Thanks for your excellent and thorough replies to my last question.
I've been enjoying Tchaikovsky's review articles on the site. He is a very
engaging writer, and I frequently laugh out loud his descriptions of inadequate
opera performances. Yet though he is often critical, he is never uncharitable.
You never get the sense he wants to belittle a person as a person however
great their artistic shortcomings might be.
I was wondering if we have any documents that shed light on Tchaikovsky's
interaction with the dancers who performed in his ballets?
From what I've read his main dealings were with Petipa and choreographers.
But I would love to know if he recorded any of his reactions to the dancers,
either in performance or personally. I suspect their social standing was only
on the edge of respectability, is this right?
An interesting account of Tchaikovsky’s acquaintance with the Russian ballerina
Mariia Anderson (1870–1944) can be found in: David Brown, Tchaikovsky Remembered
(1993), where an extract from her memoirs is cited (p. 81–82):
Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky had taken note of my performance, and at one
of the rehearsals of some ballet in the winter of 1889 had asked our ballet
master, Marius Petipa:
‘What’s the name of that young dancer who performed Cupid in the ballet
‘Mariya Anderson,’ replied Petipa.
I vividly recall that conversation. It took place on the proscenium of
the Maryinsky Theatre, close to the orchestra, five or six steps away from
the first slips on the right-hand side. Pyotr Ilich was in a blue jacket;
as always, his pince-nez hung on a black cord. During conversation Tchaikovsky
had the habit of playing with his pince-nez with his right hand.
Petipa’s eyes were searching for somebody. Noticing me, with a wave of
his hand and the words ‘ma belle’, he summoned me to him. I approached timidly
and stood a little way off. They had not interrupted their conversation
in French, and seemed not to be paying the slightest attention to my approach.
From the separate phrases that reached me I understood that they were talking
about the staging of a new ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, and in particular
about me, although my name was not spoken. Imperceptibly, furtively, Pyotr
Ilich stole a glance in my direction, evidently assessing me as a dancer.
Judging by the expression on his slightly smiling face I satisfied him.
Several of his exclamations, clearly and intelligibly repeated in French,
confirmed my assumption. Finishing the conversation, Pyotr Ilich took several
steps in my direction in his characteristic way – with a slight inclination
of his body. Approaching more closely, he began asking me various questions,
by habit mixing Russian and French, and playing with his pince-nez. When
Pyotr Ilich had completed his questions, to which I had replied timidly
and with reserve, Petipa, thinking I did not understand French, began explaining
to me in his broken Russian-French dialect what they had been talking about.
‘Translated’, this signified that in the ballet The Sleeping Beauty
I was to dance ‘the little cat – so Tchaikovsky wishes’.
The full text of Mariia Anderson’s recollections of Tchaikovsky is available
in Russian on the excellent Tchaikov.ru
] and it is worth quoting further from them:
When staging the ballet Petipa gave careful consideration to that number
[“Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat”] and worked on it for a long time. Which
is not surprising. The music for it seems to imitate the mewing and hissing
of cats. The dancing steps were put together in a very talented manner.
Of course, all my efforts were concentrated on justifying the expectations
of the great composer and the famous choreographer.
The ballet The Sleeping Beauty achieved a colossal success. It
was first staged on 3/15 January 1890. The principal success undoubtedly
fell to the lot of Tchaikovsky’s remarkable music. The dancers were in effect
reduced to a supporting role. The audience’s attention was riveted to the
music, the wondrous scenery and the lavish costumes. All this distracted
the audience from the choreographic part of the ballet, and the dancers
were jealous of the music.
It seemed to me that only I had any cause to rejoice since I had been
given such an advantageous number in my duet with the dancer Bekefi.
It was very much a masterpiece of musical onomatopoeia. In short, I was
successful in this ballet; my efforts and diligent preparations had not
been in vain. The staging of The Sleeping Beauty coincided with the
first steps of my artistic career and that is why it has engraved itself
in my memory extraordinarily vividly.
After The Sleeping Beauty Tchaikovsky wrote the opera The Queen
of Spades, which was produced on 7 December 1890. I can still see Petr
Il’ich before me as he talked to the singers who were performing the principal
roles: Medeia Figner (Liza), Nikolai Figner (German), Mariia Slavina (the
Countess), Leonid Iakovlev (Eletskii). The orchestra was conducted by Eduard
Frantsevich Nápravník. The choreographer was Petipa. At the first three
performances Matil’da Kshesinskaia and the author of these lines appeared
in the pastoral intermezzo. The opera had a staggering, extraordinary success
– almost impossible to describe. The newspapers and journals extolled the
composer and his genius.
My next meeting with Petr Il’ich took place during the performance of
the ballet The Nutcracker. After Act I, in which I had played a doll,
all the dancers headed for the stage exit. I also rushed to my dressing-room
in order to get ready for Act III, where I was to appear in the Chinese
Dance: Tea. As I was making my way through the corridor that led from the
stage I heard voices calling my name: “There she is, there she is! Mariia
Anderson, hey...” I didn’t understand what they wanted, but some dancers
and singers shoved me into the opera director’s room, which was packed full
with people as always. Petr Il’ich was sitting on a divan on the right-hand
side of this large room, surrounded by the first performers of Iolanta.
The singers were looking at some photograph which they were passing round.
When I walked in Petr Il’ich got up and cast a searching glance around the
room. When he had located and retrieved the photograph he handed it over
to me. At the same time he said something which I didn’t hear because the
composer’s quiet voice was drowned by the awful din being made by those
In a flurry I timidly walked up to him and it was only when I heard his
gentle voice and saw his friendly smile turned towards me and his grey eyes
looking at me affectionately that I calmed down a little. Petr Il’ich asked
me about the roles I was dancing and, in particular, about the role of the
‘little cat’. While talking he would address now me, now the singers, and
only then did these at last fall silent. The people in the room formed a
tight ring around us and listened to Petr Il’ich as he told them of how
he had made my acquaintance, of the impression I had made on him when I
danced Cupid, after which he had conceived the idea of entrusting me with
the role of the ‘little cat’. ‘Ma belle’, ‘charmant’, ‘la petite Marie’,
‘je suis très content’ – these were the words with which he interspersed
This praise, the joy and embarrassment that I felt, being the centre
of everyone’s attention – all this caused me to lose my head yet again,
and I pressed ever more tightly against my chest his precious present: the
photograph of Peter Il’ich Tchaikovsky. With gesticulations I expressed
as best as I could my joy and extraordinary gratitude for the honour which
had befallen me. Opening my arms in a greeting gesture, blowing kisses as
it were, elated, joyful, as if carried on wings, I rushed out and headed
for my dressing-room. There the other girls, my fellow dancers, surrounded
me, snatched the photograph from me and vied with one another to decipher
the inscription which Petr Il’ich had made on it. It was only after I had
calmed down a little that I managed to read what Tchaikovsky had written:
“To the most delightful and talented ‘Little Cat’ and ‘Doll’ as a souvenir.
P. Tchaikovsky. 1892”. I piously treasure the memory of that day as something
quite exceptional, outstanding and unforgettable.
The premiere of the opera Iolanta and the ballet The Nutcracker
took place on 6 December 1892. Within less than a year we were all staggered
by the great composer’s death. Petr Il’ich loved everything that was beautiful...
he loved Nature, flowers... he particularly loved lilies of the valley.
How many of these flowers were placed on his coffin, which I too followed,
together with an endless stream of mourners. I had placed my wreath next
to the coffin. I was dazed with grief. It seemed to me that something infinitely
dear and close to me had departed from my life.
Although the photograph that Tchaikovsky inscribed for Mariia Anderson
does not seem to have survived, a similar photograph that he inscribed for
her fellow dancer, the Hungarian-born Al’fred Bekefi (1843–1925), who was
the first performer of the Hungarian Dance at the premiere of Swan Lake
in Moscow on 20 February/4 March 1877 and five years later danced Prince Siegfried
in the same ballet, and who, as mentioned above, partnered Anderson as Puss-in-Boots
in Act III of The Sleeping Beauty, was published in Ilya Zil’bershtein’s
article “Triumf russkoi muzyki. Turgenev o Musorgskom i Chaikovskom” [The
Triumph of Russian Music. Turgenev on Musorgskii and Tchaikovsky] in Ogonek
in 1973. The inscription reads: “To my old friend Bekefi from his most sincere
and long-standing admirer, P. Tchaikovsky. 12 December 1892”.
In the notes accompanying Mariia Anderson’s memoirs on the
] the recollections of one of
the pupils of the Imperial Theatre School who took part in the Christmas Tree
scenes in Act I of The Nutcracker at the premiere are also cited. He recalled
how during dinner after classes the following day the School’s inspector told
the assembled pupils that Tchaikovsky had been very pleased with their performance
and had sent some sweets for them. The two school porters then walked in carrying
large baskets filled with boxes of sweets. Each pupil and instructor at the
School received such a box.
That Russian dancers were already then held in considerable esteem by society
is attested, for example, by the fact that the wedding of the Mariinskii Theatre’s
prima ballerina Ekaterina Vazem (1848–1937) to the surgeon Ivan Nasilov (1842–1907)
in January 1887 was attended not just by Petipa and other colleagues of Vazem’s
from the ballet world, but also by Nasilov’s fellow professors at the Medico-Surgical
Academy, including Borodin, who described the occasion in one of his last
The photograph which Tchaikovsky inscribed for Mariya Anderson has in
fact survived and was published in the Photographs section of the second
Almanac of the Tchaikovsky House-Museum:
П. И. Чайковский. Забытое и новое [P. I. Tchaikovsky. Forgotten
and New Material] (2003). As for the photograph for Alfred Bekefi, that
was recently presented by Ronald de Vet in his article ‘Vier Photographien
und ein Fächer’ [Four Photographs and a Fan] in the journal
Mitteilungen of the Tschaikowsky-Gesellschaft (No. 18, 2011), where we
find the following additional information (p. 4):
Apart from Modest Tchaikovsky’s The Life of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
[where the furore caused by Bekefi’s dancing of the Gopak at the first
performance of Mazepa in the Mariinsky Theatre on 7/19 February
1884 is mentioned], Bekefi does not figure in any biography of the
composer. Moreover, no letters from Tchaikovsky to Bekefi or vice versa
are known [as confirmed by Dr Polina Vaidman of the Tchaikovsky
House-Museum]. This photograph is probably the only documented testimony
of the amicable relations between the composer and a dancer who was
involved in the early successes of his stage works.