One of the most talented ballerinas of the early part of last century. The only one who could compare with her was Anna Pavlova. Fortunately film exists of her astonishing style: it's the most amazing thing. Her own life story was so dramatic and tragic that it has been turned into a ballet.

Born in Rostov in 1895 to a wealthy family left destitute by her father's death, she was sent to an orphanage. Between 1919 and 1921 her ballet career was interrupted by tuberculosis. Her husband was a member of the NKVD. After a breakdown in 1940, between 1943 and 1962 she was confined to a mental hospital in New Jersey. She lived until 1991, in retirement in New York, where she died. This life was the basis for Boris Eifman's 1997 ballet Red Giselle.

In her own dancing her most famous role was Giselle. The irony is that Spessivtseva went into mental asylums to study madness for playing Giselle. The role had been preserved by Pavlova and was one of her most famous, so comparisons were easy to make. Spessivtseva first danced it in 1919 in Russia, in 1924 in Paris (its first performance there for many decades), and in 1932 in London. Her English partner in it was Anton Dolin, who thirty years later was to get her released from the hospital. The critic Yuri Slonimsky described her thus.

From her first appearance, Spessivtseva prepared the spectators for a catastrophe. She was in love, and this caused her punishment. She struggled for her love, and this doomed her with ruin. Spessivtseva's eyes, totally opened at the beginning of the First Act, are closed at the end. A lonely, broken, surprised begin roamed the stage... During the Second Act Spessivtseva danced with half-closed eyes, not daring to look at what was going on around her. The beauty of her heroine increased along with Giselle's struggle for happiness. Only, this was for someone else's happiness, not her own

After graduating from the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, she worked with the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev several times, first to replace Tamara Karsavina on a tour of America in 1916-18, partnered by Nijinsky, then in London in 1921 for Sleeping Beauty, in 1927 in Paris, and finally from 1929, dancing Giselle and Swan Lake.

She left the Soviet Union for good in 1924, and her tours took her as far afield as Argentina and Australia, but she was mainly based in Paris after that. At the Paris Opera Ballet she created the lead role in The Creatures of Prometheus by Serge Lifar in 1929. In the late 1930s she lived in the United States, working with the American Ballet Theater, until her illness claimed her. At the end of her life she lived on a New York farm founded by Tolstoy's daughter.

Full name Ol'ga Aleksandrovna Spessívtseva. - Take the "English" in the URL with a grain of salt

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