If you examine a photograph of Matilda Feliksovna Kshesinskaya you will see a small-featured, short-legged, attractive woman. Yet you will be hard put to detect evidence of the vivaciousness, charismatic charm, and enchanting grace attributed to her by her contemporaries.
Kshesinskaya, the youngest of 13 children, was born to the stage. Her mother had danced at the Mariinsky Theater until her marriage to Felix Kshesinsky, a celebrated dancer himself. At the age of eight she became a day student at the Imperial Theater School, where her brother and sister already studied. Matilda had ballet in her blood, but the career she was to embark upon would require more than talent. She would need bottomless reserves of self-esteem, and the ability to navigate both intrigue and cruel competition.
Early on, Matilda attracted the notice of the Romanovs, who were devoted patrons of ballet. She would never forget March 23, 1890, the day of her graduation examinations at the Imperial Theater School. According to tradition, the Imperial family attended the ceremonies. After the performance, when her name was not read among those receiving the highest honors, Tsar Alexander III interrupted the proceedings. “Where is Kshesinskaya?” he loudly demanded. Later that evening, he told her, “Be the glory and adornment of our ballet.”
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