Childhood & Early Life
Galina Sergéyevna Ulánova was born on January 8, 1910, in Saint Petersburg. Her parents were both employed at the ‘Imperial Russian Ballet,’ where her father, Sergei Ulanov, was a regisseur, and her mother, Maria Romanova was a dancer and teacher.
Ulánova was originally resistant to a career in dance but changed her mind after living through the Soviet Revolution at a young age. She was taught by her mother before being admitted to Agrippina Vaganova’s famous dance school as a boarder. Since her parents toured frequently, she spent a lot of time at this institute, enduring the cold weather, hunger, and the institute’s rigorous training.
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She completed her ballet training and joined the ‘Mariinsky Theatre,’ also known as the ‘Kirov Theatre,’ in 1928. The same year, she notably performed the “pas de deux” in ‘Chopiniana’ and ‘The Nutcracker.’ She was also cast as ‘Princess Florina’ in ‘The Sleeping Beauty’.
In 1930, she performed as ‘Odette/Odile’ in ‘Mariinsky’s ‘Swan Lake,’ under Vaganova’s guidance. These performances were appreciated by critics.
In 1932, Ulánova began working on her first performance in the famous French ballet, ‘Giselle’. Vaganova had initially suggested that she play the secondary role of ‘Myrtha,’ the queen of the Wilis. However, Yelena Liukom, the first “prima-ballerina” of Soviet ballet insisted that Ulánova play the titular character, ‘Giselle.’
The same year, Leonid Lavrovsky replaced her friend and mentor Fyodor Lopukhov as the artistic director of the ‘Mariinsky.’ Soon, Ulánova was able to establish an intimate work relationship with Lavrovsky, which served her well during her frequent conflicts with Vaganova, who allegedly preferred other students).
Between 1933 and 1936, she appeared in several productions, such as ‘The Nutcracker’, ‘Swan Lake,’ and ‘Esmeralda.’ Her most notable role during this period was the tragic lead role of ‘Maria’ in ‘Rostislav Zakharov’s production of ‘The Fountain of Bakhchisarai’ (based on Alexander Pushkin’s poem).
In the next two years, Ulánova cemented her reputation as the ‘Mariinsky’s leading talent, playing the lead role in Vasili Vainonen’s ‘Raymonda’.
As a staunch patriot during the war with Germany, she spent much of her time dancing for the troops and politicians. She also performed at the ‘Bolshoi’ during this time and received many awards for her work.
She was transferred full-time to the Bolshoi in 1944 (reportedly, at the personal request of Stalin) where she debuted as “prima-ballerina,” along with an ensemble cast that included some of the nation’s best performers. She performed again as ‘Giselle’ in Lavrovsky’s production later that year and won the ‘Stalin Prize’ and other accolades for her efforts. Ulánova would remain the ‘Bolshoi’s “prima ballerina assoluta” for the next 16 years.
In 1946, Lavrovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (with music by Sergei Prokofiev) debuted to much acclaim. It was later called a “masterpiece” and her “greatest triumph.” Her performance as ‘Juliet’ won Ulánova another ‘Stalin Prize.’ She also played the lead role in ‘Prokofiev’s ‘Cinderella’ around this period.
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She continued to work with Lavrovsky and Zakharov in the following years, becoming so famous that the company began to tour Russia in 1948. The following year, she began traveling internationally with the ‘Bolshoi’, visiting Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1949 and Italy in 1950. She even completed an unusual tour of China in 1950, to unprecedented praise.
By 1954, the ‘Bolshoi’ was so much in demand that the Cold War-era prohibitions were forgotten, and an enthusiastic global press greeted Ulánova’s performances in East Berlin.
In 1956, she was finally able to tour the UK. Despite slight diplomatic hiccups, she performed at London’s ‘Covent Garden.’ She was so popular that people lined the streets overnight to get tickets for her show. The entire season was sold out before the first performance. These performances in London were extremely well-received, with members of the royal family attending a few shows.
She continued to tour the world for the rest of the decade, performing in Paris, Brussels, and Hamburg in 1958; the US, Canada, and China in 1959; and Egypt and Hungary in 1961, before retiring from the stage.
Ulánova became a teacher in her later years, grooming the next generation of ballet talents. She also became the president of the jury at the ‘Varna International Competition’ between the 1960s and the 1970s.
Awards & Achievements
Ulánova received almost all the state awards available to artists in Russia. Most notably, she was awarded the ‘Stalin Prize’ in 1941, 1946, 1947’ and 1950. She also won the ‘Lenin Prize’ in 1957.
She made history as the only dancer to have received the title of ‘Hero of Socialist Labour’ (1974, 1980). She was also named ‘People’s Artist of the USSR’ in 1951.
In 1961, she was made an ‘Honorary Member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences,’ and in 1992, she was named a ‘Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters’ (France).
Ulánova once recollected that her happiest hours during her tough childhood were those spent at Lake Selagare, where she went sailing with a companion, Tatiana Vecheslova.
As a teenager, she was reportedly boisterous, preferring to play male roles. Robust, with slender ankles, hers was not the ideal body type for ballet.
Although she did not discuss politics much, she was loyal to the Soviet Union. When she landed in London in 1956, she refused to get out of the plane without permission from the Russian state.
She was reputedly aloof and could not be easily approached without an official permit from the KGB.