Imperial contretemps

The film Mathilde has been accused of being melodramatic. The real story of her life is far more interesting.

Kschessinska(1)Mathilde Kschessinska (1872-1971) was a leading dancer in the Russian Imperial Ballet. She took major roles in Cinderella (music by Fitinhof-Schell a classmate of Tchaikovsky), La Sylphide, Esmeralda, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty. In 1911 she danced in London with Vaslav Nijinsky in Swan Lake for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Mathilde’s notoriety stems from her liaisons with the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (before his marriage to a German princess) and later with two Grand Dukes of the imperial family, one of whom she later married. Mathilde’s diary and letters, published only in 2017, detail how her “crush” on the young Nicholas progressed from a first blushing kiss to her bedroom.

After the Russian Revolution, Kschessinska moved first to the French Riviera and then to Paris, where in 1921 she married Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia, the father of her son Vova (although the father may have been the other Grand Duke.) The couple liked to gamble and Mathilde was rumoured to have dissipated much of their wealth, including her own valuable jewel collection, at the gambling tables of Monte Carlo. This she refuted in Dancing in Petersburg – The Memoirs of Kschessinska (1961):

“A number of people spitefully claimed when I arrived that I had lost my fortune on the gambling tables. But one thing is certain: I have always enjoyed gambling, but I have never played for high stakes, especially at the Casino, neither after the Revolution nor even before, when I might have done so. I have lost a relatively small sum in gambling, certainly not the millions which some have spoken of and which I should have been very happy to possess!”

In 1929, Mathilde opened a ballet school in Paris where her students included Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova, André Eglevsky, and Tamara Toumanova. In 1936, Mathilde performed for the last time in public at a charity event for the Royal Ballet in London. She wrote:

“For my programme I chose the Russian Boyar dance, which I had last performed at Krasnoie Selo before the Tsar, on the eve of war. The sarafan and kokochnik (traditional costumes and head-dress) designed by Salomko were re-designed from memory by Ludmilla, my maid. Karinska arranged to have my costume (to be ready for my arrival) made partly in London and partly in Paris… I received eighteen curtain calls, a rare event in England, where the public is more reserved than in Russia and France. The stage was buried in flowers. It was my last appearance in the theatre.”

Kschessinska(2)Paris was home to Russian émigrés nostalgic for pre-revolutionary days. The picturesque Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery south of the city is the resting place of hundreds, including Prince Felix Yusupov (who killed Rasputin), Tatiana Botkina (daughter of court physician Eugene Botkin, killed along with Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918) and of Mathilde herself. There is much more of a real story here than in the film Mathilde, much of it recounted in Imperial Dancer by Coryne Hall (2005).

Kschessinska died in relative poverty in 1971. The Sunday Telegraph obituary noted, “And so, at the age of 100 the fabled Mathilde Kschessinska has died at last. A dancer of virtuosity, brio and charm … she captivated at the end of the last century not only the balletomanes of St Petersburg but Nicholas II himself.”

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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