Voices from Russia

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Great Ballerina Marina Semyonova Died Today in Moscow

Marina Semyonova (1908-2010), People’s Artist of the USSR, one of the greats of the dance of the 20th century.

Today, in the one hundredth and second year of her life {she died only three days short of her birthday on 12 June: editor}, the great Russian ballerina, Marina Semyonova, died in Moscow. Everyone in world and Russian ballet mourns. She was a legend, who wrote some of the best pages in the history of the Bolshoi Theatre. Until the last moment, Marina Timofeyevna remained faithful to it. Here, she shone as a prima ballerina, and, for almost half a century, worked as a teacher. Amongst her students were Maya Plisetskaya, Natalia Bessmertnova, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, and other stars. She was the Goddess of Dance; it was the only possible way to describe Marina Semyonova. One could compare her with a sculptor, who prunes away everything extraneous until all that’s left is crystal-pure art. Very few are left of those who danced with the great ballerina on the stage. Nevertheless, everyone who saw her on the stage all say it is impossible to compare her with anyone else. She had a unique technique; it was a true flight of the soul. “She was a great dancer, she was the very image of the dance, her stage performance and her classical technique were nonpareil… no one surpassed her”, recalled Mikhail Lavrovsky, a teacher at the Bolshoi Theatre’s ballet school.

In 1918, she was a pupil of the legendary Agrippina Vaganova, who wrote the following words about Marina Timofeyevna, “She may be a dull blonde, but she will show everybody else how to dance”. Semyonova did show everybody… when she had barely finished ballet school, she literally saved the Russian classical ballet. “She was a model of classical ballet. The fact that ballet existed in Soviet Russia is thanks to her. In 1925, a commission wished to do away with this art. However, they came to one of her performances. It so enthralled them that they decided to spare the ballet”, said People’s Artist of Russia Nikolai Tsiskaridze. First, she danced on the stage of the Mariinsky, then for the Bolshoi. Her roles included Odette-Odile, Giselle, and Raymonda. As one of the first Soviet ballerinas to go on tour abroad, she danced on the stage of the Paris Opera at the invitation of Serge Lifar. In 1937, she became an “undesirable” after the execution of her husband, Lev Karakhan, a Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Faina Ranevskaya said, “Marinochka, this is your profession… it’s the same as hard labour in lace” (Мариночка, эта твоя профессия… это же каторга в цветах). All those who were fortunate enough to be close to Semyonova said that, for her, as for Ranevskaya, if everything were written down, it would be an unbeatable collection of quotations. Marina Timofeyevna imparted understanding with well-chosen words and pointed jokes.

“She would say something as a joke, but it would be something important and great, that could change one’s fate. If you can compare it to someone in literature, I’d say it would be like people out a novel by Tolstoy”, said Lyudmila Semenyaka, a ballerina. Lyudmila Semenyaka was one of the “Semyonovsky Regiment”*, as the disciples of Marina Timofeyevna call themselves. Maya Plisetskaya, Nadezhda Pavlova, Galina Stepanenko, Nikolai Tsiskaridze… for all of them, Semyonova was a guardian angel and a mom, not just a teacher. To get into her class… this was the dream of all young artists. She was an absolute dictator, but she was adored. “She had a proud and regal manner, but when she led us, we submitted ourselves to her majesty and knowledge”, said Svetlana Adyrkhaeva, People’s Artist of the USSR. Marina Timofeyevna always said, “The exit from the stage should be a celebration, but it must also stir the soul. The audience is not fooled”. On the day of her 95th birthday, she left the Bolshoi Theatre, never to return, but her presence lingered on the stage, which she gave over seven decades of her life. Today, her portrait is hung with a mourning ribbon. She spent her long life in service to the dance, to the audience, and to her students, to whom she passed her secrets on for another generation.

9 June 2010


  • The ”Semyonovsky Regiment” was one of the Guards Regiments in Tsarist times… thus, the term has a resonance for Russians that it lacks for Americans. By the way, I believe that Dmitri Schmemann was an officer in the Semyonovsky Regiment… if Andrei Dmitrievich lived up to that legacy, what does it say about Aleksandr Dmitrievich?



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