Olga Spessivtseva; Ballerina Called One of Century's Greatest 'Giselles'

Olga Spessivtseva, the Russian ballerina renowned for the spirituality of her dancing during a career that began in St. Petersburg and ended in the Americas with Sergei Diaghilev's touring Ballets Russes, died Monday of pneumonia.

She was 96 and died at the Tolstoy Foundation Nursing Home in Valley Cottage, N.Y., where she had lived for many years after recovering from a series of mental breakdowns that curtailed her career.

Considered one of this century's greatest "Giselles," Miss Spessivtseva, who occasionally danced under the name "Spessiva," attended the Imperial Ballet School of St. Petersburg and later danced with the Maryinsky Ballet (now the Kirov), the Paris Opera Ballet and the Camargo Society, a forerunner of London's Royal Ballet.

With Anna Pavlova she was considered a dancer for the ages.

Diaghilev had long been an admirer of Miss Pavlova but after meeting Miss Spessivtseva said, "My astonishment was unbounded when I met Spessivtseva, a creature finer and even purer than Pavlova." George Balanchine, then a choreographer for Diaghilev, created the ballet "La Chatte" for her in 1927.

While on a world tour in the 1930s she suffered the first of a series of mental breakdowns. She gave her last performance in 1937 and settled in New York. She was hospitalized from 1943 and by 1963 had recovered sufficiently to move to the Tolstoy Foundation.

Gerald Arpino, who choreographed a tribute to her--"L'Air d'Esprit," which the Joffrey Ballet performed in Los Angeles in 1987--visited her in New York. "She had this fragile, unworldly quality," he said. "She seemed to transcend time."

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