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A ballerina (Italian for female dancer) is a title used to describe a principal female professional ballet dancer in a large company; the male equivalent to this title is danseur (French) or ballerino (Italian). Although the term ballerina is commonly used informally to describe any female ballet dancer, it was a rank given only to the most exceptional female soloists. The opera singer informal equivalent is diva. More or less, depending on the source, the rankings for women, from highest to lowest, used to be:

  • Prima ballerina assoluta
  • Prima ballerina, première sujet or première danseuse
  • Sujet
  • Coryphée
  • Corps de ballet

For men, the ranks were:
  • Premier danseur noble
  • Premier danseur
  • Sujet
  • Coryphée
  • Corps de ballet

The arrangement given above is no longer applied. The Royal Ballet (London) uses a different system, which has the virtue of being sex-neutral. Dancers are classified as (in ascending order): Artists, Soloists, Principal character artists, Principals. There are usually several Principals of each sex, and the title of Prima ballerina assoluta has only been awarded once, and is not part of the standard classification. The important ballet company of La Scalamarker, Milan, also uses a similar system. The Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris uses the classification: étoiles, premières sujets, sujets, coryphées, quadrilles. In particular, notice the absence of the former title Prima ballerina, and the downplaying of hierarchy in favour of 'bureaucratic' listing. One cannot tell, from these lists, which amongst several of the same class, is regarded as the company's supreme dancer. Note also that the modern lists use the same classification for male and female dancers.

Prima ballerina assoluta

The title or rank of Prima ballerina assoluta was originally inspired by the Italian ballet masters of the early Romantic Ballet and was bestowed on a ballerina who was considered to be exceptionally talented, above the standard of other leading ballerinas. The title is very rarely used today and recent uses have typically been symbolic, in recognition of a notable career and as a result, it is commonly viewed as an honour rather than an active rank.

The first recorded use of the title as an official rank, was by the renowned French balletmaster Marius Petipa, when he bestowed it on the Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani in 1894. He considered her to be the supreme danseuse in all of Europe. Legnani performed with the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet from 1893 until 1901.

The second ballerina to be given the title was Legnani's contemporary Mathilde Kschessinska. Petipa, however, did not agree that she should hold such a title; although an extraordinary ballerina, she obtained the title primarily via Imperial prestige.

The only two ballerinas to hold the title Prima ballerina assoluta in the Soviet Unionmarker were Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya. Other dancers awarded the title include Alicia Alonso from Cubamarker, Alessandra Ferri from Italymarker and Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn from Englandmarker. To date no American ballerina has ever held the rank of Prima ballerina assoluta; Rudolf Nureyev considered the ballerina Cynthia Gregory to be the only American ballerina deserving of such a title. He also described French dancer Yvette Chauviré as a "legend". Another not to hold the title is the great Anna Pavlova, probably the best known ballerina in history.

In South Africa, the only ballerina granted the title Prima ballerina assoluta (1984) was Phyllis Spira (1943-2008).

See also


  1. Though at La Scala there is only one female dancer in their top category of Principal Dancers Étoiles, namely Svetlana Zakharova.
  2. Citing appointment as prima ballerina assoluta of La Scala in 1992
  3. Nureyev on Yvette Chauvire

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