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About the Change

‘Tamara Karsavina  Diaghilev’s Ballerina’

by Andrew Foster

Publisher: Andrew Foster
2010, £40
ISBN: 978-0956564306

Reviewed by Jane Pritchard

© Andrew Foster

This book is available from:

Karsavina Photographs Exhibition
at Ivy House, London
15 Sep - 10 Oct 2010
Hampstead and Highgate Festival

Jane Pritchard is Curator of Dance, Victoria and Albert Museum. Jane is currently curating a major V&A exhibition which opens on the 25 September 2010:
Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909 - 1929

Written and published by Andrew Foster who has been passionate about the ballerina for the past thirty years and compiled a vast collection of material on her, Tamara Karsavina Diaghilev’s Ballerina is an important and delightful book. Photographs of great dancers help us to understand their appeal in performance and Foster has the great advantage that his ballerina was not only a great dancer but one of the great beauties of the stage.

Karsavina’s career has been documented – up to a point. Her own, self-penned, autobiography, Theatre Street, is still a good read – although far stronger on her career with the Imperial Ballet than her other activities. It was published in 1930 and is careful not to name rivals and avoids personal revelations. Initial editions included only a few pictures but in 1981 Dance Books brought out a well-illustrated edition with Karsavina in one of her Poiret-designed dresses on the cover. In the early 1970s Nesta Macdonald had produced a lavish, two-box, portfolio of photographs with accompanying quotes about the productions but that limited edition was hugely expensive and limited to one or two images for each production. What has been needed for some time is a book that fulfilled a similar role to John and Roberta Lazzarini’s Pavlova Repertoire of a Legend (1980). At last we have it and, as with the Lazzarini’s volume, the emphasis is on the photographs but these are supported by serious research that adds to our knowledge of the careers of the ballerinas.

After outlining the family background, Foster’s book follows Karsavina’s career from her graduation performance in 1902, when she danced in the ‘Kingdom of Ice’ scene from The Spark of Love, through to her return to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for the 1919/20 season. It does not detail the last decade of her career when she performed as an independent artist although it does list later roles she danced for Diaghilev. Foster is probably wise in celebrating his ballerina to focus on her prime – photographs of Karsavina’s later career do not have the appeal of her younger self - but it’s a shame that the list of roles, unfortunately headed simply ‘After 1918’, has not been completed to show just how much she went on to dance.


Karsavina as Medora in Petite Corsaire
© Karl Fischer, St Petersburg. Courtesy of Jane Pritchard.
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The arrangement of the book is such that the shape of Karsavina’s career is evident. In her early seasons she received mixed reviews although she was recognised as a promising dancer. She was sometimes praised but at other times received lukewarm reviews. Interestingly it was the influential Valerian Svetlov who went on to write the book, Thamar Karsavina, which Cyril Beaumont published in 1922 who appears most critical. But Foster shows how when she began to appear abroad it gave her confidence, and how the role of Medora in Le Corsaire, which enabled her to act as well as dance, really promoted her to the forefront of the company at the Maryinsky.

What comes through very clearly is that after 1909 Karsavina has two parallel careers. Her anchor is with the Imperial Ballet but she is also in great demand for seasons in Prague, London and with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. With Diaghilev she is one of the dancers specifically named for him to present in many seasons leaving the ballerina to juggle performances at home (then Russia) and abroad (elsewhere in Europe). It always seems important to remember, as Foster has done, that with the Ballets Russes Karsavina is always, in today’s terms, a ‘principal guest artist’. From 1909 there is an awareness of Diaghilev’s ability to bully, cajole and charm an artist to do just what he wants.


Karsavina in Midas 1914
© Courtesy of Jane Pritchard, photographer unknown
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Foster’s book takes a chronological approach but intersperses his chapters with features on ballets which included important roles for Karsavina and for which there is an abundance of photographs. With some of these ballets the photographs are taken over a period of a decade but Foster has carefully researched each image, identified the photographer and date, adding considerably to our knowledge of the ballets discussed. The challenge was considerable for The Firebird, with its changing costumes, and being a ballet Karsavina danced between 1910 and 1920. (She never danced in the redesigned Goncharova production).One of the very useful features of his chapter on Firebird is his evidence that the famous photographs of the rehearsal at the Catherine Hall, St Petersburg, by Aleksandrov was taken in April 1910 (not 1909 as has often been stated) and shows a rehearsal of Firebird. There is also a charming series of photographs posing in costume in the studio of the Berlin studio of Goerg Kolbe – as Karsavina reclines on a sofa one gets an impression of how she may have looked in flight at the first performances.

For Le Pavillon d’Armide and Le Carnaval Foster unravels the St Petersburg productions from those for the Ballets Russes. The Giselle chapter looks at Karsavina taking over ‘peasant’ pas de deux with Mikhail Fokine during the 1902/03 season when Pavlova took over Giselle. He then examines her appearances in the title role; first in Prague in 1908, then with the Ballets Russes from 1910; and finally at the Maryinsky through to 1918. The studies of Le Spectre de la rose and Les Sylphides combine familiar photographs with others that are new – Les Sylphides of course also includes some superb Chopiniana images.


Karsavina in Chopiniana
© Karl Fischer, St Petersburg. Courtesy of Jane Pritchard.
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The book includes a selection of the off-stage photographs – both posed in fashionable outfits and in informal situations such as at the home of Botkin and returning home to St Petersburg in 1912. This last is one that shows her with her first husband, Vasili Mukhin. Foster deals tactfully with her private life – the rejection of Fokine and its consequences, and her marriage apparently set up by her family to Mukhin who was considered far more suitable than the young dancer/choreographer. He also records her affair with Henry Bruce, the birth of their son Nikita and subsequent marriage.

Foster’s research on the photographs in impressive. He shows how for Diaghilev’s pre-War Paris seasons there was a single official photographer – Auguste Bert 1909-1911, Waléry in 1912, Charles Gershel in 1913 and Saul Bransburg 1914. Bert took the posed photographs on stage of Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la rose and Petrouchka and for his studio photographs he conveniently changes his

© Andrew Foster  
backdrop each year – plain curtain in 1909, painted clouds in 1910 and a hint of foliage in 1911. The London scene is more complex with Hoppé, Bassano and the Dover Street studios dominating. In St Petersburg, photographs – mostly by Karl Fischer – are even harder to date precisely but Foster reproduces a wonderful image of the photographic studio above the Maryinsky with large windows, stuffed with props and cameras where many were taken.

Also included is a note, possibly too brief, on Karsavina on film. Admittedly most of her films, including the Pathe newsreel from 1921 The Stars as they are:Madame Karsavina (available on the internet) come from the 1920s. This note is really to celebrate the recent discovery in France of a recording of Karsavina in Fokine’s solo the Torch Dance which probably dates from 1909. This glorious film is included in the V&A’s exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes.

There are a few aspects and remarks in the book with which one could quibble. Some material is repeated in the ballets in focus chapters from the main text. Possibly this does not matter as it is a book to dip into but an external editor would have probably have removed this duplication. South America, particularly Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero, was not a cultural backwater; the bibliography seems perfunctory – possibly an afterthought; and the book jacket is, perhaps, too tasteful – it would not call for attention in a crowded book shop. I also have some reservations about the pixilated images for the title of each chapter but it gives the book a contemporary touch and the images are all repeated untreated within the chapter.


Karsavina in the Torch Dance
© Karl Fischer, St Petersburg. Courtesy of Jane Pritchard.
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Many chapters are introduced by a colour image – designs by Léon Bakst for the Torch Dance, The Firebird, and Echo in Narcisse; by Alexander Shervashidze for Nerilya in Le Talisman, and Doubujinsky’s tunic for Karsavina as a Nymph in Midas later re-worked for Sylvia and his costume for Lise in La Fille mal gardée. Then there is a colour photograph of Armida by the Dover Studios in 1911, and also from 1911 the famous posters for the first season of the Ballet Russe [sic] at Monte Carlo showing Jean Cocteau’s Spectre illustrations. For Le Carnaval Randolph Schwabe’s illustration of Columbine is used. The colour images are well chosen and just lift the book.


Karsavina as Lise in La Fille mal gardee photo Bystrov, Petrograd and design for her costume by Dobujinsky reproduced on a postcard produced for the Russian Red Cross in 1915
© Bystrov, Petrograd. Courtesy of Jane Pritchard.
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It is a great delight to see whole series of photographs of Karsavina in certain roles. Foster points out that Karsavina was often photographed in roles with interesting costumes rather than her greatest roles, but this rather adds to our knowledge of her performances. In this book I was particularly excited by the series showing her as one of the Khan’s slave in La Source; in subtle travesty costumes as Medora for her solo of ‘Little Corsair’ and Cupid as a page in Fiametta; in her sari as Nerilya in The Talisman; and from her later career as Lise in Fille.


Karsavina in The Talisman
© Karl Fischer, St Petersburg. Courtesy of Jane Pritchard.
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window

In conjunction with the launch of this book there will be an exhibition of photographs of Karsavina at Ivy House (former London home of Karsavina’s rival Anna Pavlova!) 15 September – 10 October during the 2010 Hampstead and Highgate Festival which has a focus on the Ballets Russes Karsavina of course lived for many years in Hampstead – there is a blue plaque on her house at 108 Frognal.

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