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The Tragic Downfall of Olga Spessivtseva: From Great Ballerina to Electric Shock Therapy

Olga Spessivtseva was one of the foremost Russian ballerinas of the early 20th Century. She traveled the world to rave reviews in a career which spanned from 1913 to 1939 before succumbing to mental illness and becoming an inmate of the Hudson River Asylum for the Insane.

Often billed as Olga Spessiva (her name was shortened by the Ballet company to make it easier to pronounce, and also to sound closer to Pavlova) she was most famous for dancing Giselle, a ballet in which a young girl goes mad from grief when she discovers her lover is betrothed to another. When she first danced the role of Giselle she researched the role by visiting asylums and watching the way the patients moved and behaved.  According to her dance partner Pierre Vladimirov “Her Giselle… breathed a genuine insanity, not theatrical illusion. Giselle seemed to be an extension of her own existence“.

Living during the revolution in Russia she saw terrible things and these seem to have added to her mental strain. She suffered from paranoia and delusions throughout her dancing years both in Russia and abroad believing she was constantly spied upon (which was a possibility at that time in Russia) and that assassins were plotting to cut off her feet.

She toured the world with the Ballet Russes and later joined the Paris Opera Ballet, but sadly her fears followed her wherever she went and she eventually broke down on stage in Sydney Australia in 1937.

She took a break from dancing and eventually was committed to an asylum after a severe panic attack at her hotel room in New York.  The doctors had no idea who she was, and when she claimed she was a world-renowned prima ballerina from Paris they dismissed it as the ravings of a mad woman.

Her identity was only confirmed later in her stay during which she was treated with electric shock treatment. Luckily she managed to avoid being given a lobotomy which was common practice at that time, to see her release after 10 years of incarceration.

Despite the unfortunate end of her career she is recognized as one of the greatest classical ballerinas of the 20th Century.

If you would like to read more about the life story of Olga Spessivtseva you can here.

Below: Spessivtseva in a Swan Lake costume (1934), reclining on a sofa in 1917, photographed around 1924 when she was touring in Paris with the Ballet Russes, in Prince Igor costume, ca. 1934, and photographed in costume again in 1934.

1930s ballet dancer Olga Spessitseva / Olga Spessiva 1930s ballet dancer Olga Spessitseva / Olga Spessiva 1930s ballet dancer Olga Spessitseva / Olga Spessiva 1930s ballet dancer Olga Spessitseva / Olga Spessiva 1930s ballet dancer Olga Spessitseva / Olga Spessiva

Image source and copyright: 1,This media file is in the public domain in the United States. 2, 4, 5, No known copyright restrictions, 3, This work is in the public domain in Russia according to article 6 of Law No. 231-FZ of the Russian Federation of December 18, 2006; the Implementation Act for Book IV of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation.

2 thoughts on “The Tragic Downfall of Olga Spessivtseva: From Great Ballerina to Electric Shock Therapy

  1. Jane Potter

    After Warhol parties with Edie Sedgwick dancing in the dark and Judy Garlands entrance in The Factory looped across the shoulders of male friends,when asked of Nureyev of the’65 season of celebrity, just one famous face impressed him as they fleetingly glanced at one another, she in a velvet beret, hair white looped Russian ballerina style over her ears, large melancholy eyes on her way to see Margot Fontyn after the debut in NY of Giselle. The grand dame looked at him and then went away,Olga Spessivteva.The Sleeping Ballerina brought backstage, so touching to me ad libbed from Nureyev by Julie Kavanaugh.

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