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"Red Giselle" - Olga Spessivtseva

Great Russian Women

She danced not for herself, not for an audience, but for Dance itself

Olga Spessivtseva

Olga Spesivtseva, (also Spessivtzeva, Spessiva): 18 July 1895, Rostov-on-Don – 16 September 1991, Valley Cottage, NY

Olga Spessivtseva is known as one of the great ballerinas of the 20th century. Enrico Cecchetti, an Italian ballet dancer said that she and Pavlova were two halves of the same apple. Maybe, corrected Diaghilev, but was the half that had been in the sun. She danced all over the world: in St Petersburg; with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and with Serge Lifar in Paris. Spesivtseva was called the last legend of romanticism in ballet. She was titled the “Red Giselle” for her affair with tchekiste. Her life was full of mystery. And her story is the saddest in Russian ballet.

Although she was born into a prosperous family, her father's death imposed financial hardships on the family, and Olga was sent to an orphanage. At the age of ten she became a student at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. Here she found the order and discipline that she needed in her life. A shy, withdrawn child, Olga dedicated her existence to ballet. She graduated in 1913 and became a soloist in the ballet company in1916

An exquisite romantic dancer with perfect technique, ideally suited for roles such as Giselle and Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, she quickly became one of the most admired dancers in the company. In later years George Balanchine, then a student at the Imperial Ballet school, remembered her dancing with awe and admiration.

In 1916 she agreed to replace Tamara Karsavina on the American tour of The Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev. When she returned to Russia in 1918, she was promoted to Prima Ballerina. Here she had her chance to dance Giselle for the first time. For many, Spessivtseva was the perfect Giselle, her flawless dancing and air of vulnerability eclipsing even the interpretation of Pavlova.

Spessivtseva's fragile health and the deprivations of the Russian Revolution contributed to her contracting tuberculosis circa 1919. By 1921 she had regained her strength, and rejoined the Ballets Russes in London to dance Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Princess. The ballet was a financial failure, but when Spessivtseva returned to her homeland, she danced Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and was a great success.

With the aid of her ex-husband Boris Kaplun, a Bolshevik functionary and lover of the arts, she left Russia for the last time in 1924, accepting an invitation to dance as an étoile (prima ballerina) at the Paris Opera Ballet, where she remained until 1932. During that time, she maintained her relationship with the Ballets Russes. In 1932 she made another historic guest appearance in London, dancing Giselle with Anton Dolin. From 1932 to 1937 she toured with a number of companies throughout the world, performing roles from both the classical repertoire and contemporary ballets by choreographers such as Michel Fokine and Bronislava Nijinska.

All the years in emigration Spessivtseva was approached with suspicion and was considered a Bolshevik spy. Olga herself suffered homesickness and nightmares about her past in Russia, and also an unrequited love for her chief dance partner at the Opera Garnier. In 1940 she had a mental breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital in New Jersey. For some time she was believed dead by many of her colleagues. Anton Dolin, Dale Fern and Felia Doubrovska managed to have her moved to the Tolstoy Farm in Valley Cottage, NY, where she died in 1991.

Life of Spessivtseva in emigration is full of mystery. One of them is her attempts to return to Russia, or better say her not return. She answered with refusal to the offer to change the citizenship claiming was Russian and would never change her nationality. 20 years spent in mental hospital did not change her desire to come back to Russia and unite with the family. Her sister Zinaida Papkovitch- Spessivtseva was trying to get an official permission to get Olga back to Russia, but failed.

In 1998, Russian choreographer Boris Eifman made her the heroine of his ballet "Red Giselle". Today, she is remembered as one of the greatest classical dancers of all time.

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