Obituary: Galina Ulanova

John Gregory
Monday 23 March 1998 01:02 GMT

GALINA ULANOVA was the greatest ballerina of her time. Her special magnetism was a physical and spiritual beauty; an infinite power to transmit sensitive feelings and an infinite facility to express subtle shades of movement. Her bewitching artistry and histrionic genius enabled her to give performances of aesthetic enchantment. Such was her power on stage that she could reduce her audience to a state of hysteria.

She was born in St Petersburg in 1910. From the beginning, the opera house was her home. Her father, Sergei Ulanov, was artist-regisseur; her mother, Maria Romanova, solo dancer and teacher; both with the Imperial Ballet. At first she rebelled at the thought of following in her parents' footsteps, but at an impressionable age the Soviet Revolution occurred and she became aware of a New Order and of the fear, distress and poverty in the world outside.

Her parents were often touring so she was placed in the state ballet school as a boarder. She spoke of the cold and hunger of the time and the hardness of the training with Agrippina Vaga-nova. Her happiest recollections were of visits to the old character-danseur-mime, Alexander Shiraiev, who kept a tray of sweets for the children's delight.

She learned early to accept her destiny, yet there was something of the rebel in her nature. She sought freedom and loved the country. The happiest years, she recalled, were summers on Lake Selagare, sailing a dinghy, with her schoolgirl companion, Tatiana Vecheslova.

As a teenager in the Leningrad Choreographic School, she was boisterous and capricious, and liked to dance boys' parts. Physically robust, she was thought not ideally proportioned for a ballerina, but in her development she refined and refined, contriving such grace and poetry in her movement that the beholder scarce dwelt upon her physique, but was transported by the lightness and elegance that came from her soul.

Her graduation in 1928 began with the pas de deux from Chopiniana and The Nutcracker and Princess Florina from The Sleeping Beauty. The following year, under the tutelage of Vaganova, she danced Odette-Odile in Swan Lake and her exceptional qualities were recognised. There followed a period of intense assimilation of leading roles in Le Corsaire, The Ice-Maiden, The Age of Gold, Raymonda and other parts that cultivated her virtuosity.

While Fedor Lopukov was artistic director at the Kirov, he took a special interest in her development. He had recognised her rare potential when she was in the school. "She has a secret hidden in her soul" he once said.

In 1932, after diverse parts in The Flames of Paris and The Little Humpbacked Horse, she attempted her first Giselle. Vaganova had originally cast her as Myrtha. Fortunately, Yelena Liukom, the first prima-ballerina of Soviet Ballet, and a revered interpreter of Giselle, saw at once that it was Ulanova's part and coached her for her debut in the Ponomaryov production after Petipa.

During the 1930s, she enlarged her repertoire of the classics and included some contemporary works creating roles conceived by the leading ballet masters of the day, Vainonen, Goliezovsky, Zakharov, Lopu-kov and Lavrovsky; she also danced with numerous partners, Yuri Kondratov, Konstantin Sergeyev (with whom she fell in love), Vladimir Preobrajensky, Alexie Yermolayev, Mikhail Gabovitch, Yuri Zhdanov and Nicolai Fadeyechev. All were brilliant dance artists of fine masculine calibre who had to bow the knee to her fastidious pursuit of perfection.

In the maelstrom of ballet politics it would seem that Ulanova's guardian angel was always at hand. In 1932 when Leonid Lavrovsky replaced Lopukov as artistic director, she lost a valued friend but gained a new one. Her pursuit of perfection endeared her to Lavrovsky and a most fruitful collaboration ensued.

It might have been otherwise. Ulanova was a product of her mother's teaching which did not endear her to Vaganova. Vaganova had a penchant for strong legs and was inclined to force Ulanova, precipitating an injury to her ankles which were slender and delicately formed. This led to some friction.

Vaganova favoured her own pupils, Marina Semyonova, a tall exquisite dancer, and Natalia Dudinskaya, who was petite and technically invincible, but neither had the divine afflatus of Ulanova. Ulanova was sustained by her close working relationship with the choreographers Lavrovsky and Rostislav Zakharov.

In 1933 she appeared in a new production of Swan Lake by Vaganova; in 1934 she danced Masha in The Nutcracker, but the outstanding event of that year was Zakharov's production of Astafiev's The Fountain of Bakchisarai based on Pushkin's epic poem, in which she danced the tragic part of Maria - one of her greatest portrayals. In 1935 she danced Diana in Vaganova's new version of Esmeralda and in 1936 she took the part of Korali in Lost Illusions based on Balzac's novel, another Astafiev ballet choreographed by Zakharov, which further extended her dramatic range.

During the next two years the ballet of Romeo and Juliet was being conceived by Lavrovsky to the specially commissioned music of Serge Prokofiev. At the first rehearsals the dancers had great difficulty with the complex symphonic music, and Lavrovsky had problems in adapting the score. Prokoviev was called on to make revisions, and at one stage threatened abandonment. There were considerable delays. In the meantime Ulanova appeared in the name-part in a new production of Raymonda by Vasily Vainonen. Despite back-stage contretemps she was established as the brightest star in the Kirov galaxy. Her artistry was unsurpassable and she was meticulous in everything she undertook.

In addition to her natural talent, she possessed a fine intellect which enabled her to study her roles in depth, and to organise her life so as to conserve energy. After a taxing performance, in order to return to earth from emotional heights, she would spend time tidying her dressing- room, putting her shoes in order, arranging flowers, and clothes and make- up, so that when she left the theatre everything was in order and ready for her next performance.

The monumental production of Romeo and Juliet was a long time in the melting-pot; first with Prokofiev's unwillingness to have his music butchered to serve the needs of the libretto, and with Ulanova's preoccupation with her Shakespearean studies. In the event, it was premiered in January 1940 on the eve of war with Germany, and then put into cold storage until 1944, by which time both she and it were acquired by the Bolshoi.

The war came at a crucial time in Ulanova's career. Fleeing from Leningrad she danced Nikia in a new production of La Bayadere at the Bolshoi and was lauded with honours, state prizes and medals; during those terrible years she also danced with the Kirov in Perm (then called Molotov) and with the Kazakh State Ballet in Alma Ata, devoting much time to dancing for troops on various fronts and for political leaders.

Ulanova would never discuss politics. She considered herself a servant of the state, but one apart. Undoubtedly she was protected from the top. She kept herself aloof, and during her greatest fame was scarcely approachable without an official permit from the KGB. As an artist, she was a product of the Soviet system. The audiences before her time had been aristocrats and socialites. "Our audiences", she once said, "are ordinary people". And she became the Queen of Soviet Culture, a part she played with regal dignity.

In 1944 she returned, not to the Kirov, but to the Bolshoi. The powers that be wanted to establish the supremacy of the Bolshoi over the Kirov. From the beginning of the Soviet regime political power had been transferred from Petrograd to Moscow, and it was appropriate that the arts should follow suit. The finest artists were collected from the length and breadth of the empire to make the Bolshoi ensemble the greatest in the world. Ulanova accepted the commands of the hierarchy. It was to the greater glory of her art which called for a larger frame than the Kirov could provide.

Her debut on 23 January as Prima Ballerina was in the role of Maria in The Fountain of Bakchisarai and on 30 August the same year, she renewed her acquaintance with Giselle in Lavrovsky's poetic production. Ulanova became his brightest jewel. Referring to her return to the part, she said,

It was a ballet that won my heart. When I returned to it, it was like meeting an old friend and discovering new and finer qualities. My Giselle is a young carefree girl in love, convinced of her happiness, she experiences great tragedy and in the end develops into the image of a tragic woman with a suffering heart - I tried to conjure this image.

She was awarded the Stalin Prize and Medal "for valiant labour in the Patriotic War" and a Medal "for the defence of Leningrad". Not until 1946 did Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet take the stage. It was hailed as a masterpiece and won another Stalin Prize for Ulanova. Her interpretation of Juliet had ripened and brought to the full her histrionic powers, and she was supported by the most brilliant cast ever assembled on one stage. It was, perhaps, her greatest triumph.

The eventual unprecedented success of Romeo and Juliet prompted Prokofiev to propose another ballet for her. What great heroine from history would she like to create? Ulanova surprised him by choosing a fairy tale heroine - Cinderella. It provided her with a delightful ingenue role which she danced with exquisite charm. (In 1954, she appeared as Katerina in his The Stone Flower, produced by Lavrovsky.)

In 1948 she again danced Swan Lake, and in 1949 she appeared as Parasha, a slave dancer, in The Bronze Horseman (Gliere) produced by Zakharov, and as Tao Hua in Red Poppy (Gliere) in a new production by Lavrovsky. By now, the provinces were clamouring to see the great dancer, and during 1948 she toured with the company, returning briefly to Leningrad, and thence to Kiev, Tallin and Minsk. Windows on Europe were opening. In 1949 the Bolshoi visited Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the following year, Italy.

By now Ulanova's fame had penetrated even to the Far East and in 1950 a most remarkable tour of China ensued. The acclaim was sensational and unprecedented.

In 1954 the world press was present at a remarkable season in East Berlin. The Cold War was still raging but the artistry of Ulanova and the dancers of the Bolshoi triumphed over all barriers. In 1956, after much diplomatic activity the long awaited visit to Covent Garden took place. Problems with a dock strike delayed the arrival of the scenery; the company's fog- bound plane was re-routed to arrive at Manton RAF station, instead of Heathrow. Ulanova refused to disembark until official permission had been received from Moscow. The company was held in thrall for a few uneasy hours, but in the end art triumphed over politics. The season was sold out before the curtain rose on the first performance and queues of people lay all night in the streets of Covent Garden in the hope of obtaining a ticket.

London saw Ulanova in three of her greatest roles: Giselle, Juliet and Maria. At additional performances at the Davis Theatre, Croydon, some fascinating Divertissements were presented and Ulanova danced her rendering of The Dying Swan. Films were made but they give little impression of the reality of her performances. Her power came from the fact that she lived the role she was playing. She was totally immersed and concentrated and the beholder was spellbound.

An illuminating comment comes from Romola Nijinsky, who with Vaslav saw her dance in Vienna immediately after the Second World War:

As soon as she dances, a metamorphosis takes place. At one moment she is Winged Victory, a fairy queen from a childhood dream, then again a Marquise of Fragonard. With each part she has a different body, a new personality. Her slender form seems to grow and shrink before one's eyes. The ease of her movements, her delicacy, her precise austerity give her dancing a religious tone . . .

Ulanova seemed a reincarnation of Taglioni with her superb ethereal motion, of Ellsler with her astonishing vivacity and precision, of the matchless arabesques and lightness of Pavlova, of Karsavina's admirable technique and dramatic expression. All the great women dancers of the past were embodied in her form.

Curiously, in her maturity Ulanova preferred to participate in the male class of Asaf Messerer, one of the Bolshoi's greatest dancers and teachers. She liked to work with men rather than her own sex.

Her private life was always a closed book but it was whispered that she had several husbands of whom Vadim Rindin, the designer, was the last and longest. She ended up with a female companion who guarded her and served her needs.

Her span of dancing years were drawing to a close. She had survived into the 1960s. In 1957 she was awarded the Lenin Prize. In 1958 with the Bolshoi, she danced in Paris, Brussels, Hamburg and Munich, her sunset glory still undimmed. The following year saw her in the US and Canada followed by yet another tour of China. In 1961 she carried out her last tour of Egypt and Hungary.

After her retirement from the stage, she devoted the rest of her life to teaching and coaching the young ballerinas of the future and lending her presence to many tributes in her honour. She did not preside over the regime of exercises that are the dancers' daily diet of training. Her teaching was intellectual rather than technical; she taught interpretation, projection of feelings, expressive qualities and nuances of style and emotion. She coached many brilliant dancers in later generations but she was never able to instil in them the unique artistry that was hers alone. For some years in the 1960s and 1970s, she became president of the jury at the biennial Varna International Competition and her authority did much to preserve the integrity of that organisation from whose portals have issued many of the leading dancers of today.

At these competitions she sat next to Arnold Haskell, the doyen of English critics, who many years before had written, "Her beauty - and to me she is infinitely beautiful - is beauty of character and intelligence, a positive nobility that has nothing to do with the accepted classical canons. It is as truly Russian as Pushkin or Tolstoy." They became firm friends.

Today no artist of her stature exists. Galina Ulanova's exquisite art could only be achieved in a regime where the profit motive did not exist, where material cost was not considered, and where the artist's dedication was total.

John Gregory

Galina Sergeyevna Ulanova, ballet dancer: born St Petersburg 8 January 1910; ballerina, Kirov Ballet 1928-43; prima ballerina, Bolshoi Ballet 1944-61; professor and coach with the Bolshoi Ballet 1961-98; died Moscow 21 March 1998.

John Gregory died 27 October 1996

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