A while ago, scrolling through Netflix, I stumbled across Reign, the CW television series centered around the life and times of Mary, Queen of Scots. I was entranced by the storylines, all full of true love, betrayal, scandal, power, threats—and, of course, death. What drama would be complete without it? The show exudes a gripping wealth, elegance, and aristocracy that immediately reminded me of the Romanovs, an infamous, long-influential Russian imperial family. Anyway, the visual elements in Reign are also captivating; the set and costumes are authentic, and absolutely stunning. The show is not without its flaws, of course: consider the abrupt, rushed ending. But considering all of the above, I wasn’t surprised when, at the completion of the fourth and final season, I found myself with a newfound love for historical dramas.
It was around this time when I first heard of Claire Foy, the breakout star of the hit Netflix drama The Crown. The show chronicles the life of another monarch, this time Queen Elizabeth II, from the 1940s on. A friend of mine, having just watched The Crown, raved about Foy’s acting; apparently, this cool, collected queen and her infamous politesse was not something to miss. It seemed that the very best critics also agreed—I remember the 2017 Emmys, and the immense buzz around Foy and her show after she won Outstanding Lead Actress and John Lithgow (who plays Winston Churchill) won Outstanding Supporting Actor. Given my recent experience with Reign, I was intrigued by this next historical drama. And, of course, there’s a certain fascinating quality of the British royal family that almost all of us are drawn to, that which feeds the clamor and crowds over the royal weddings. Not to mention my grandfather is a huge fan, and I was excited to share the show with him.
So, I started watching. And it’s every bit as good as they say. The costume and set design immediately stood out (transcends Reign‘s, I’d say!). The show itself, equipped with a stellar cast, brilliantly reveals the burden on the queen’s shoulders. More broadly, The Crown brings to light the struggles of these obscenely rich, who wield a purely ceremonial power—figureheads, in a sense, masking what truly dominates (hint, hint, Churchill’s government). It was a refreshing change from Reign; much less soap opera-y, and more grounded, like Foy’s character herself. In The Crown, the royals are brought down to earth; clearly, they experience some of the same existential dread that we (“mortals”) do.
This isn’t to say, of course, that The Crown is devoid of drama; love, along with its accompanying challenges (especially in the royal context), are well documented. We see a prime example of this in “Misadventure,” the first episode of the second season. Prince Phillip (Matt Smith) is about to embark on a lengthy overseas tour, so Queen Elizabeth (Foy) playfully hides some sort of camera in his baggage, as a parting gift. Sadly, in the process, she discovers a portrait of our infamous ballerina, Galina Ulanova.
With Foy’s brilliant acting—her gaze hardens as she stares at the photograph and makes the realization, her face trembles ever so slightly—the implication is crystal clear: Prince Phillip and Ulanova are having an affair. However, according to this Vanity Fair article by Julie Miller, it never actually occurred in real life. Miller cites the two’s busy, almost certainly conflicting schedules as evidence: Ulanova with her “rehearsals, performances, and traveling,” and the prince with his royal duties. However, Miller writes, The Crown‘s directors may have been building upon the slew of affairs in which the Prince was known to participate—and perhaps in particular upon rumors of one with another dancer, Pat Kirkwood.
Nevertheless, it makes sense that the directors would select Ulanova as their “other woman.” Later in the Vanity Fair article, Miller mentions the biography Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in our Times, where author Sarah Bradford claims that Phillip’s affairs were almost always with very private women, “usually beautiful, and highly aristocratic.” Ulanova almost certainly fits this description; in fact, she had “a personal reputation for being aloof and private,” Miller writes. But she was a stunning figure regardless (or perhaps because of this, at least in part!), one who commanded the interests of Russians and Westerners alike. Widely known as the greatest ballerina of the 20th century (Boris Yeltsin himself said as such—read the Times obituary below!), Ulanova “riveted the Western world in 1956 when she traveled with the Bolshoi Ballet to London’s Royal Opera House,” reported The New York Times (and Miller included this quote in her article as well). According to Ulanova’s Wikipedia page, British papers were also struck by the ballerina, writing that “in London [she] knew the greatest triumph of any individual dancer since Anna Pavlova.”
Ulanova is certainly not without a rich backstory. According to this Elegancepedia article, she was born on January 8th, 1919, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and she learned her craft from both Agrippina Vaganova (of the Vaganova method, a ballet technique still commonly used today) and her own mother, who was a ballerina of the Imperial Russian Ballet company (now the Mariinsky Ballet, of the famous Mariinsky Theatre which, according to Wikipedia, Galina herself later joined!). With Mariinsky, she rose rapidly; the press was taken with the “sort of captivating modesty in her gestures” (Wikipedia). Her fame eventually reached Stalin himself; he went so far as to personally transfer her to the even more renowned Bolshoi Theatre (Wikipedia). At the Bolshoi, she really thrived, remaining prima ballerina assoluta (an honor typically reserved for the best of a generation) for a number of years—one of the only two Soviet women to ever hold the title (Wikipedia). She danced the lead role in the world premiere of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, where she had a profound impact on both her diverse audiences and also on Prokofiev himself (Wikipedia). “She is the genius of Russian ballet, its elusive soul, its inspired poetry,” he said of her. “Ulanova imparts to her interpretation of classical roles a depth of expression unheard of in twentieth century ballet.”
Ulanova appears once more at the end of the aforementioned episode of The Crown. In an almost “masochistic act by the monarch,” as Miller of Vanity Fair described it, Elizabeth views a performance of the classic romantic ballet Giselle, in which Ulanova holds the title role. Keep in mind, of course, this comes after Elizabeth’s discovery of the portrait, that “ominous clue that her marriage is not as it seems” (Miller for Vanity Fair). The scene brilliantly “juxtaposes Ulanova’s stunning beauty and talent with Elizabeth’s insecurity.” Again, Foy’s acting is incredible there; her stoic face manages to simultaneously hide and reveal great emotion.
The Crown spins Elizabeth’s viewing of Giselle in a way that furthers the affair plotline (for the drama, I guess!), but it may have taken on an entirely different meaning in reality. In the Vanity Fair article, Miller cites a book by Ekaterina Domnina, The State Visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Russia and its Coverage in Russian and British Press, which acknowledges that the real Elizabeth’s reaction to another 1994 performance of Giselle in London was one of sadness, yes—but not because of an affair. Rather, Domnina speculates that it may have been more so that Elizabeth was “recalling the days of her youth, when she saw [an earlier showing, specifically of] the famous Galina Ulanova performing the party of Giselle during the tour of the Bolshoi in Britain,” at the Royal Opera House (Miller, too, includes this quote of Domnina’s in her article). See below for two clips from the very 1956 Bolshoi tour which the real Elizabeth originally saw; rare pieces of footage featuring Ulanova herself.
From Michael Specter’s Times obituary on Ulanova comes this striking quote: “Miss Ulanova performed most of the greatest roles in classical ballet, including the leads in “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Such was her power that when Mr. Martin,” the Times dance critic at the time, “criticized—mildly—her performance in “Swan Lake” during the 1959 New York tour, Pravda,” a staple Russian paper, “responded the next day by accusing him and The Times of being ‘bent on continuing the cold war.'” Clearly, Ulanova was revered (both as dancer and also as teacher, which, according to the New World Encyclopedia, she went on to become after retiring). Maya Plisetskaya, a longtime friend and another renowned ballerina (who eventually replaced Ulanova as prima at Bolshoi), stated simply: “She was an angel and she danced like one” (see Times obituary). Ulanova was a true princess of the Russian people, especially the aristocracy—and government, I might add. The obituary goes on to note how Ulanova “received nearly every medal the Soviets bestowed on their most accomplished citizens, including the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Award. Although she tried to remain politely uninvolved in party politics—always an impossibility at the time—she was twice named a Hero of Socialist Labor.”
At the time of her death, Boris Yeltsin, the first President of Russia, said of her: ”Her life and the art of dance to which she has give her soul has become part of Russian and world culture. Ulanova has always been for us the symbol of conscience, honor and dignity. She was a true artist” (see Times obituary).
Galina Ulanova’s influence on Russian ballet, and even ballet worldwide, is incomparable. While her inclusion in The Crown may not have been entirely historically accurate, I am glad to have discovered her (along with the world of Russian ballet, and, as a result of my research, Russian opera as well—stay tuned!). To see her once again in the public mind is just as it should be. Great art, and artists, must forever be appreciated.
I leave you with a last, stunning performance of hers from the Bolshoi production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Every movement tells a story.