Karsavina, Tamara (1885–1978)

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Karsavina, Tamara (1885–1978)

Outstanding dancer of her generation who helped introduce Russian ballet to Western audiences before World War I and, in later years, continued to exercise a major influence on the development of European ballet through her teaching and writing. Name variations: Tamara Karsavin; Tata. Pronunciation: Ta-ma-ra Kar-SA-vina. Born Tamara Platonovna Karsavina in St. Petersburg, Russia, on March 9, 1885; died in her sleep in London, England, on May 26, 1978, at age 93; daughter of Platon Karsavin (a ballet dancer and instructor); her mother was a housewife (name unknown); received her academic education as well as her early dance training at the St. Petersburg Theater School, graduated in 1902; married Vasili Moukhin (divorced); married Henry J. Bruce, in 1915 (died 1950); children: (second marriage) son Nikita (b. 1916).

Became a junior member of the Marinskii Theater Ballet of St. Petersburg (1902); promoted to rank of prima ballerina (1912); was the leading dancer with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris and partner to Vaclav Nijinsky (1909–14, and irregularly, 1919–20); returned to Russia at beginning of WWI and resumed her dancing career with the Marinskii until the 1917 revolution; escaped to England (1918), which became her permanent home until her death; continued to dance in Europe and toured U.S. (1924); after retiring from dancing (1933), established herself as a ballet teacher, writer on the art of the dance, and choreographic consultant; was vice-president of the Royal Academy of Dance in London (1930–55).

Selected publications:

wrote the autobiographical Theatre Street (London, 1930) and two volumes of reprints from previously written articles for Dancing Times: Ballet Technique (London, 1956), and Classical Ballet: The Flow of Movement (London, 1962).

Beginning in 1902 at the Marinskii Theater, danced in Giselle, the Nutcracker, La Bayadere, Swan Lake, and other ballets; created the leading female roles for many of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes productions

such as Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides (1908), Cleopatre (1909), Firebird (1910), Narcisse (1911), Petrushka (1911), Le Dieu Bleu (1912), Tamar (1911), Daphnis and Chloe (1912), Pappillion (1914), as well as Nijinsky's Jeux (1913), and Leonid Massine's Le Tricorne and Pulcinella (1920).

Tamara Karsavina's ascent to the position of prima ballerina of Diaghilev's epoch-making Ballets Russes, and the important role she played in transforming the 19th-century classical ballet traditions, was achieved through a combination of talent, intense self-discipline acquired over the many years of her schooling at the St. Petersburg Theater School, a single-minded dedication to her chosen art form, and exceptional intelligence.

As Karsavina recounted in her autobiography, she was born into the needy household of a moderately talented ballet dancer with the Marinskii Theater, and a mother whose gentry family had become impoverished during the previous generation. After Platon Karsavin had to retire from dancing earlier than he had expected, he managed to eke out only a very modest living for his family by giving ballet lessons. Karsavina remembers that at a very early age—before she was five—she was already interested in the theater, and began to take dancing lessons with her father. A few years later, with the strong support of her mother, young Tamara applied to, and was accepted at the Theater School, after undergoing a rigid selection process during which all but eight of the numerous applicants were eliminated. The Theater School was free, being wholly subsidized by of the imperial treasury. It provided both a standard academic curriculum and instruction in various aspects of the theater arts, including a separate ballet department. In the first year, the students attended only during the day; thereafter, however, and until graduation, they were required to live on the premises during the school year and were allowed to visit their families only on Sundays and holidays.

It was in this environment, totally dedicated to the ballet, that Karsavina learned to overcome her timidity and initial lack of physical stamina. The atmosphere of the establishment, as she recalled, was one of intense discipline and complete absence of frivolity. Heavy emphasis was placed on modesty, proper deportment, and dedication to the art of the dance. The hours were long, the physical demands on the young dancer's bodies strenuous, and there were no other recreational activities available besides that of reading classical literature. It is to this Spartan and monastic upbringing that Karsavina attributed her later ability to meet the daunting challenge of achieving the pinnacle of success in her art.

Despite this severe regimen, Karsavina experienced a great deal of happiness at the Theater School. Close and often lifelong friendships were formed between the girls of the same age. As they indulged in romantic fantasies about future ballet careers, they also had intense but passing infatuations with some of their male teachers. From the very beginning classes the future ballerinas were included in the Marinskii Theater ballet productions, first as flower-girls and other "extras" on the stage, and later, as they grew older, in bit parts. Some of these performances were given in front of gala audiences. Karsavina recalled the thrill of being on the stage during a performance given by Tsar Nicholas II for his cousin, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. At another time, she was one of the youthful dancers who took part in the annual presentation in front of the imperial family, including Alexandra Feodorovna , and was personally addressed by Tsar Nicholas.

On her graduation in 1902, Karsavina was invited to become a junior ballerina with the Marinskii Theater, where she would remain until her flight from Soviet Russia. While there, she had to learn much that had not been taught her at school: how to survive in the highly competitive world of the professional theater, how to get along and win the favor of choreographers, impresarios, critics, and the public. Karsavina especially recalled the group of affluent balletomanes, as she called them, who were regular and highly demanding attendants at all ballet performances.

As a dedicated pupil and lifelong friend of the choreographer Michel Fokine, whose innovative ideas Karsavina helped bring to the attention of the public, she was instrumental in transforming the rigid traditions of the Russian ballet, as it moved away from the fixed forms of Marius Petipa's classicism and towards Fokine's more expressive forms. While she never had any difficulty in finding praise from the younger audiences for her romantic and innovative style, at first she had great difficulty in finding favor with the highly conservative and tradition-oriented older ballet aficionados and with critics.

It was not until she began dancing in Paris with a new troupe formed by the brilliant impresario Serge Diaghilev, that Karsavina came into her own, attaining worldwide prominence. Before the First World War, Paris was the artistic capital of the world, and it was there that Diaghilev chose to present the flower of Russian artistic talent. Having plucked for his company the most gifted artists, such as the choreographer Fokine, composer Igor Stravinsky, the great basso Fedor Shaliapin, and dancers like Nijinsky, Diaghilev opened the 1909 Paris season to the astonished and enthusiastic acclaim of refined Paris.

Diaghilev's intentions to mount a Russian season of ballet and opera in France had been known for some time to the artists of St. Petersburg, and had caused a good deal of excitement in the Marinskii Theater and the Theater Street circles. Karsavina was one of the young up-and-coming dancers whom Diaghilev recruited. Initially, she was scheduled to dance only in secondary parts. She had met the dynamic impresario several years earlier, had been very impressed by him, and on hearing about his plans for Paris, had eagerly sought his invitation to join his newly formed Ballets Russes company.

She traveled to Paris in an odd mood of expectancy and dismal foreboding.

Paris was for me a city of eternal pleasure, dissipation and sin. So exaggerated had been my ideas of its inconceivable elegance that in my heart of hearts I expected the streets to be like ballroom floors and to be peopled exclusively with smart ladies, walking along with a frou-frou of silk petticoats.… Above all, I dreaded that I should be too provincial for Paris.

Karsavina claimed that the two months of 1909 that she spent in Paris were unforgettable. The fortnight preceding her performances, everything seemed to her to be hysterical. "[I]n a cataclysm of squabbles between artists, musicians, and producers, we approached the day of the dress rehearsal." On the first night, she danced in Fokine's Pavillion d'Armide, with scenery by Alexander Benois. On ensuing evenings, she performed in Prince Igor and Firebird. The leading female role in this ballet had been originally assigned to Matilda Kshesinskaia , Diaghilev's prima ballerina and former mistress of the young Tsarevich Nicholas, before his ascension to the imperial Russian throne. Wrote Karsavina:

Firebird, the ballet, had come to me through a stroke of luck. In Petersburg I had wistfully considered that the best chances had been given to elder and more accomplished dancers than I. Firebird had been intended for Matilda, but she changed her mind and refused to come to Paris.

After this performance, Karsavina became "La Karsavina" to her Paris audience, and an object of almost unimaginable adoration. On subsequent nights, she danced the leading female parts in Firebird, Petrushka, and Rite of Spring, set to music by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Michel Fokine. These performances first brought the superlative level of Russian musical, artistic, and dancing art to the attention of Western European audiences. At the end of this period of triumph, wrote Karsavina: "The Russian season, like a gust of fresh wind, passed over the stale convention of the French stage."

Beginning with her leading role in 1909 in the Firebird, Karsavina, together with her renowned dance partner, Nijinsky, astounded the ballet world with her creations in Les Sylphides, Carnival, Petrushka, Specter of the Rose, Thamar, and Sheherizade (music by Rimsky-Korsakov). Following the brilliant season in Paris, Karsavina returned in triumph to St. Petersburg and the Marinskii Theater. In 1912, she was formally given the rank of prima ballerina by the company, to take her place along with Anna Pavlova and Kshesinskaia as one of the three leading Russian women dancers. She continued performing in St. Petersburg through the war period. After the Bolshevik overthrow of the Provisional government in October 1917, Karsavina fled to the northern port of Murmansk, together with her infant son Nikita and English-diplomat husband Henry J. Bruce, and escaped Soviet Russia by sailing to England.

She never returned to her native land but spent the rest of her long life in Western Europe, primarily in England. In 1919, she worked with choreographer Leonid Massine, portraying the Miller's Wife in Manuel de Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat, with sets designed by Pablo Picasso. Except for one brief and unsuccessful American tour in 1924, Karsavina continued dancing in Western Europe, and occasionally with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes until the impresario's death in 1929. When her husband found himself frequently without work, Karsavina was compelled to dance more often than her health permitted. Nevertheless, she continued to expand the limits of classical ballet by performing in numerous modern pieces. After Nijinsky was institutionalized for mental illness, her frequent partner became Vladimirov, with whom she toured the United States, and who also danced with Pavlova.

After her final appearance with the Ballet Rambert early in the 1930s, Tamara Karsavina devoted her time to teaching, writing about her life and ballet techniques, as well as serving as a consultant for revivals of the most famous of Diaghilev's ballets. She taught Margot Fonteyn her former roles in Firebird and Giselle, and coached Sir Frederick Ashton through the mime scenes from La Fille mal Guardee. She also served for many years as the vice-president of the Royal Ballet and assisted the Western Theater Ballet (now the Scottish Ballet). Admired for her superb dancing, beauty, and intelligence, and universally loved by her public, Tamara Karsavina celebrated her 90th birthday at a party where Ashton and Sir John Gielgud toasted her for her accomplishments and service to the art of the dance.


Bruce, H.J. Silken Dalliance. London, 1946.

——. Thirty Dozen Moons. London, 1949.

Chujoy, Anatole, and P.W. Manchester. The Dance Encyclopedia. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

Clark, Mary, and David Vaughan. The Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet. London: Peerage Books, 1977.

Cohen-Stratner, Barbara Naomi. Bibliographical Dictionary of Dance. London: Collier Macmillan, 1982.

Koegler, Horst. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Vronskaya, Jeanne. Bibliographical Dictionary of the Soviet Union, 1917–1988. London: K.G. Saur, 1989.

Dr. Boris Raymond , Adjunct Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

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Karsavina, Tamara (1885–1978)

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