Marina Semyonova: Dancer who dominated Soviet ballet in the 1930s and became an inspirational teacher

Marina Semyonova was a virtuoso ballerina of great warmth and clarity; majestically graceful, she was able to colour her movement with a rare harmony of strength and lyricism. Unlike the ballerinas of her time she was tall, which gave her an authority and a breadth of line and dramatic beauty. She was the pride and joy of Soviet ballet during the 1930s.

Marina Timofeyevna Semyonova was born in St Petersburg on 12 June 1908. From first to last she was the pupil of Agrippina Vaganova and graduated at the age of 17, being the first of a long string of brilliant danseuses to emerge from the Vaganova mould. At her graduation performance, she was coached by Vaganova in the part of Naila, nymph of the stream in the Petipa ballet The Brook, renamed La Source, a ballet in which her teacher had scored her initial success.

Her first appearance with the Kirov Ballet was on 11 December 1927 in Fyodor Lopukhov's The Serf Ballerina (with music by Korchmarev) which was not a success. (Later Rostislav Zakharov made a new production with music by Boris Asafiev.) Her career soon took off, however, with bravura performances in Vasily Vainonen's Flames of Paris (Asafiev), in Lopukhov's Taras Bulba (Soloviev-Sedoi) and in a host of classic ballets such as Swan Lake, Coppélia, La Bayadère, Raymonda and The Little Humpbacked Horse.

She also scored outstanding successes dancing in the operas Ruslan and Ludmilla, Ivan Susanin and Khovanshchina. She was greatly loved by Leningrad audiences and was considered to have evolved the heroic style which would become the hallmark of the Soviet Ballet of the 1920s and '30s, though the critic A Grozdev preferred to call her "the flower of the old art".

In 1930 she was transferred from Leningrad to become prima-ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, where she was most regularly partnered by Alexei Yermolayev, who was also transferred from Leningrad and was one of the great heroic dancers of the era. They were well matched, Yermolayev with his soaring leaps and his demonic personality,; she with her flowing, feminine charm. Together they created a fantastic aura of magical power and epic poetry. They established the legend of Bolshoi greatness, shrouded in mystery and cut off from the world.

But in 1935, by some diplomatic sleight of hand, Semyonova was allowed abroad. Not for nothing was she married to one of Stalin's cabinet ministers! She scored one of her greatest triumphs when she danced Giselle with Serge Lifar at the Paris Opera. Needless to say, the curiosity of the public was unquenchable and her glorious élan teamed with Lifar's brilliant aplomb were a revelation that shook the artistic purlieus of Paris to its foundations. Not since Diaghilev's assault on Paris in 1911 had balletomanes been so agog with amazement and disbelief. It was undoubtedly Semyonova's greatest moment. Together with Lifar she gave a number of concert performances and was feted, after which she returned to the seclusion of the Bolshoi.

By this time a new star was rising. In nearby Leningrad, Galina Ulanova was being heralded as the great star of Soviet ballet. Semyonova's career, however, continued undisturbed until the Second World War and the evacuation of the Bolshoi Ballet to Kuibishev.

In the chaos that ensued she danced bravely on, always showing tremendous enthusiasm, no matter what she danced or what the conditions. She also did her share in taking entertainment to the troops. After the War, life could never be the same. With the return to Moscow she was gradually supplanted by the new star, Ulanova. She was no longer featured in the premieres of new ballets and her superlative assets were overshadowed by the incomparable lustre of her rival. The two great ballerinas, working in close proximity, never met. Each endeavoured to ignore the existence of the other.

By 1953 Semyonova's dancing career had run its course; she became teacher-répétiteur, a normal transition, and she proved herself an excellent, if very strict teacher, demanding from her pupils the last drop of blood. There was perhaps an undercurrent of bitterness in her character. She could be harsh; but she obtained results and from her hand came a long line of remarkable ballerinas in the aristocratic style that she extolled.

She remained head of the ballet faculty at GITIS, the Academy of Theatre Arts, and continued to coach the star ballerinas of the Bolshoi until she was 96 years old.

John Gregory

Marina Timofeyevna Semyonova, ballerina and teacher: born St Petersburg 12 June 1908; married Lev Karakhan; one daughter; died Moscow 9 June 2010.

Life and Style
life
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
News
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
fashion

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

Structured Finance

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

SQL Server Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

C#.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone