odette/Odile role from Swan Lake is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world and she was the first Swedish dancer to perform with the Bolshoi Ballet. A Soviet review at the time said that “Alhanko has an inimitable, fascinating style of her own”. A living legend within the ballet world.