The Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova (born 1910) was hailed as one of the greatest dancers of all time. She won international recognition for her lyricism and purity of technique and for her powerfully dramatic performances.
Galina Sergeyevna Ulanova was born in St. Petersburg on January 8, 1910, the only daughter of two dancers at the Maryinsky Theater. As a child Galina was somewhat boisterous and protested when her mother, Maria Romanova, gave her her first ballet lessons, firmly announcing that she did not like dancing. At the age of nine she was unwillingly enrolled as a boarder at the celebrated Theatre School, the training-ground of so many famous Russian dancers. Her strong character obviously prevailed even there. At the end-of-year school production of "La Fille Mal Gardee, " instead of being cast as a dainty peasant girl Galina Ulanova made her first appearance on stage as a boy in a clog dance!
Gradually her love for ballet developed, and her final four years at the school were spent in the class of Agrippina Vaganova, the great teacher whose notation of the Russian classical ballet system is still used today. At her graduation performance in 1928 Galina, now a delicate ballerina, danced the 7th Waltz and Mazurka of Les Sylphides and the Adagio from The Nutcracker. She expressed ribbon-like fluidity in her movements and showed an ethereal presence on stage. Her performance won her a coveted place in the Kirov Ballet Company (known then as GATOB).
The quality of her dancing was quickly noted, and in her first year she made her debut as Princess Florina in The Sleeping Beauty. A few months later she was given the role of the Swan Queen in Vaganova's own production of Swan Lake. To this role she brought poetical lyricism and sensitivity, epitomizing the very best of Russian classical technique. But it was in 1934, in Rostislav Zakharov's ballet The Fountains of Bakhchiserai, that the young ballerina showed she had a unique talent for the dramatic as well as the ethereal. Cast as Maria, the beautiful captive harem girl, Ulanova brought powerful drama to Pushkin's story of love, jealousy, and murder.
Climaxes Career as Juliet
For Ulanova, preparing the role of Maria (and all subsequent ones) became not just a question of learning the difficult technical steps but also of studying the character as would an actress, seeking out its nuances to shade and develop the role. Once on stage, she would lose herself so completely in the character that she was portraying that nothing else existed for her. At curtain calls she often seemed surprised at the adulation she received, for to her, her own personality had nothing to do with the "real" person she had been dancing.
Ulanova's performances also expressed great musicality. She once described dance as "the embodiment of music in movement." She saw it as a language that brought the musical score to living vibrant form—a belief that she herself certainly subscribed to. Nowhere was that more clearly visible than when she danced what has become her most famous role—that of Juliet.
The renowned Soviet composer Serge Prokofiev was inspired by Ulanova's talent and his score of "Romeo and Juliet" was composed with her in mind. Leonid Lavrovsky's ballet premiered at the Kirov in 1940 with Ulanova in the leading role. She imbued Shakespeare's young heroine with sensibility and beauty and continued to convince of teenage youthfulness even when she herself was nearing retirement. For many, there are two unforgettable moments, neither one a display of dazzling technique but of communicable artistry. First, at the ball: lifted high above Romeo's head, she playfully snatches his mask and sees his face for the first time. She remains frozen in awe; her excited heartbeats seem almost audible as her whole body thrills with the quickening of first love. Secondly—and perhaps the moment most associated with Ulanova—is when Juliet hurries to seek Friar Lawrence's help with her impending marriage to Paris. With black silk cape billowing out behind her, and Prokofiev's magnificent score surging forth, Ulanova runs across the stage, managing in those simple steps to depict her anguish and despair, drawing out deep emotion both from her inner self and also from the audience. Fortunately for the dance world, the ballet has been preserved on film for future generations to treasure.
After her success as Maria and then Juliet, Ulanova recognized that she was more suited to ballets that allowed her to develop the characters theatrically, which traditional classics such as The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty did not. In the following years her thoughtful and focused approach brought freshness and drama to Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and to Giselle. She created roles in new ballets such as The Red Poppy, The Stone Flower, and Cinderella, often moving the audience to tears with her realistic performances.
Joined Both Kirov and Bolshoi Ballets
Ulanova was a member of the Kirov Ballet for 16 yers. During the hard years of World War II and the blockade by the Germans of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the company was evacuated to Perm in the Ural Mountains. During this time she also performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow for audiences of soldiers, many of whom had chosen her as their pin-up girl. In 1944 she moved permanently to Moscow to join the Bolshoi Ballet Company.
Ulanova made her first western tour in 1945. She was first seen in London in 1956 and in New York in 1959. She made her farewell performance in 1962 but continued to work for 30 years as a coach, handing down her profound knowledge of the dance to top ballerinas of the Bolshoi— Maximova, Semenyaka, Semizorova, and Grachova. Galina Ulanova also accepted a few invitations to coach in other countries such as Australia and Sweden. Basically a shy person, she worked quietly, watching her pupil, and, when needed, elegantly demonstrating the filigree detailing that makes a ballerina in the truest sense. She neatly drew out of each dancer their own individuality while instilling the high standards that she herself so brilliantly evidenced in a long and esteemed career.
Ulanova took an active role throughout her life in speaking out for dance, in writing about it, and as an authority on juries of international ballet competitions. She served on important international dance and artistic committees. She was honored many times and received the (former) Soviet Union's highest order, that of "Hero of Socialist Labor, " twice. But it is for her breath-taking, emotional, and magical dancing that she will always be remembered.
Born without a classic ballerina's body, she had big knees, square shoulders, and a short neck, but she had a commitment to tireless structured training within a rigorous system, which allowed her to reach the pinnacle of her art within the Soviet training program. She occupies a place with Margot Fonteyn and Natalia Markova as the supreme expression of the ballerina.
Further Reading on Galina Ulanova
Ulanova has written, collaborated, and contributed to ballet literature in Ballerina's School (Moscow, 1954); Soviet Ballet (London, 1954); Prokofiev: Articles, Reminiscences (Moscow, 1956); The Bolshoi Ballet Story (1959); Ballet Today (London, 1957). She gave interviews of note to Dance Scene (1980) and Dancing Times (London, August 1983).
Books about Ulanova include Albert Kahn, Days with Ulanova (1962); M. Sizova, Ulanova: Her Childhood and Schooldays (London, 1962); Natalia Roslavleva, Era of Russian Ballet (London, 1966); Vladimir Golubov, Galina Ulanova's Dance (Leningrad, 1948); Yuri Sloniminsky, The Bolshoi Theatre Ballet (Moscow, 1956); Boris Lvov-Anokhon, Ulanova (Moscow and London, 1956); and Valerian Bogdanov-Berezovsky, Ulanova and the Development of Soviet Ballet (London, 1952) and Galina Sergeyevna Ulanova (Moscow, 1961).