Karsavina was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, the daughter of Platon Konstantinovich Karsavin. A principal dancer and mime with the Imperial Ballet, Platon was also employed as an instructor at the Imperial Ballet School (Vaganova Ballet Academy) and counted among his students Karsavina's future dancing partner and paramour, Michel Fokine.
She was the sister of religious philosopher and medieval historian Lev Karsavin. Her niece, Marianna Karsavina, was married to Ukrainian author and artistic patron Pyotr Suvchinsky. Through her mother, Karsavina was distantly related to the religious poet and co-founder of the Slavophile movement, Aleksey Khomyakov.
Karsavina's father had once been the favorite pupil of Marius Petipa, but their relationship deteriorated in later years. Karsavina suspected that Petipa was behind the "political intrigue" that resulted in her father's being forced into early retirement. Though Platon continued to teach at the Imperial Ballet School, and also retained some private pupils, he was disillusioned by the experience.
Karsavina later wrote:
I think the blow to their pride meant more than financial considerations to them. After all, we always lived from hand to mouth, never looking ahead, spending more when there was something to spend, fitting in somehow when there wasn't. Father had reason to expect his being kept for the second service, like other artists of his standing. He was sore at heart parting with the stage.Due to his own bitter experiences, Platon initially refused to allow Karsavina to study ballet, but her mother interceded.
Mother's dream was to make a dancer of me, Karsavina later wrote. "It is a beautiful career for a woman," she would say, "and I think the child must have a leaning for the stage; she is fond of dressing up, and always at the mirror"Without seeking Platon's permission, Karsavina's mother arranged for her to begin taking lessons with a family friend, the retired dancer Vera Joukova.
When Platon learned months later that his daughter had begun dancing lessons, he took the news in his stride, becoming her primary instructor. Far from receiving preferential treatment, however, Karsavina referred to her father as her "most exacting teacher...to the tune of his fiddle I exerted myself to the utmost."
In 1894, after a rigorous examination, Karsavina was accepted at the Imperial Ballet School. At her mother's urging, Karsavina chose to graduate ahead of schedule in early 1902. It was unheard of at that time for women to begin dancing professionally before the age of eighteen, but her father had lost his teaching position at the school in 1896, leaving her family in dire straits financially. They desperately needed the small income Karsavina would receive as a dancer with the corps de ballet.
After graduating from the Imperial Ballet School, Karsavina enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks, quickly becoming a leading ballerina with the Imperial Ballet, dancing the whole of the Marius Petipa repertory.
Her most famous roles were Lise in La Fille Mal Gardée, Medora in Le Corsaire, and the Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse. She was the first ballerina to dance in the so-called Le Corsaire Pas de Deux in 1915.
The choreographer George Balanchine said he had fond memories of watching her when he was a student at the Imperial Ballet School. It was during the late 1910s that she began traveling regularly to Paris to dance with the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev. It was during her years with the company that she created many of her most famous roles in the ballets of Mikhail Fokine, including Petrushka, and Le Spectre de la Rose. She was perhaps most famous for creating the title role in Fokine's The Firebird (a role originally offered to Anna Pavlova, who could not come to terms with Stravinsky's score) with Vaslav Nijinsky, her occasional partner.
She left Russia in 1919 after the revolution, and subsequently continued her association with the Ballet Russe as a leading Ballerina. (Her brother Lev Platonovich Karsavin moved to newly independent Lithuania, where he was awarded a university chair in cultural history; when the Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1940, he was arrested and died in a gulag.)
Her memoirs, Theatre Street, discusses her training at the Imperial Ballet School, and her career at the Mariinsky Theatre and the Ballet Russe. In the ultra-competitive world of ballet, she was almost universally beloved. However Karsavina did have a rivalry with Anna Pavlova. In the film A Portrait of Giselle Karsavina recalls a "wardrobe malfunction": during one performance her shoulder straps fell and she accidentally exposed herself, and Pavlova reduced an embarrassed Karsavina to tears.
In 1917 she married diplomat Henry James Bruce. Like Anna Pavlova, she moved to Hampstead (although to the other side of Hampstead Heath), where she taught and wrote about ballet. Among her pupils were two prima ballerinas assolute, Dame Alicia Markova (the first British dancer to hold the rank of Prima Ballerina) and Dame Margot Fonteyn, and the future founder of Cambridge Ballet Workshop, Mari Bicknell.
At the end of her life she could reduce a crowded room to admiring silence merely by the manner of her entering it. Greatly under-used and neglected by the management of the Royal Ballet, she occasionally assisted with the revival of the ballets in which she danced, notably Spectre de la Rose, in which she coached Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. In 1959 she advised Sir Frederick Ashton on his important revival of La Fille Mal Gardée for the Royal Ballet, in which she taught him Petipa's original mimed dialogue for the celebrated scene When I'm Married, as well as his choreography for the Pas de Ruban - two passages which are still retained in Ashton's production.
Burial: Hampstead Cemetery, Hampstead, Greater London, England. Plot: Section R1, Number 4B
Tamara Karsavina: Diaghilev's Ballerina by Andrew R. Foster
Publisher: Andrew Foster (September 13, 2010)
Amazon: Tamara Karsavina: Diaghilev's Ballerina
The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel by Paul Russell
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Cleis Press; 1 edition (November 8, 2011)
Amazon: The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel
In his novel based on the extraordinary life of the gay brother of Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Russell re-creates the rich and changing world in which Sergey, his family and friends lived; from wealth and position in pre-revolutionary Russia, to the halls of Cambridge University, and the Parisian salon of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. But it is the honesty and vulnerability of Sergey, our young gay narrator, that hook the reader: his stuttering childhood in the shadow of his brilliant brother, his opium-fueled evenings with his sometime lover Cocteau, his troubled love life on the margins of the Ballets Russes and its legendary cast, and his isolation in war torn Berlin where he will ultimately be arrested, sent to a camp and die in 1945.
A meticulously researched novel, in which you will meet an extraordinary cast of characters including Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Magnus Hirschfield ("Tante Magnesia"), Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Cocteau, and of course the master himself, Vladimir Nabokov, this is ultimately the story of a beautiful and vulnerable homosexual boy growing into an enlightened and courageous man.
That Furious Lesbian: The Story of Mercedes de Acosta (Theater in the Americas) by Robert A Schanke
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press; 1st edition (May 10, 2004)
Amazon: That Furious Lesbian: The Story of Mercedes de Acosta
In this first book-length biography of Mercedes de Acosta, theatre historian Robert A. Schanke adroitly mines lost archival materials and mixes in his own interviews with de Acosta’s intimates to correct established myths and at last construct an accurate, detailed, and vibrant portrait of the flamboyantly uninhibited early-twentieth-century author, poet, and playwright.
Born to wealthy Spanish immigrants, Mercedes de Acosta (1893–1968) lived in opulence and traveled in the same social circles as the Astors and Vanderbilts. Introduced to the New York theater scene at an early age, her dual loves of performance and of women informed every aspect of her life thereafter. Alice B. Toklas’s observation, “Say what you will about Mercedes, she’s had the most important women in the twentieth century,” was well justified, as her romantic conquests included such internationally renowned beauties as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, and Eva Le Gallienne as well as Alla Nazimova, Tamara Karsavina, Pola Negri, and Ona Munson.
More than a record of her personal life and infamous romances, this account offers the first analysis of the complete oeuvre of de Acosta’s literary works, including three volumes of poetry, two novels, two film scripts, and a dozen plays. Although only two of her plays were ever published during her lifetime, four of them were produced, featuring such stage luminaries as John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Eva Le Gallienne. Critics praised her first volume of poetry, Moods, in 1919 and predicted her rise to literary fame, but the love of other women that fueled her writing also limited her opportunities to fulfill this destiny. Failing to achieve any lasting fame, she died in relative poverty at the age of seventy-five.
De Acosta lived her desires publicly with verve and vigor at a time when few others would dare, and for that, she paid the price of marginalized obscurity. Until now. With “That Furious Lesbian” Schanke at last establishes Mercedes de Acosta’s rightful place as a pioneer—and indeed a champion—in the early struggle for lesbian rights in this country.
Robert A. Schanke has edited a companion to this biography, Women in Turmoil: Six Plays by Mercedes de Acosta, also available from Southern Illinois University Press.
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