Mathilde Kschessinska

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Mathilde Kschessinska
Camargo-Mathilde Kschessinskaya-1897.JPG
Mathilde Kschessinskaya costumed for the title role in Petipa's La Camargo. St. Petersburg, circa 1902
Born (1872-08-31)31 August 1872
Ligovo, Petergof, Russian Empire
Died 6 December 1971(1971-12-06) (aged 99)
Paris, France
Burial Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery
Spouse Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia
Issue Prince Vladimir Romanovsky-Krasinsky
House Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov
Father Feliks Krzesiński
Religion Russian Orthodox (previously Roman Catholic)
Occupation Prima ballerina

Mathilda-Marie Feliksovna Kschessinskaya (Polish: Matylda Maria Krzesińska, Russian: Матильда Феликсовна Кшесинская; 31 August [O.S. 19 August] 1872 – 6 December 1971) (also known as Her Serene Highness Princess Romanovskaya-Krasinskaya from 1935) was a Russian ballerina from a family of Polish origin. Her father Feliks Krzesiński and her brother both danced in St. Petersburg. She eventually attained the highest rank, that of prima ballerina assoluta.[1] She was a mistress of the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and later the wife of his cousin Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia.[2]

She was known in the West as Mathilde Kschessinska or Matilda Kshesinskaya.[3]

Early life

Kschessinska was born at Ligovo, near Peterhof. Like all her Polish family, to whom she was known as Matylda Krzesińska, Mathilde performed at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre of Saint Petersburg with the renowned Imperial Ballet. Kschessinskaya made her début in a pas de deux from La Fille Mal Gardée during a graduation performance in 1890 attended by Emperor Alexander III and the rest of the Imperial family, including the future Nicholas II. At the post-performance supper, Tsar Alexander sought out the young Kschessinskaya and told her to "Be the glory and adornment of our ballet."

Prima ballerina

In 1896, she obtained the rank of Prima ballerina of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres. The old maestro Petipa did not consent to its granting to Kschessinskaya, and although she possessed an extraordinary gift as a dancer, she obtained it primarily via her prestige at the Imperial Russian Court.

Relationship with Petipa

Petipa allowed Kschessinskaya to create only a small number of new roles, as he considered the Italian Pierina Legnani to be the superior ballerina. Although she was able to command top billing in theatre programs or on posters, her efforts to obtain more new roles were thwarted by Petipa, whose authority over the artistic direction of the Imperial Ballet was not challenged even by the Emperor himself. Among the few roles Kschessinskaya created were Flora in Le Réveil de Flore (1894) and Columbine in Harlequinade (1900). She also became the first Russian danseuse to master the 32 fouettés en tournant of Legnani.

Although Petipa had a great respect for Kschessinskaya as a dancer, he thoroughly despised her as a person, referring to her in his diaries as " ... that nasty little swine." Even so, he chose her for the lead roles in many of the final revivals of his older masterworks, often devising 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.

In 1899, Prince Serge Wolkonsky became Director of the Imperial Theaters. Although he held the position only until 1902, he achieved a great deal. Sergei Diaghilev was his immediate assistant, and Wolkonsky entrusted him with the publication of the Annual of the Imperial Theaters in 1900. During this period, new names appeared in the theaters, such as painters Alexandre Benois, Konstantin Somov, and Léon Bakst. However, Wolkonsky was forced to send in his resignation after clashing with Kschessinskaya when she refused to wear the panniers of an 18th-century costume in the ballet La Camargo.[4]

Scandals and rumours

The future tsar

Kschessinskaya had been involved with the future Nicholas II, from 1890, when he was a grand duke and she was just seventeen, having met him in the presence of his family after her graduation performance. The relationship continued for three years, until Nicholas married Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt—the future Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna—in 1894, shortly after the death of his father, Tsar Alexander.

Two grand dukes

Scandals and rumours around her name developed and persisted as she engaged in a sexual relationship with two Grand Dukes of the Romanov family: Sergei Mikhailovich and his cousin Andrei Vladimirovich. In 1902, she gave birth to a son, Vladimir (known as "Vova"; 30 June 1902 - 23 April 1974); he was later titled H.S.H. Prince Romanovsky-Krasinsky, but said that he never knew for sure who his father was.[5][6]

Coaching of Pavlova

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 also be ruthless with rivals. One of her most famous miscalculations occurred when, while pregnant in 1902, she coached Anna Pavlova in the role of Nikya in La Bayadère. She considered Pavlova to be technically weak and believed that the other ballerina could not upstage her. Instead, audiences became enthralled with the frail, long-limbed, ethereal-looking Pavlova, and a star was born.

Chickens on stage

Another notorious incident occurred in 1906 when Kschessinskaya's coveted role of Lise in the Petipa/Ivanov production of La Fille Mal Gardée was given to Olga Preobrajenska. One feature of this production was the use of live chickens on stage. Before Preobrajenska's variation in the Pas de ruban of the first act, Kschessinskaya opened the doors to the chickens' coops and, at the first note of the music, the chickens went flying about the stage. Nevertheless, Preobrajenska 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 Vladimir Lenin addressed the revolutionary crowd when he returned from Switzerland in 1917.

Move to France

After the Russian Revolution, Kschessinska moved first to the French Riviera and then to Paris, where she married, in 1921, one of the tsar's cousins, Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia, the possible father of her son Vova. Although Kschessinska's life in Paris was modest compared with the lavish life she had enjoyed in Russia, she lived on happily for over 50 years. In 1925 Mathilde converted from Catholicism to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Maria. In 1929, she opened her own ballet school, where she taught such students as Dame Margot Fonteyn, Dame Alicia Markova, André Eglevsky, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Tamara Toumanova and Maurice Béjart. She performed for the last time at the age of 64, for a charity event with The Royal Ballet 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 indomitable. She died in Paris, eight months short of her 100th birthday.

Cultural depictions


See also


  1. Mary Clarke and David Vaughan (eds) 1977. The encyclopedia of dance & ballet. Pitmans, London. p201
  2. Kshessinska 1960. Dancing in Petersburg. London, transl Haskell.
  3. The latter is Beaumont's version, The Diaghilev Ballet in London, 1940.
  4. Marius Petipa (1958). Russian Ballet Master: The Memoirs of Marius Petipa. Dance Books Ltd.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Though Andrei acknowledged Vova as his son, it is possible that Vova's biological father was Grand Duke Sergei, whose patronymic he was given. It has also been suggested that Grand Duke Vladimir Romanov was the father. Another rumor, with Nicholas II as father, was assumed by Adrienne Sharp in her fictional account of Kschessinska, The True Memoirs of Little K (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), ISBN 0-374-20730-5 [reviewed by Martin, Benjamin Franklin (2010-11-28). "Tsar Nikolai II's lover's memoir is only partly fiction". Advocate. Baton Rouge. p. 3E. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>].
  6. Having had a friendly relationship with Prince Wladimir Andreievich for the last seventeen years of his life, I have never heard him issuing any doubt as to the identity of his father. In his memoirs published under the title "Dancing in Petersburg" his mother writes on page 89: “.... Serge knew for certain that he was not the father of the child....We decided to call our son Wladimir, in honour of the Grand Duke Wladimir, André's father.


  • H.S.H. The Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky. Dancing in Petersburg — London, 1960, 1973
  • S.A.S. La Princesse Romanovsky-Krassinsky Souvenirs de la Kschessinska — Paris, 1960.


  • Hall, Coryne, Imperial Dancer: Mathilde Kschessinska and the Romanovs, Sutton Publishing, England, 2005.
  • Arnold L.Haskell. Diaghileff. His artistic and private life. — NY, 1935.
  • Marija Trofimova, "Prince Serge M. Wolkonsky – theatrical critic of Poslednie Novosti" (“Knyaz Sergei Volkonsky – teatralny kritik gazety Poslednie Novosti”) (in Russian), Rev. Etud. Slaves, Paris, LXIV/4, 1992. [There are a lot articles about Kschessinska's ballet school].

Further reading