Mathilde Kschessinskaya (Матильда Феликсовна Кшесинская, family origin Matylda Krzesińska) (19 August 1872 (O.S.) Ligovo near Peterhof — 7 June 1972 Paris), (also known as Her Serene Highness Princess Romanova-Krasinskaya since 1921) was the first Russian prima ballerina assoluta in the world. Today, she is probably best known for her love affair with the future Emperor Nicholas II.
Like all her Polish family, Mathilde performed at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg with the renowned Imperial Ballet. Kschessinskaya made her début in a pas de deux from La Fille Mal Gardée during a graduation performance attended by Emperor Alexander III. After the performance the Tsar told the young Kschessinskaya to " .. become the glory and adornment of our ballet."
In 1896 she obtained the rank of Prima ballerina assoluta of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, a rank Marius Petipa had created especially for the Italian virtuosa Pierina Legnani in 1894. The old maestro did not consent for Kschessinskaya to be granted such a title, and although she possessed an extraordinary gift as a dancer, she obtained the rank primarily via her prestige with the Imperial Russian Court.
Petipa only allowed Kschessinskaya to create a small number of new roles, as he considered Legnani to be the superior Ballerina. Although she was able to obtain top billing in theatre programs or posters, her efforts to obtain more new roles were thwarted by Petipa, whose authority over the artistic direction of the Imperial Ballet was not even challenged by the Emperor himself. Among the few original roles Kschessinskaya created were Flora in Le Réveil de Flore (1894) and Columbine in Harlequinade (1900). She became the first Russian danseuse to master the 32 fouettés of Legnani.
Although Petipa had a great respect for her as a dancer, he apparently despised her as a person, referring to her in his diaries as " ... that nasty little swine." Yet he still chose her for the lead roles in many of the final revivals of his older masterworks, often lavishing intricate choreography for her to execute — the shade of Mlada in Mlada (1896), Queen Nisia in Le Roi Candaule (1897), the Goddess Thetis in Les Aventures de Pélée (1897), Aspicia in The Pharaoh's Daughter (1898), the title role in La Esmeralda (1899), and Nikiya in La Bayadère (1900) — such roles became notoriously difficult once Petipa revised them for Kschessinskaya.
The scandals and rumours around her name persisted as she formed a Ménage à trois with two Grand Dukes of the Romanov family - Sergei Mikhailovich and his cousin Andrei Vladimirovich. In 1901 she gave birth to a son, Vova, who never knew for sure who his father was. She was first involved with the future Tsar Nicholas II, beginning in 1890 when she was just seventeen. Their relationship persisted for the next three years, until Nicholas married his true love in 1894, Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt—the future Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna.
While Kschessinska could be charming and kind to colleagues, such as the young Tamara Karsavina, she was not afraid to use her connections with the Tsar to strengthen her position in the Imperial Theatres. She was known to sew valuable jewels into her costumes and came on stage as the Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh's Daughter wearing her diamond encrusted tiaras and chokers. She could be ruthless with rivals. One of her most famous miscalculations was coaching Anna Pavlova in the role of Nikya in La Bayadère while she was pregnant in 1902. She considered Pavlova to be technically weak, and as such was under the impression that the ballerina would not upstage her. Instead, audiences became enthralled with the frail, long-limbed, ethereal-looking Pavlova, and a star was born. Another notorious incident occurred in 1906 when Kschessinskaya's coveted role of Lise in the Petipa/Ivanov prouction of La Fille Mal Gardée was given to Olga Preobrajenskaya. One feature of this production was the use of live chickens onstage. Before Preobrajenskaya's variation in the Pas de ruban of the first act, Kschessinskaya opened the doors to the chicken's coops and, at the first sign of the music, the chickens went flying about the stage. Nevertheless, Preobrajenskaya continued her variation to the end and received a storm of applause, much to Kschessinskaya's chagrin.
Through her aristocratic connections, she managed to amass much valuable property in the Russian capital. It was from the balcony of her elegant house that Lenin addressed the revolutionary crowd when he had returned from Finland in 1917.
After the Russian Revolution, Kschessinska moved first to French Riviera before she moved to Paris, where she married, in 1921, one of the tsar's cousins, Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia, with whom she had had a son, Prince Vladimir Romanovsky-Krasinsky ("Vova"), in 19021. Although Kschessinska's life in Paris was modest compared to the lavishness of Russia, she lived on happily for over fifty years. In 1929, she opened her own ballet school, where she taught such students as Dame Margot Fonteyn, Dame Alicia Markova, André Eglevsky, Tatiana Riabouchinska and Tamara Toumanova. She performed for the last time at the age of 64, for a charity event at Covent Garden. In 1960, she published an autobiography entitled Souvenirs de la Kschessinska (published in English as Dancing in St. Petersburg: The Memoirs of Kschessinska). In later years she suffered financial difficulties but remained as indomitable as ever. She died two months before her 100th birthday.
1Though Andrei acknowledged Vladimir as his son, it is possible that Vova’s biological father was Grand Duke Sergei, whose patronym he was given. It has also been suggested that Grand Duke Vladimir was the father.