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Have you ever walked away from endlessly practicing fouettés and thought to yourself (with perhaps not the nicest sentiment) "Whoever thought of such an insane thing?". While she might not have invented the movement itself, Pierina Legnani was the first ballerina to achieve a series of the now classic, thirty-two fouettés. Fokine was so awed by her bravura dancing that he stopped and clapped once during a performance ... as a member of the cast on stage!
Legnani was schooled in the Carlos Blasis tradition at La Scala Opera in Italy. Thanks to Carlo Blasis' teaching, the Italians were more technically advanced than the French and Russian schools during the late eighteen hundreds.
But it was in Russia that her awesome technique really had an influence. She caused the Russian schools of dance to begin offering ballet classes in the Italian method of training. Legnani's dancing helped to spread the expanding technical vocabulary of ballet to other methods of schooling (now everyone everywhere had to do those darn fouettés!).
Pierina Leganani's mastery of technique inspired choreographers Fokine and Petipa. She originated roles in Petipa's Raymonda and The Pearl. When Petipa decided to revive Swan Lake for a concert commemorating Tchaikovsky, he chose Legnani to dance the role of Odette/Odile.
Her technique was so formidable that she could give the following demonstration: a ruble (a Russian coin) was placed on the floor and its circumference traced in chalk. Legnani would then do her thirty-two fouettés with the supporting leg never wandering outside the chalk circle.
The famous Russian ballerina Tamara Kasarvina recalled that although Legnani was hindered by rather short legs and little natural beauty she was spectacularly graceful and charming. Her personality on and off stage endeared her to everyone. Her talent gained her the rarely conferred rank of Prima Ballerina Assoluta.
By Christina Towle
© 2000 Gaynor Minden, Inc.