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The final moments of Giselle's second act are some of the most hauntingly beautiful in all of ballet: from the pas de deux between Giselle's betrayed spirit and the man she still loves, to the wilis' cold rejection, to Albrecht's heart-wrenching desperation as the curtain closes. The Bolshoi Ballet's late prima ballerina assoluta, Galina Ulanova, is among the most legendary interpreters of the ballet's titular role, admired around the world for her ability to utterly transform into character. Alongside her frequent partner Nikolai Fadeyechev, also a former leading dancer with the Bolshoi, their performance is an offering of sensitivity that stirs us even decades later.

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A great ballerina holds an immense amount of power: She can adopt any role and become another being, using movement as the ultimate means of expression. Some of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century have honed this skill, but few have become as powerful an icon as the Mariinsky Ballet's Galina Ulanova. Named by Joseph Stalin as prima ballerina assoluta, Ulanova became the masthead for Russian ballet in the former Soviet Union. Her power extended beyond performance to her country’s artistic identity, setting a standard for generations of ballerinas to come. 

 

In this clip from 1952, Ulanova dances the waltz from Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides alongside Vladimir Preobrazhenskii. She transforms the stage into an oil painting as her limbs reach across the space in expansive brushstrokes. Chopin’s score touches any dancer's heart (his familiar tunes enter almost every technique class), but Ulanova's movement caters to each intricate moment within the music. She has created the definition of a beautiful sylph. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

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