Olga Vasiliyevna Lepeshinskaya was one of most honored Soviet ballerinas, referred to as a living legend until recently. She died in 2008 at the age of 92 and indeed symbolized the whole epoch of the Russian ballet.
Lepeshinskaya was one the first Soviet ballerina named a People's Artist of the USSR. Both she and Galina Ulanova received this title in 1951. Among her numerous awards and titles were the Order of Lenin, which she got at the age of 21, Order of the October Revolution, Medal for the Defence of Moscow, two Orders of the Red Banner of Labour and "Amber Cross" Order, the highest award of the Russian Academy of Arts and musical performance. She also received various honors from Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania and the Philippines.
Lepeshinskaya was often called the favorite ballerina of Iosif Stalin, who was known to love ballet and films. Probably due to this she danced at all the private Kremlin concerts including the one dedicated to Great Victory Celebration in May 1945. Lepeshinskaya lived a long and amazing life.
She was born in 1916 to an old Polish noble family in Kiev and later became a Komsomol member and a communist concealing her background. She became a student of Bolshoi Choreographic School and appeared for the first time on the stage of the theater at the age of ten as one of the little birds in the ballet "The Daughter of the Snows". Lepeshinskaya became famous overnight after the sensational premier of "Three fatmen" ballet by Yury Olesha fairytale, where she performed the main role. She was 18 then.
Whoever knowing her always admitted Lepeshinskaya's individuality and high technique combined with endless energy and devotion. The Bolshoi's prima ballerina, Svetlana Zakharova, observed that nobody could keep up with Lepeshinskaya's tempo. The contemporaries recall numerous legends about Olga Vasiliyevna and her dancing career. In 1952 she danced a three-act performance to the end despite fracturing her leg during the first act. No one believed she was injured until she collapsed unconscious at the curtain call, and doctors confirmed fractures in four places. Three months later she was dancing another premiere.
The combination of phenomenal virtuosity and irresistible exuberance made Lepeshinskaya the queen of comic ballet roles such as Kitri in "Don Quixote" and Swanilda in "Coppelia". She also proved her classical worth as Princess Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty", Masha in "The Nutcracker", in which her partner, the Bolshoi star Maris Liepa, recalled her "absolutely phenomenal life force" and "fantastic charm". Lepeshinskaya was showered with prizes and red roses in the Soviet Union. She was the Bolshoi's leading ballerina in premieres of many contemporary ballets on Soviet themes including "Taras Bulba" and "Bronze Horseman", "Red Poppy" and "Fadetta". Yet she remained still a name to Western audiences. Lepeshinskaya did not take part in the first Bolshoi tours to the USA and Britain in 1950s.
Olga Lepeshinskaya was married three times. Her second husband was Soviet intelligence MGB general Leonid Raykhman. In 1951 he was jailed by Stalin under suspicion of involvement in the "doctors' plot" against him. Olga Vasiliyevna later said that the fact she had applied to Beria saved Raykhman's life. The third happy marriage with general Alexei Antonov of the Soviet Army lasted only 6 years as the general suddenly died. The shock of his death caused Olga Lepeshinskaya to lose her sight, and she was forced to quit the stage.
She however continued the career as an international trainer in Italy and Berlin and many different companies throughout the world. She was a deputy on the Committee of Soviet Women, and later chairman of the Central House of Art Workers. Lepeshinskaya regularly chaired the organizing committee and jury of the celebrated Moscow International Ballet Competition and withdrew from her public activities only in the last decade of her life.
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