Olga Lepeschinskaya: Stalin's favourite ballerina who became a highly regarded teacher

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The Independent Online

Olga Lepeschinskaya was one of the most brilliant ballerinas of Soviet ballet. She possessed a charming and vivacious personality and radiated a human warmth that was delightful. Her dancing showed very special gifts, notably an exuberant buoyancy and a power of projection. She was a person who saw her objective clearly and went for it with tremendous energy, skill and optimism. Endowed with a natural leap of exceptional breadth, she developed a dazzling virtuoso technique which equipped her to dance both the classical repertoire and contemporary roles with equal ease and fluency. From 1933 to 1963 she was one of the most popular ballerinas at the Bolshoi and was thought to be Stalin's favourite ballerina. She married one of his generals and enjoyed a happy married life.

Olga Vasilevna Lepeschinskaya was born in Kiev in September 1916. Petite and elfin, she was destined for the ballet by virtue of her dexterity and lightness. In 1925 she entered the Bolshoi Ballet School, where her natural grace became forged with sinews of steel. Her teachers, Alexander Tchekrygin, Victor Semyonov and Elizavita Gerdt, developed her skills and her sharp brain and as soon as her second year of training she was dancing Cupid in Don Quixote, while the year before she graduated she danced Masha in The Nutcracker. She made her debut as a member of the company in Peasant Lady, with music by Asafiev and choreography by Zakharov, from a story by Pushkin. Within two years she had created the role of Suok in Moiseyev's Three Fat Men; and in 1939 she danced the name part in Svetlana, a balletchoreographed by a team of choreographers, namely Popko, Pospekin and Radunsky.

Her classical repertoire included Kitri in Don Quixote, Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, Swanhilda in Coppélia, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Lise in La Fille Mal Gardée among many others, but she featured most frequently in contemporary works such as Flames of Paris and The Red Poppy, while creating new roles in the premieres of the Soviet ballets Cinderella and Mirandolina, choreographed by Vainonen, Asol in Crimson Sails choreographed by the Popka team and The Path of Thunder, a Cuban-inspired conflict of white against black, choreographed by Sergeyev.

With the onset of the Second World War she developed her own concert programme to which Leonid Jacobsen and Kasian Goliazovsky contributed works. She toured the battle fronts, bringing inspiration and joy to the hard-pressed troops, reviving them with her unquenchable zest. Adored and fêted, she was to receive many honours. She won the Stalin Prize in 1941, 1946, 1947 and 1950 and was named Merited Artist in 1942 and Peoples' Artist in 1947. She also became a Temporary Member of the Supreme Soviet. On the death of her husband, General Alexander Antonov, in 1963, she retired from the stage, feeling no longer able to give her heart and soul to performing. In her own words, "ballet demands joy".

A year after her retirement, unable to be inactive, she decided to take up teaching, and to refresh her memory she studied for a while with Vaganova, whose technique was derived from the teaching methods of the old Imperial Ballet School. She did not, however, become a Vaganova teacher; instead she fell back on her own beginnings and adapted her method from "the Russian salad", as she called it, which she had received from her own revered teachers. She became a teacher endowed with choreographic inventiveness who gloried in the science of movement. Curiously, there seemed no place for her refinements of teaching in Moscow; instead she made her mark travelling abroad to Rome, Paris, Budapest and the Philippines.

Very soon the celebrated producer of Opera at the Komisch Oper in East Berlin, Walter Felenstein, invited her as a guest teacher to instil some inspiration into the rather pedestrianstandards of the dance department. She went for a year and stayed 10; during that time a string of brilliant dancers and teachers came from her hand, and the remarkable choreographer Tom Shilling was artistically nourished by her.

I first met Lepeschinskaya at the Komisch Oper in 1970. I was bowled over by the expressive vitality, the logic and the abundance of her invention. The class contained not a single cliché. On that occasion she rejected my enthusiastic praises saying, "Oh, there are hundreds like me in the Soviet Union." I did not meet her again until 1989, when we watched a class by Nina Timofieva at the Bolshoi.

The following year I observed her classes at the Royal Ballet. They were wonderful but not fully appreciated by the dancers, for whom they were different and demanding. She spoke English impeccably but the dancers, tired from rehearsals, were unable to respond in the manner she expected. I felt she was a little upset and I tried to comfort her by saying that these young people did not know of her greatness and were not sufficiently educated to be able to appreciate the subtleties of her class.

Lepeschinskaya became a legend in her own country but despite her work abroad teaching, the outside world knew little of her fame as a dancer and almost nothing of her superb artistry. She was appointed President of the prestigious Moscow International Ballet Competition, held every two years, and until 1990 was Chairman of the Jury. She then became Patron of the Diaghilev Centre in Moscow, which organised ballet contests for young dancers and was active in restoring and preserving the original choreographies from the Diaghilev repertoire.

In 1992 she invited me to sit on the Jury of the Young Dancers' Competition, which was held at the Tchaikovsky Hall. She was a most wonderful hostess and we enjoyed several banquets despite the parlous state of the country, and all the dancers taking part were well fed and cared for.

In 1995 this great Soviet ballerina was Guest of Honour at the inaugural Conference in London of the Legat Foundation, which perpetuates the work of the great choreographer and teacher Nicolas Legat. For her 80th birthday in 1996 she was given a magnificent celebration performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and tributes poured in. Sitting like a queen on the stage, enthroned by flowers, she was shown a film clip of her dazzling performance in Walpurgis Night. The great dancers and teachers, Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova, watched from a box.

Although an ardent Communist (how could she have been anything else?) and Stalin's favourite dancer, Lepeschinskaya had adapted perfectly well to capitalism. In a witty speech from the stage she invited Boris Yeltsin to waltz with her after hehad recovered from his heart operation. Yeltsin gave her an Award for Achievement – the highest honour in his regime.

John Gregory

Olga Lepeschinskaya, ballerina: born Kiev 28 September 1916; married Alexander Antonov; died Moscow 20 December 2008.

John Gregory died 27 October 1996.