The legendary Soviet ballerina
The great prima ballerina Galina Ulanova bends her body near Bolshoi dancer Ekaterina Maximova during a coaching session in preparation for Giselle. With her eyes focused on her student, Ulanova gestures with tender encouragement, and every part of her body conveys the subtleties of Giselle. In a series of still images from 1960, the photographer Albert Kahn captures Ulanova’s deep understanding of the role flowing from her body to her student’s.
One hundred and one years since her birth, Ulanova remains the image of the quintessential Soviet ballerina—the embodiment of bravura technique and glorious expression. Although she was primarily known as a performer, she became a sought-after coach in her later career, passing on the legacy of Agrippina Vaganova to Bolshoi dancers including Maximova, Nina Timofeyeva and Vladimir Vasiliev. Revered for her soulful portrayal of Juliet, a role that she originated in Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Ulanova epitomizes the Russian ideal of a strong and supple back with fluid arms. She was keenly aware of heritage and perpetually interested in furthering herself and her students for the sake of the artform, audiences and her country.
Ulanova was born in 1910 in St. Petersburg, Russia, to Imperial Ballet dancers Sergei Ulanov and Maria Romanova. Seven years later, the Russian Revolution began, and because her parents both worked, they needed a safe place for their daughter. So they brought her to the State School of Choreography (currently known as the Vaganova Academy) to be a boarding student. Her mother was her daily ballet teacher at first, followed by Vaganova. The environment at the school was difficult during the Revolution—the studios were bitterly cold and food was scarce. But Ulanova’s motto was “Talent is work” (a phrase coined by Soviet author and political activist Maxim Gorky), which she lived by throughout her training, career as a performer and later as a teacher. “I understood quite early that only work can impart lightness, beauty, inspiration to dancing,” she revealed in A Day with Galina Ulanova, by Leon Nemenschousky, in 1960.
Soon after joining the school, Ulanova was given children’s roles in ballet productions at the Maryinsky Theatre. She relished the opportunities to portray characters such as a bird in The Snow Maiden, and her performance ability was noticed. Once the dust settled from the Revolution, conditions improved. Ulanova’s family was happy with the new communist regime and Ulanova remained a devout Soviet throughout her life.
After graduating from her school in 1928, she joined the Kirov Ballet (previously named the Imperial Ballet). She continued to push herself to the utmost limits as an artist and never settled for a mediocre performance.
Ulanova’s hard work paid off—just four months after her debut with the Kirov, she was given the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Her career flourished, and numerous roles followed, including Maria in The Fountain of Bakhchaserai, Giselle and in 1940, Juliet, in the world premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Lavrovsky. Ulanova’s portrayal of Juliet was exquisite; she skimmed across the stage, leaping and turning as if truly weightless. Lyrical and poetic, Juliet became her signature role.
Though the world’s landscape was changing, Ulanova remained steadfast to her country. She performed for soldiers during World War II, lifting the spirits of the troops. Soviet ballet companies were state-run, and in 1944 she was ordered by those in political power to perform with what they considered to be their greatest company—the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. She adapted to the new company and the move to a new city with gusto and without complaint.
In April 1959, at the height of the Cold War, the Bolshoi visited the United States for the first time. New York Times critic John Martin wrote: “To see a legend assume the dimensions of reality before us, and in the process lose nothing of the quality of legend, is a rare and wonderful experience.” Dance Magazine critic Clive Barnes wrote, “[Ulanova] was the sensation of the Bolshoi Ballet’s first appearances outside Russia.” He continued: “Although she was nearly 50 when she first appeared in the West, the years slipped away when she danced, and the world stood still.” With Ulanova its leading exponent, Soviet ballet proved itself to be at the top of the world order.
Around 1960, Ulanova began coaching the next generation of dancers and she became ballet mistress répétiteur of the Bolshoi. Eager to pass on this rich heritage of Russian ballet, Ulanova coached with the same commitment she brought to performing. Quoted by Kahn in his 1962 book Days with Ulanova, she exclaimed, “The work of the instructor is an art, and what a great art!”
Though she retired from performing in 1962, Ulanova continued to coach dancers until close to her death in 1998. In the September 1957 issue of Ballet Today, Ulanova said: “If I live to be a hundred, I shall always remember the happiness I felt knowing that my work has brought joy to people.” Working to the best of her ability with undying energy and great humility, Ulanova inspired students to develop their strengths and hone their talents to their maximum potential.
“During that great era of Soviet ballet, there certainly were dancers with her technical capabilities, but her intensity of dramatic expression and beauty of movement are not to be matched,” says Martin Fredmann, artistic director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, who strives to pass on Ulanova’s legacy to his Vaganova-trained students. “Her unerring devotion to her art shone radiantly through every role she assumed,” he says. “She was truly magnificent—that’s the only word I believe can be used to sum up her divine artistry.” DT
Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is an assistant professor and the dance education coordinator at Montclair State University.
Photo courtesy of Galina Ulanova Foundation Archives