Natalia Bessmertnova: Bolshoi ballerina of exceptional beauty and technique

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The Independent Online

The ballerina Natalia Bessmertnova was exceptional for her beauty and her dance technique. With her long, fragile lines and big eyes, she had the lyrical grace of a Russian icon; with her high, lilting jump and expansive arcs of movement, she had a versatility recorded in many videos and DVDs of ballets as diverse as Giselle and Spartacus. The choreographer of Spartacus was Yuri Grigorovich, who directed the Bolshoi Ballet for 31 years and was her second husband.

But her talent was spotted first by her teachers and audiences. Born in Moscow in 1941, she was the daughter of a doctor and the older sister of Tatyana Bessmertnova, who followed the same path into the Bolshoi Ballet to achieve more modest success. At the Bolshoi School Natalia was the star pupil, the first ever to be awarded an A+ on her graduation in 1961. Her début with the Bolshoi Ballet in Chopiniana (known as Les Sylphides in the West) made an equally big impression with the Russian public; and she scored a similar success the following year (1962) during the company's visit to London, as one of three solo swans in Swan Lake on opening night, and as the Autumn Fairy in Rostislav Zakharov's production of Prokofiev's Cinderella.

Her special expressiveness, a concentrated spiritual quality, came to the fore with her début in 1963 as Giselle, her first big role, in which she seemed to revive the essence of the Romantic Ballet. She then went on to dance the leads in the major classics – Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote – bringing her rich, subtle phrasing and occasionally unexpected accents, as if improvising. During these early years she won the gold medal at the second Varna International Ballet Competition in Bulgaria in 1965; and in 1970, appearing in Paris, she was awarded the Anna Pavlova Prize.

She was also admired for her interpretations of Soviet ballets. She succeeded the great ballerina Galina Ulanova as Juliet in Mikhail Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet, and as Maria, the captive Polish princess in Zakharov's The Fountain of Bakhchisarai. In 1964, Kasyan Goleizovsky created the central role of Leili for her in Leili and Medzhun, and in Grigorovich's Legend of Love she danced the role of Shirin. In his Spartacus she was Phrygia, brave companion of the titular rebel slave.

Grigorovich premiered Spartacus in 1968, the year of his marriage to Bessmertnova, a marriage that was the second for both of them. (Bessmertnova's first husband, divorced in 1965, was an engineer.) Thereafter Grigorovich made several roles for her. She was the beautiful, saintly Tsarina Anastasia in Ivan the Terrible (1975), a part that she also danced as a guest artist at the Paris Opera in 1976. She was the heroine Valentina in The Angara (1976), a modern-dress ballet about the building of a dam in Siberia, which soon disappeared from the repertory. She was Rita – the last role created for her – in The Golden Age (1982), a version of Shostakovich's ballet score in which she danced opposite the young Irek Mukhamedov and which was performed widely to enthusiastic houses on foreign tours. She also danced the leads in Grigorovich's heavily reworked productions of Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Raymonda and Romeo and Juliet.

She qualified for her pension as a principal dancer in 1989, but continued performing until the moment when, in 1995, Grigorovich was forced to resign. For several years discontent with his autocratic style had been rumbling; when his opponents finally gained their victory, Bessmertnova and Grigorovich's supporters led a one-day strike that forced the cancellation of that evening's performance.

Bessmertnova continued to work with Grigorovich in his varied activities. She assisted him with the Benois de la Danse Award, an annual showcase chaired by Grigorovich, and helped him by coaching roles in Krasnodar, in Southern Russia, where he now directs the local ballet company. She also coached other dancers in roles associated with her and was a judge at the Moscow International Competition in 1995.

She died too young for one whose surname means "immortal". She had been reported to have been suffering for some time with problems with her kidneys. She was made a People's Artist of the Soviet Union in 1976. She was awarded the USSR State Prize in 1977 and the Lenin Prize in 1986.

Nadine Meisner

Natalia Igorievna Bessmertnova, ballerina: born Moscow 19 July 1941; married twice, secondly 1968 Yuri Grigorovich; died Moscow 19 February 2008.