5 Famous Russian Ballet Dancers

Russian ballerina
NatashaFedorova /

Russia is known for producing world-class ballet dancers and has a long and impressive history of ballet dating back to its first ballet company – the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg formed in the 1740s.

Putting together a list of the famous Russian ballet dancers is a difficult task as there are so many to choose from. However, the below top five ballerinas and ballerinos stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Best Russian Ballet Dancers

1. Anna Pavlova

The one that knows how to beat gravity.


This is how the critics described Anna Pavlova, a true prima ballerina both on and off the stage. At the Palace Theatre in London, still today, there is a reservation by her name. 

Out in the Universe, there is a thing called Pavlova Corona, a corona found on planet Venus and named after her. There is also the Pavlova cake popular in Australia and New Zealand.

Why would a ballet dancer be so impressive? What separates her from the rest of the shining stars of the Russian ballet? When did she get the name The dying swan?

She was impressed by the ballet ever since she first watched a show, at the age of 8, but the road to one of the greatest didn’t go smoothly. 

Pavlova had problems at the Imperial Ballet School, mostly because of the body limitations, which made her teachers quite skeptical. Oh, how she proved them wrong!

By the age of 24, she was already a public favorite for the iconic solo performance of The Dying Swan, which Michel Fokine created for her. Her career went on with an astonishing speed, becoming a hot prospect not only in St. Petersburg and Moscow but also for the ballet circles of Paris and London. 

After the first, unfortunate spell with her great love Victor Dandre, she turned even more to work. She met Diaghilev touring Europe, and he invited her to his troupe based in Paris, a troupe that at the time the famous Nijinsky was also a member of. 

Many were shocked once she left Paris for London, especially because her career was sky-rocketing and people from different continents were coming to Paris, just to see her dance. 

But the uplifting trend continued there. She became well off, and even paid the bail for Dandre, in order to get him out of jail in Russia. They married secretly and stayed together.

Pavlova never spoke much of her private life. She managed to keep it for herself and let her work do the talking on the stage. Her dedication is unmatched, and that is what in combination with her great talent, made her the most famous Russian ballet dancer ever. 

Related post: Most Famous Russian Composers

2. Mikhail Baryshnikov

To younger generations and those who don’t quite follow ballet, he is known for the role of Alexander Petrovsky in the world-famous TV series “Sex and the City”

In the last season of the series, he appears as the fatal lover of Carrie Bradshaw for whom she leaves New York and moves to Paris. But his ‘fatality’ spreads well above this measure, as he is also one of the most famous male Russian ballet dancers, both in Russia and the United States. 

Baryshnikov was only 11 when he started his journey on the stage, taking classes in Riga, and by 1964 he was a scholar at the prestigious Vaganova Academy of St. Petersburg. Soon after, he became a member of the Mariinsky ballet and in 1967 he danced in “Giselle”. 

Due to his fantastic technique, precise movement, and charisma that spurred along every step on the stage, he impressed every single important Soviet choreographer at the time. 

Nevertheless, his height was a remaining problem and with his 166cm, he seemed destined for supporting roles. He was also unsatisfied because Russia didn’t allow him to work with the Western choreographers that rated him highly. 

Finally, he left the Soviet Union and moved to Canada. Soon after, he joined a ballet troupe in Winnipeg, and by 1978, he was a part of the prestigious New York City ballet scene. 

In 1980, he became an art director of the American Ballet Theatre and held onto that position for 9 years. Due to his success and his impact on the ballet in America, he became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999.

3. Rudolf Nureyev 

Nureyev was a front-runner in every aspect. The first Soviet performer to refuse to get back from an international tour. The first Russian ballet dancer to become a great star in the West. The first who spoke publicly about his homosexuality. And AIDS. He was 54 when he died.

His early life wasn’t a fairytale. He left his parents at the age of 17 for the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, but he was often bullied by fellow students. 

Luckily, he had Alexander Pushkin as a mentor, who took care of his development and well-being outside the student dormitory. He started performing at the Mariinsky Ballet (Kirov Ballet at the time) and made his name with the role in the “Swan Lake” in 1958

While on tour in Paris, he received a call from the Soviets to get back home in order to perform a very important role, but he feared that was not the true reason for the invitation, so he refused to go back. Instead, he went to London, where he saw Margot Fonteyn and immediately became a huge admirer. On an invitation to The Royal Ballet, they will perform together in the “Giselle” and go on to become one of the most famous duos in the history of ballet. 

After long years spent in London, he moved to Paris and became a director of the Paris Opera. 

Rudolf Nureyev is remembered as an innovative, creative, and brave director who didn’t fear to experiment with the program. Unfortunately, this was also the period he was diagnosed with AIDS. Because of the illness, his dancing career turned downwards, as he couldn’t manage to sustain body fitness. In the last years of his life, he tried himself as a conductor. 

4. Maya Plisetskaya

Plisetskaya is the greatest prima ballerina the Bolshoi Ballet ever had. As a dancer, like many other great artists of that time, she had three options. To immigrate from the Soviet Union (which she did after the collapse of the USSR), to work for Stalin’s regime and enjoy the benefits, or to simply remain and suffer. 

If there was a choice for her, which is a big if since the KGB followed her very closely, she chose the last one. In one of the interviews later, Khrushchev will openly admit that the police had a microphone under her bed and monitored her 24/7. 

Maya Plisetskaya danced “Swan Lake” more than 800 times. The day she died, Mikhail Baryshnikov posted her performance of “The Dying Swan” from 1986. She was 61 at the time. The last time she performed it was in New York City at the age of 70. 

But how did it all begin? Her father was killed by Stalin’s regime as a state enemy, and soon after her mother was brought to the forced labor camp Gulag. Her mother was arrested on their way to the Bolshoi Ballet. They were going together to watch “Swan Lake”, a performance featuring her aunt. Later, she was allowed to visit her and to even perform a sequence of the “Swan Lake” at the camp. 

In her diary, “I, Maya Plisetskaya”, Maya says that she is not sure what her destiny would be if Tschaikovsky never wrote the “Swan Lake”

5. Vaslav Nijinsky 

He took all the laws of physics by storm. His figure seemed like a painting on the ceiling. He was standing up in the air.

Jean Cocteau

Famous Vaslav Nijinsky, “the king of air” or “the eighth world wonder” as the contemporaries called him, became a 20th-century legend with only 10 years of a dancing career. 

Besides his unmatched ability to perform on stage, his private life was a mess. His best years, Nijinsky spent under the supervision of the great Russian impresario Diaghilev, as a part of his troupe Ballets Russes. Then he married and left the stage. Soon after, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent most of his life in psychiatric institutions. He wasn’t able to take care of himself, with the form of his illness being quite aggressive and heavy. 

Nevertheless, Vaslav Nijinsky remains to be one of the most impressive figures of the Russian ballet.

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