Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Imperial Dancer: Mathilde Kchessinska and the Romanovs

Imperial Dancer: Mathilde Kschessinska and the Romanovs is a 2005 biography on the Russian ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska written by Coryne Hall and foreworded by Natalia Makarova.

Matilda-Marie Felixovna Kschessinska was born on August 31 [August 19 OS], 1872 into a dynasty of Polish dancers. Her Father, Felix Kschessinska, was known as the "King of the Mazurka" and her Mother, Julia Dominska, was a ballerina before retiring to marry. Like her 2 elder siblings, Julie and Joseph, before her, Matilda entered into the Imperial Ballet School; graduating in 1890 with a score of 11 "very good" and 12 "perfect".   

The Imperial Family attended Mathilde's debut performance and it was there that she first laid eyes on the Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich. For her at least, it was love at first sight and she did everything humanly possible to get his attention - never mind that Nicholas was already in love with a German Princess. Mathilde managed to befriend the heir but that was as far as their relationship progressed. That is, until, having been rejected by his lady love, the Tsarevich reluctantly sought comfort in Mathilde's arms. Their relationship continued for three years, ending when at last, Princess Alix of Hesse accepted Nicholas' proposal of marriage in 1894. Mathilde was devastated. Hoping to break off the engagement, she sent letters to Alix in attempt to blacken the Tsarevich's name. Nicholas recognized the ballerina's writing and confessed to Alix his affair with Mathilde. Alix forgave Nicholas but never Mathilde.

Despite being heartbroken over the loss of her first love, Mathilde soon found herself a "protector" in Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, who was also her lover. He provided generously for his mistress and was often the one to resolve issues between Mathilde and her ballerina competitors (always in Mathilde's favor, of course). In spite of all this, Mathilde did not love Sergei and only used him as a means to go further in the Mariinsky Theatre. In 1900, she met and fell in love with Grand Duke Andrei Vladimorovich, Sergei's cousin, and the two soon entered into a relationship. The three of them, Mathilde, Sergei and Andrei, lived in this menage a trois for some time but not without some tension. In 1902, Mathilde gave birth to a son, named Vladimir and called "Vova" within the family. Both men were convinced the child was his. Vova would never know who his Father was.

Mathilde rose high in the Imperial Theatre with her amazing technical skills (as well as her connection with the  Tsar), obtaining the rank of prima ballerina in 1896, but her career was always marred by her endless squabbling with maestro of the Imperial Ballet, Petipa, and fellow ballerina, most notably Anna Pavlova and Olga Preobrajenska. A notorious incident in 1906 was when Mathilde's coveted role in La Fille Mal Gardee was given to Preobrajenska, the prima ballerina released live chickens onto the stage prematurely. Much to Mathilde's chagrin, Preobrajenska finished her variation and received a storm of applause.

In 1917, three years after entering into the First World War, the Russian Revolution came into full swing, toppling the old regime and the Romanov family. Mathilde was forced to abandon her lavish home in St. Petersburg and flea to France. It was from her balcony that Vladimir Lenin delivered his speech after his return from Finland. She and Andrei were reunited on the way to France but Mathilde never saw Sergei again. He was murder in 1918 along with several of his relatives.

In 1921, Mathilde and Andrei married and she was given the title Princess Romanovsky-Krasinsky. Living a relatively modest life in Paris compared to what she had in Russia, she lived happily with her Grand Duke for several decades. In 1929, the former prima ballerina of the Imperial Ballet opened her own ballet school to keep the family afloat. She is credited with  teaching the famed Alicia Markova.

Andrei's death in 1956 caused Mathilde innumerable grief  yet she would outlive him by 15 years, dying on December 6, 1971 at the age of 99. Her final years were plagued with financial troubles but she remained indomitable just as she had been all her life.

I give this book 4/5. Hall has quite a similar writing style to John Van Der Kiste (They worked together on their shared biography of Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna in "Once a Grand Duchess) and that is A-Okay in my book. Like most of you, my only knowledge of Mathilde Kchessinska as the mistress of Nicholas II but that's just a fraction of her life and now that I've read Imperial Dancer I feel much more knowledgeable on her incredible life story. All in all, a rather nice read when you have the time.

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