This article is from the Ballet and Modern Dance FAQ, by Tom Parsons firstname.lastname@example.org with numerous contributions by others.
"Assoluta" is Italian for "absolute"; so if a prima ballerina is the first
(i.e., top-ranking) ballerina then a prima ballerina assoluta is absolutely
In answer to a query about how many PBA's the world has seen, Robert
Greskovic has the following historical points to add:
The title was first conferred by the Tsar during the late 19th c. for
exemplary ballerinas of the Imperial Theater's ballet troupe. The last
of that line was the second, Mathilde Kchessinska; the first was Pierina
Legnani, Italian virtuosa extraordinaire of the Russian company.
Since then the Soviet Union that took over after the fall of the imperial
system semi-officially used to the title for one ballerina, Galina
Sergeyevna Ulanova. So, since it was really an imperial ballet
designation, the one connected with the Soviet era might not actually count.
Britain took up the tradition in 1979 for Margot Fonteyn, who had by then
already retired from her long career as leading ballerina of London's Royal
Ballet. Fonteyn has thus become, to date, England's only designated "Prima
So, technically there have been only two such honored ballerinas in ballet
history; three if you include the Soviet continuation of the tradition; and
four if you consider the Royal Ballet's borrowing of the title for its own.