5. Eva Evdokimova
This next Prima Ballerina Assoluta is considered to be somewhat international, as her parentage was a mix of Bulgarian and American and her training took place in London, Leningrad and Copenhagen. She was also born in Switzerland and spent some time in Germany! She herself said “Travelling has been a part of my career from the beginning. I lead a sort of gypsy life” and she also said that the different schools she’d attended had contributed different things to her technique – a kind of “legato elegance” from the Russian ballet, vitality from the Danes and technical brilliance from Royal Ballet. She was an exceptionally ethereal dancer, making roles in Romantic ballets like La Sylphide her own, and she was a favored partner of Rudolf Nureyev. She died of cancer in 2009 at just 60.
4. Pierina Legnani
The very first ballerina to be named as a Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Legnani was an Italian dancer under the direction of choreographer Matius Petipa, who bestowed the title upon her. She was the first dancer to ever complete 32 fouettés en tournant, which is now a very famous part of the Swan Lake choreography. Among 19th century ballet fans, counting the number of turns was apparently a popular past-time! She retired from dancing in 1901, aged 27, and continued to work with La Scala until just before her death in 1930.
3. Phyllis Spira
Africa isn’t famed for producing notable ballet dancers, but Phyllis Spira was exceptional from an early age, with her ballet teachers referring to her as a “baby Markova”, and in 1984 she was named as South Africa’s first Prima Ballerina Assoluta. She danced with the Cape Town City Ballet Company (previously known as CAPAB) until an injury on the opening night of Giselle in 1988 forced her into retirement. She remained involved with the company for another 11 years and died in 2008 after surgery on her legs ran into complications. She was aged just 64, and is remembered as South Africa’s greatest ever ballerina.
2. Alicia Markova
From baby Markova to the real thing – Lilian Alicia Marks was born in London in 1910 and started dancing on the advice of her doctor, as she had weak limbs. Limbs strengthened, she was invited to join the Ballets Russe and did so as soon as she turned 14. It was there that her name was changed to the more Russian-sounding Markova. From then, she became one of the greatest dancers who ever lived, founding the Rambert Dance Company as well as dancing with the English National Ballet, the Royal Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. She made many roles her own but is probably best remembered for her interpretation of the Dying Swan. She died of a stroke the day after her 94th birthday in 2004.
1. Margot Fonteyn
And at the top we have another English ballerina who changed her name for a more romantic-sounding one and in doing so won the admiration of the whole ballet world. Margaret “Peggy” Hookham became Margot Fonteyn, adapting the surname of her Brazilian grandfather (“Fontes”), and joined the Royal Ballet. She never left, dancing with the same company her whole career and hitting ever-higher peaks. Even when many thought she was due to retire, at 42, she surprised everyone by forming a new partnership with 24-year-old Russian defector Rudolf Nureyev, and together they danced on until she was 60. They may have been the greatest partners the ballet world will ever see, and Margot Fonteyn the greatest Prima Ballerina Assoluta the world has ever seen.