Great Italians of the Past: Pierina Legnani

Dec 14, 2019 2344

Pierina Legnani was the very first Prima Ballerina Assoluta and one of the greatest ballerinas ever. She was born on October 1st 1868 in Milan. Legnani began dancing at the age of 7 and after a year of private teaching, she was accepted into “La Scala, where she trained for ten years. In her final year, she acted as an understudy to the Prima Ballerina Maria Giuri. After a successful career in Italy, she moved to London where she danced as Prima Ballerina at the Alhambra Theatre in London.

Legnani was invited to Russia to join the Imperial Ballet of Saint Petersburg. She made her Imperial Ballet début in Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti’s version of Cinderella on December 17th 1893, in which she amazed the audience with her incredible virtuosa, bravura technique and dramatic/acting abilities.

The highlight of her début was when she introduced the famous 32 fouettés in the final act. According to eyewitnesses, she performed the sequence without stopping and without moving from the spot in which she started. In fact, the audience was so thrilled by the fouettés that they made her repeat the sequence. One misconception of facts, however, is that Legnani is sometimes credited as having been the first ballerina to attempt the fouetté, but this is certainly not the case. Other ballerinas before Legnani had performed fouetté sequences, for example, her fellow Italian Emma Bessone performed a sequence of 14 fouettés in Ivanov’s 1887 ballet The Haarlem Tulip.

Legnani is not taking credit for being the first to perform the 32 fouettés, but rather seems to be indicating that there were other ballerinas who could also do them. What is clear is that Legnani was the first to perform the 32 fouettés on the Russian stage, setting a new record from Bessone’s 14 fouettés. It was not long after her début with the Imperial Ballet that the famous ballet choreographer Marius Petipa fell completely in love with her. After her departure from Saint Petersburg, Legnani continued to perform around Europe, especially in Italy, London and France until 1910. Afterwards, she retired to her villa at Lake Como in the Northern Italian Lakes and continued to officiate on the examining board of La Scala Ballet School, alongside Enrico Cecchetti and Virginia Zucchi, until four months before her death with Legnani’s dancing and he granted her the official rank of Prima Ballerina Assoluta.

Under the direction of Marius Petipa, Legnani had numerous roles including, 'Cinderella' in 1893, 'Swan Lake' in 1895, 'Raymonda' in 1898, and 'Carmargo' in 1901.

Her last performance was in the Minkus/Petipa ballet La Camargo on January 28, 1901, after which she retired to live in her villa at Lake Como.

Legnani died on November 15th 1930 at the age of 62.

… “in the last tableaux of ‘Aladdin’ I turn thirty-two pirouettes on tiptoe without dropping my foot. Not many dancers can do that”…




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