Sergei Diaghilev and Beyond: Les Ballets Russes

Anna Udal’tsova and Rudolf Nureyev > Introduction

Anna Udal’tsova was born in St. Petersburg (Russia) in 1889.  She took private lessons from several Russian ballet teachers but her favorite mentor was the wife of the renowned Marius Petipa.  Apparently Anna was a good ballerina although she had never made it to soloist.  In 1914, Sergei Diaghilev engaged her to dance in his first Russian seasons in Paris.   She performed in Diaghilev’s corps de ballet until the First World War broke out.  In 1914, she returned to Russia and married a Guard officer who later fought the Bolsheviks in the Kolchak army. 

At the end of the Civil War, when the Bolsheviks granted amnesty to all White army officers who promised never to fight against them, Anna’s husband came back to St. Petersburg and enrolled in the School of Engineering.  In 1935, he was arrested as “an enemy of the state” and deported to one of the numerous concentration camps. Meanwhile, his family was banished to the remote Bashkir city of Ufa.

As the wife of a deported White army officer Anna had a difficult time finding a decent job.  She managed to give private ballet lessons until she finally found a teaching job in the Palace of Pioneers.   There, in the early 1950s, she met and taught a talented young boy of Tatar origin named Rudolf Nureyev.   He later became a world famous ballet dancer and choreographer. 

At seventeen, Nureyev was accepted by the Leningrad Ballet School and often visited with Udal’tsova’s daughter, who lived in Leningrad.  In 1958, he became a soloist with the State Kirov Ballet in Leningrad.   While in Paris with the Kirov Ballet in 1961 Nureyev requested asylum in France.  For many years Nureyev worked as a guest artist in many ballet companies.   He first visited New York in the early 1960s and was immediately compared to Vaslav Nijinsky. Nureyev gave many newspaper interviews, in which he often mentioned his first serious ballet teacher, Anna Udal’tsova.

At that time, Anna’s sister–in-law, Liudmila Hollerbach, lived in New York and for many years tried to find at least some trace of her brother’s family, which had vanished after his arrest.  She read Nureyev’s interviews, saw the name “Udal’tsova”, called at his hotel and finally was able to find out the truth about her brother’s fate.  Nureyev gave her Anna Udal’tsova’s Russian address and asked her to send his warmest regards to his mentor.  He, of course, was forbidden to back or even to write to his relatives and friends in Russia. 

Anna Udal’tsova and Rudolf Nureyev reunited in 1989 when he danced in the Soviet Union for the first time since his defection.  Anna’s first words were: ”My little boy finally came back…”  She died three years later at the age of 103.

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