There were skeptics that night in London in 1956. Moscow's renowned Bolshoi Ballet had finally crossed the Iron Curtain to premiere at the Royal Opera House with Romeo and Juliet, starring a 46-year-old Galina Ulanova in the title role of the ballet's tragic and teenage heroine. Balletomanes whispered in the stalls. How could the aging prima ballerina avoid public embarrassment? Backstage, Ulanova waited, dressed in an overcoat. But when the conductor gave the cue, she shed her bulky outer layer and emerged a starry-eyed Juliet. Leaping as if to ignore gravity, Ulanova soared into legend, setting the standard against which all future Juliets would be measured. Her performance also confirmed the West's opinion of Russian classical ballet as the world's best. American and European critics alike were enthralled by Ulanova's flawless technique and ability as an actress bringing humanity to roles too often performed with all the emotional depth of a music-box ballerina.
Originally trained by her dancer mother, a teenage Ulanova debuted with the Mariinsky Ballet Company (later the Kirov) in St. Petersburg, attracting attention in ballet staples like Swan Lake and as the tortured Giselle. It is rumored that Joseph Stalin ordered her transfer to the Bolshoi, insisting that his country's best ballerina should star in its flagship company. Her popularity united a country divided by history. Every Soviet, from peasant to politician, took pride in watching Ulanova dance.
Generally regarded as the greatest ballerina of the last century, she would be honored many times during her storied career recipient of the Order of Lenin, the Stalin Award and twice a Hero of Socialist Labor (though she politely sidestepped political debates). Selflessly, the dancer found her greatest reward in teaching, a vocation she took up after 16 years on the Bolshoi stage. At the company's school, she imparted her skills to a number of Russia's greatest future stars. When she died in 1998, at age 88, the dance community could console itself that Ulanova's legacy would continue through them.