Obituary: Alla Shelest

ALLA SHELEST was a very rare dancer, sensitive and delicate. A star of the Kirov Ballet during the Forties and Fifties, she possessed the gift of being able to live the role she was portraying, and she was blessed with a physical grace and allure that was utterly captivating.

Alla Jakovlevna Shelest was born in 1919, at Smolensk. A favourite pupil of Yelisaveta Gerdt who taught her from the age of 15, she later came under the influence of Agrippina Vaganova. Graduating from the Leningrad Choreographic Academy in 1937, she was immediately accepted into the Kirov Ballet, with whom she danced solo roles from the beginning. In fact, she was dancing leading roles even before graduating. Her first big part was in Leonid Lavrovsky's Katarina (Rubinstein). There followed other important parts in Boris Fenster's Maskarade (Laputin) and Vakhtang Chaboukiani's Othello (Machavariani).

Her brilliant career developed spasmodically, with a plan for heroic roles from Russian literature, for which her histrionic gifts ideally equipped her. The maestro Fyodor Lopokov described her as "a heroic ballerina in the romantic mould, whose deep emotional powers could draw like a magnet". At the same time he considered her one of the most unlucky ballerinas of his experience. She was frequently dogged by misfortune, ill-health and breakdowns. Her first husband was Yuri Grigorovich; her second was a musician from Moldavia. Throughout her career she was confronted with fierce opposition; yet, despite the setbacks and frustrations, she enjoyed remarkable periods of ecstatic acclaim. Such was her local fame that audiences queued for days when the news was leaked that she would dance.

Shelest cultivated an effortless classical technique; yet she was not confined to the classical repertoire. In such ballets as Mikhail Fokine's Egyptian Nights (Arensky), in which she was Cleopatra, or as Zarema in Rostislav Zakharov's Fountain of Bakhchiseray (Asafiev), as Siumbike in Leonid Jacobson's Shurali (Yarulin), or in Boris Aifman's Guyana (Khachaturian) she brought to her portrayals an Eastern exoticism that was ravishing.

Her repertoire was vast and diverse, and her flawless technique, musicality and perfection of line brought matchless renderings of the classics; Odette- Odile in Swan Lake, the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, both Giselle and Myrtha in Giselle, Raymonda, Nikia in La Bayadere, Street Dancer in Don Quixote, and Princess in The Little Hunch-backed Horse. She danced the entire repertoire, including Le Corsair, The Bronze Horseman, Flames of Paris, Stone Flower, and Cinderella. The list is endless, but by some quirk of fate, she was most often second, third or fourth cast, thus missing the reclame of first-night success; furthermore, she was not included in the Kirov tours abroad, and was consequently deprived of a certain international recognition.

Before the curbs restricted her fame, and her freedom to travel, she made some appearances in London during the early Fifties. She danced a pas de deux at the Empress Hall, during a political convention, and gave some concert performances at the Scala Theatre and Festival Hall. I had the good fortune to see her dance excerpts from Giselle and Romeo and Juliet and was enchanted by her expressive eloquence. She was frailer than Galina Ulanova, yet in some measure she had similar qualities.

At one period she appeared in Jacobson's Choreographic Miniatures, dancing in Eternal Idol, and a ballet based on Rodin's The Kiss. One of her most poignant creations was The Blind Girl, which only she could dance. If she was sometimes distressed by the intrigues that held her in thrall, she was also uplifted by the plaudits of celebrated colleagues. Vaganova called her "a talented ballerina-actress", Tatiana Vecheslova a leading ballerina said: "She is the biggest artist of our time."

The supreme Ulanova, 10 years her senior, wrote of her: "She has a huge inner culture; she is a ballerina of tragedy and inspiration. For me she brings a new tract to every role she attempts."

Valeri Panov, who partnered Shelest in some concert performances in Moscow in 1962, wrote this:

Despite her age and mannerisms Shelest immediately showed her powerful, intensely personal vision, that rarest ballet gift. If the circumstances had been right for her, she would have been even more important, to the degree that she was more profound in every role, than Ulanova. A strong individualist in her art and personal life, she would not take her "proper" place in the Kirov's magnificent scheme of things. She was a dramatic force upon whom a whole generation of ballerinas, including Maya Plisetskaya, modelled themselves.

In 1953 she became an Honoured Artist of the USSR; in 1957 Peoples' Artist; and in 1947 and 1951 she was nominated for a State Laureateship. From 1967 to 1976 she was Ballet Mistress at Kuibishev, and, after further travels, she taught at the Leningrad Choreographic Academy and at the Conservatory. It was said, however, that teaching was not her metier; she was too introvert, too individual.

I met her for the last time in the spring of 1992, when we sat together on a jury at the Diaghilev Contest for Young Dancers, held at the Tchaikovsky Salle in Moscow. By now she was frail and had recently suffered a stroke, but was still active and full of enthusiasm. She was delighted when I recalled my memories of her glorious dancing of 40 years before when she appeared in London. That I remembered her so vividly after so many years brought a spasm of joy to her sad face.

She was a goddess of the dance who did not receive all that was her due. However, in the annals of the St Petersburg dance scene her unique gifts will never be forgotten.

John Gregory

Alla Jakovlevna Shelest, dancer, choreographer and dance director: born Smolensk, Russia 26 February 1919; twice married; died St Petersburg 7 December 1998.

John Gregory died 27 October 1996

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