Eleonora Sevenard, the young promising new Bolshoi soloist (she danced both Phrygia and Kitri at Covent Garden during the company’s latest tour) will be dancing with her boyfriend, Bolshoi principal dancer Denis Rodkin, in the Les Étoiles gala in Rome next week. In an interview to coincide with her London appearances, she told the Telegraph:
I feel much calmer when I’m with [Denis] – I always know how everything will happen, because he’s such a wonderful partner. He says it’s more nerve-racking to dance with me on stage because I’m less experienced than he is – I lean on him much more!
Apart from the interest in watching her star rise, there is also a curious sidenote to Sevenard’s blossoming career. She is the great-great-grand-niece of Mathilde Kschessinska (1872-1971), the prima ballerina assoluta of the Imperial Russian Ballet in St Petersburg, who has so many fascinating strands to her life that it sounds improbable, though true.
Petipa created some new roles on her (she was the first Columbine in Harlequinade in 1900), but Italian dancer Pierina Legnani (the theatre’s only other prima ballerina assoluta) got the plumb parts. However, she was the first Russian dancer to perform the 32 fouettés that Legnani first executed, and have been the nightmare for most ballerinas ever since.
Kschessinska was also the mistress of the future Tsar Nicholas II who she met after her graduation performance (her teacher was Enrico Cecchetti ) – the crown prince was 22 and she just 17.
She had told him that she was a virgin, and two years after their first meeting they consummated their relationship. She wrote,
In the morning I got a letter from Nicky, (and) around 10pm he came to me and stayed until around 2am. All evening we were together. Nicky has been to my bedroom for the first time. He liked it – and my dress – a lot.
Alexey Uchitel’s 2017 film Matilde about their relationship caused a scandal in Russia as the Tsar was canonised in 2000 so the Russian Orthodox Church was enraged by the suggestion that he had had a premarital affair. Molotov cocktails were hurled at cinemas, a car was set alight outside the office of the director’s lawyer, but the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation reviewed the film’s contents and judged that no laws had been broken.
The lively Kschessinska also had relationships with two Grand Dukes of the Romanov family, and her son, known as Vova, said he didn’t know who his father was. It is said that when she was told that she should be proud of having two Grand Dukes at her feet, she said, “What’s so surprising about that? I have two feet!”
When she was pregnant with Vova in 1902, she coached 21-year-old Anna Pavlova as Nikiya for La Bayadère, believing that she was no real competition though, of course, the rest is history. Later, in 1906, when Olga Preobrajenska was given Lise to dance in La Fille Mal Gardée (one of Kschessinska’s celebrated roles) the jealous ballerina let live chickens out of their coops onto the stage during the beginning of a first act variation. However, Preobrajenska continued dancing and was awarded with an ovation from the audience. Sometimes Kschessinska’s rivalry wasn’t well calculated.
She had a large mansion built in St Petersburg in 1906 (still known as the Kschessinska Mansion), but with the looming revolution she went into hiding and two days later it was seized by soldiers and became the headquarters for the Bolsheviks and the editorial offices of party newspaper Pravda. Lenin and Stalin both worked in the house and its balcony became the podium for some of Lenin’s most famous speeches. The Kschessinska Mansion is now home to the Museum of the October Revolution. Kschessinska took Lenin to court to get her house back, but was unsuccessful, and was forced to dance for Lenin’s men but won them over with her dancing so that when she finished they were cheering her name. She recounts in her memoirs:
As I move to the centre of the stage, my eyes search for the conductor down in the pit. They have granted me a full orchestra. I am not sure why; it is only one solo, by one woman, and this crowd are not interested in the art. They are only interested in trying to intimidate me. They want me to dance for their mercy.
I begin to dance. It doesn’t matter that all I can hear are the increasingly graphic suggestions raining down on me; the music is there in my mind. It is Odile’s variation. I have chosen this piece carefully; they want me to yearn and plead, but that has never been my way. I am giving them the Mathilde Kschessinska of old, the one they think they want to be rid of. Brilliant, sharp, cutting. The Mathilde who swayed even the Romanov family.
If I survive tonight, I am done with St Petersburg – Petrograd – Leningrad. Whatever she wants to call herself now. She has taken so much. My house, Lenin’s headquarters for three long years. The banks have stolen my money, supposedly for the people. Which people, I don’t know, as the streets are filled with as many hungry and homeless as ever.
So, I dance. The stage is mine and I do not back down; I take ownership, covering every inch of it with energy that bristles with fury. The voices begin to die down. I can hear the swell of the orchestra now, and know I am taking control. I command their eyes to follow me, to devour every movement and know the trance-like state that only Mathilde Kschessinska can create. A few determined comrades continue to yell, but then they are hushed by their own, and I know I have them. When next I am facing the audience, I flash a grin. A ripple runs through the crowd. They will not kill me now.
Applause begins before I am finished. There will be curtain call after curtain call, just as there was when the Romanovs themselves were my audience. Word of their appreciation will get back to Lenin. Will he smash what is left of the windows and furniture in my house? Let him. It will not change my triumph. I am the greatest symbol of all that which Lenin wants Russia to forget it once was, and I have made his men love me.
Kschessinska escaped from Russia, with her son, after a gruelling journey on foot. She lived for a while in the south of France and then she moved to Paris where she married one of the Tsar’s cousins in 1921. He may have been the father of her son. She later opened her own ballet school in Paris, which she ran for 30 years, and among her students were Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova, Tamara Toumanova, and Maurice Béjart.
Mathilde Kschessinska died when she was 99, having given her last performance was when she was 64 at a charity event with The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. She had danced previously in London in 1911 with Vaslav Nijinsky in Swan Lake for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
Eleonora Sevenard and Denis Rodkin will dance pas de deux from Swan Lake and Spartacus at Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome from the 24-26 January 2020.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.