Pierina Legnani was born in Milan on 30 September 1868. She spent ten years at La Scala’s ballet school, graduating in 1888, but then continued working on her technique at the private school of Caterina Beretta. Beretta was another Milanese dancer; she became an étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet, and later taught at the Mariinsky Theatre’s ballet school with Enrico Cecchetti. It was Legnani’s impressive technique that would make her noticed in the most important dance capitals in the world, including the Mariinsky where she reigned supreme for eight seasons.
In 1888, the small brunette, with expressive eyes created a role at La Scala, then soon after she danced at the Eden Theatre in Paris, and over a three year period (until 1891) she danced many roles at the Alhambra Theatre of Variety in Leicester Square in London. George Bernard Shaw wrote that she was young, intelligent but “not yet in her prime”.
During the carnival season of 1892, she returned to La Scala as a prima ballerina, but she was soon back at London’s Alhambra Theatre as Zerlina in a danced version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and in 1893 she played the princess in Aladdin, both with choreography by Carlo Coppi. It was in Aladdin that she first performed her famous 32 fouettés, a feat she said that was made possible because of her Italian pointe shoes (they had less rounded and reinforced toes). The following year, again in London, she performed various pieces including Arthur Sullivan’s 1897 “Grand National Ballet in Eight Tableaux”, Victoria and Merrie England.
In 1893 Legnani arrived in St Petersburg, freeing her from being an ‘attraction’ and allowing her to collaborate in the stable environment of the Imperial Theatre, especially with Marius Petipa. From 1893 until 1901 she was the star of Petipa’s latest creations, which also included remakes of other people’s works, ballets à grand spectacle, ballets-féerie, celebratory performances, divertissements for the Hermitage theatre and theatres of Royal summer residences. With Legnani, Petipa introduced virtuoso feats within the pas de deux, which then became standard practice.
The first ballet was Cinderella (choreographed in collaboration with Cecchetti and Lev Ivanov with music by Baron Boris Fitinhoff-Schell, in 1893) where she introduced her 32 fouettés in the final act; followed by The Talisman (music by Riccardo Drigo, 1895); the one-act ballet La Halte de cavalerie (music by Ivan Armsheimer, 1896); La Perle (music by Drigo, 1896), a performance for the coronation in Moscow of Nicholas II of Russia; Bluebeard (music Pyotr Schenk, 1896); Raymonda (music by Alexander Glazunov, 1898); and Les Ruses d’Amour (music by Glazunov, 1900).
Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893 required a tribute to his memory, and in 1894 the second act of Swan Lake (white act) was performed with Ivanov’s choreography. In the complete version at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1895, Petipa provided the choreography for the first and third acts while Ivanov choreographed the other white act, the fourth and last. Legnani was Odette-Odile with the elegant Pavel Gerdt (in his fifties) in the part of Siegfried. In Act Three she performed the 32 fouettés which, according to Tamara Karsavina were “a cascade of dizzying pirouettes with marvellous precision, and sparkling as the facets of a diamond, which delighted the entire audience”.
Cecchetti, maître and the second choreographer of the St Petersburg company, restaged his ballet Catarina for her (music by Cesare Pugni, 1894), and Petipa’s Coppélia was revived for her (music by Léo Delibes, 1894). In many of these revivals, new variations were created for Legnani.
Cecchetti’s teaching method was established among the company during this time, aided by the presence of the Italian ballerina. Legnani, in order to acquire the softness and interiority of the Russian style, studied with Nikolai Legat and Christian Johansson. She tried her hand at Russian folk dances, and in The Little Humpbacked Horse (choreography by Petipa from Arthur Saint-Léon, and music by Pugni) a chronicler noted that “a ray of midday sunshine, performed the trepak dance from the frozen north, with such supreme perfection that the enthusiasm of the public became fanatical”.
At the beginning of the century, Legnani was featured in two ballets inspired by eighteenth-century virtuosity: The King’s Command or The Pupils of Dupré (Petipa, with music by Albert Vizentini, Delibes et al.); and La Camargo, which was her farewell benefit performance (choreography by Ivanov based on Petipa’s 1872 ballet, music by Ludwig Minkus, 1901).
Legnani returned to Italy because her mother was seriously ill, but she continued to perform around Europe, especially in Italy, London and France until 1910. Afterwards, she retired to her villa in Pognana Lario on Lake Como, but was on the examining board of La Scala ballet school, with Cecchetti and Virginia Zucchi among others. She continued collaborating with La Scala until four months before her death on 15 September 1930 – she was 62.