Sulamith Messerer

Inspirational ballet teacher

The Soviet ballerina Sulamith Messerer became one of the world's great ballet teachers.

Sulamith Michailovna Messerer, ballet dancer and teacher: born Moscow 27 August 1908; OBE 2000; (one son); died London 3 June 2004.

The Soviet ballerina Sulamith Messerer became one of the world's great ballet teachers.

She was born in Moscow in 1908 and trained at the Bolshoi School in Moscow from 1920, joining their company in 1926. She seemed to have a photographic memory for choreography; soon after she joined the Bolshoi as a member of the corps de ballet, the soloist scheduled to dance the pas de trois in Swan Lake was taken ill in rehearsal and Messerer immediately stepped in to dance the whole variation.

Within three years, she was dancing leading roles in the repertoire, her first ballerina role in 1929 being Lise in La Fille Mal Gardée. Kitri, the leading female role in Petipa's classic ballet Don Quixote, was her favourite and perhaps best role, although she was also highly regarded as Zarema in the Soviet classic The Fountain of Bakhchisarai.

In 1933, with her famous brother Asaf as a partner, she was the first Soviet ballerina to tour the West, visiting Scandinavia, France and Germany. Her performance career lasted about 25 years. She brought to her dancing a vitality, attack and tautness of line, said a 1940s critic, combined with a humorous personality and a wiry athletic physique.

After her elder sister was sent to the Gulag in the 1930s, Messerer refused to send her niece to an orphanage and brought her up - the future ballerina Maya Plisetskaya - herself.

All great ballet teachers have the work passed down to them from the masters of the past, and Messerer was no exception. Her teacher at the Bolshoi was Vasily Tikhomirov, a pupil of Christian Johansson, one of the main architects of the Russian school. Elizaveta Gert, the pupil and daughter of Pavel Gert, the great dancer of the Imperial Russian Ballet on whom Petipa created so many roles, also taught her and persuaded her to teach, so Messerer had an impeccable lineage.

"Madame Messerer", as she was fondly known in the ballet world, began her teaching career in 1938 at the Bolshoi before she retired from dancing. At one time or another she taught most of the great ballet dancers in the world. She defected in Japan, coming to live in the West in 1980, and, although teaching internationally, she made her home in London where she never failed to inspire with her dark eyes full of light and joy.

Messerer had been for four years the All Russian Champion Swimmer, and continued to swim daily well into her nineties. There can be few people in the world who have had the distinction of holding, as she did, the triple honours of a Principal People's Artist of the Soviet Union, the Lenin Gold Medal and appointment as OBE.

Her son, Mikhail Messerer, is a guest teacher for the Royal Ballet.

Gavin Roebuck

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