Tag Archives: Vaclav Nijinsky

Tamara Karsavina plaque, London

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Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978) remains one of the greatest names in world ballet to this day. She worked with almost all of the greats of her time, and even George Balanchine, with whom she did not work, apparently used to admire her when they were both students at the famed Vaganova ballet school in St. Petersburg. I drew this little tidbit from Nataliya Dissanayake’s fabulous book Russkie sud’by v Londone (Russian Lives in London). I – as you should do, if you are interested in the general topic – will lean heavily on what Dissanayake writes about Karsavina. I’ll also draw here and there from Karsavina’s memoirs, Theatre Street: The Reminiscences of Tamara Karsavina. Karsavina’s life in London was a long one, stretching from 1918, when she left the company of the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, until her death in 1978 at the age of 93.
The future dancer was born into a highly-cultured family, her father Platon Karsavin being a fine dancer himself, the student of Marius Petipa and the teacher of Mikhail Fokin (Michel Fokine). She graduated from the Vaganova school in 1902, but began dancing professionally before that. Her talent was never doubted and she made a meteoric rise from a position in the corps de ballet to soloist. She danced in Giselle and Swan Lake at the Mariinsky, and in 1909 was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballet Russes. She danced for them on and off until 1922. One might argue that her entire repertoire with the Ballet Russes was a highlight. Those highlights grew even brighter in 1913 when she was first paired with Vaclav Nijinsky.
Karsavina’s permanent move to London came as the Russian Civil War intensified and as she married British diplomat Henry James Bruce. By 1920, just two years later, she had already put herself at the head of British ballet, serving as one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Dancing. Over the years, Karsavina became quite enamoured of England and the English, and, although she first appeared in London in 1909 not speaking a word of English, by the time she wrote her memoirs in 1931, she apparently – according to her husband – wrote the entire book in English herself.
Those memoirs are particularly memorable for Karsavina’s in-depth description of her departure from Russia with her husband. Perhaps it wasn’t the most harrowing of escapes in an era when harrowing escapes were routine, but it was dramatic and dangerous enough to make for some wonderful, extended reading. The transition began with Karsavina’s husband having to leave Russia without her when the British mission was closed. He came back several months later to get her, and they took an arduous, uncertain boat ride out of the collapsing country by way of the Neva River, Lake Ladoga and the Onega River. From the village of Povenets, they rode on horse-carts, often dovetailing – if not dodging – British troops advancing south from the north, and Soviet troops defending their land. “For several days we met no impediment on the way, but the sense of lurking danger was with us the whole time,” Karsavina wrote, then added, “We were playing for high stakes and playing blindfold.” At one point they were delivered to a Commissar who mysteriously gave them a short window in which they were allowed to hurry to the White Sea and reach some semblance of safety. The mystery of the Commissar’s permission came into focus when they arrived at the seaport – the British navy was moored here as the Soviet army retreated – they had finally passed into friendly territory.
In general, Karsavina’s memoirs make for a lively read. She is always ready to laugh at herself and her own weaknesses (she apparently cried often when things didn’t go her way), and she never takes it upon herself to even scores in the many instances when taking offense would quite be in order.

Karsavina’s 1909 London debut took place at the Coliseum, an imposing old theatre that was not fit for ballet at all. While the promoter H.B. Marinelli gushed on about the Coliseum’s beauty, Karsavina worried about the cold drafts and unsuitable stage with tiny brass plates everywhere. Karsavina wrote:
Excellent linoleum has since been spread over the brass plates, but I was a pioneer of ballet at the Coliseum, where the stage was then all it ought not to be for dancing purposes. An extremely hard floor and the unavoidable brass bruised my toes and made them bleed. My first week was hardly over, and I dreaded the remaining three. Worse than my blistered toes was to me the feeling of not belonging anywhere in my present surroundings. I bore a grudge against the stained windows of the restaurant in my hotel, the noisy barrel-organ in the side street ; it played in the morning, it played in the afternoon when I came to rest between performances. There may have been relays of barrel-organs in that street, or one single one of unique obduracy. There were some nocturnal goings and comings in my hotel. At times I thought I heard aggressive voices. That was all I knew of London this time, that and the Coliseum.”
But, aside from the difficult circumstances of performing in an alien space in an alien country, what really made Karsavina miss home was the differences in attitude to art that one encountered in the highly-cultured St. Petersburg and the quite commercial London.
The glamor and romance of the theatre was  what I missed badly,” she wrote in her memoirs.
But if it took Karsavina time to warm up to the charms of London – she eventually even claimed to love its fog for the way it made a crackling fireplace so cozy – London took to her immediately. And when she died, she was honored with a plaque on the wall in St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. St. Paul’s is known as the Actor’s Church in London, and among the many theater people it honors, there are some who would have worked with Karsavina in the Ballet Russes productions. Still, the majority of performers commemorated here were were British. Karsavina is the only major Russian artist among them. Her plaque, a simple oval, gives the dates of her life and describes her with highest honor as prima ballerina assoluta. Like many of the plaques and monuments to be found in St. Paul’s, it almost appears that Karsavina’s plaque was hung without any real thought to aesthetics. It seems to be stuck in a corner next to a window on the wall facing northwest. Nearest to her plaque are others honoring Australian dancer and choreographer Robert Helpman, and British dancer and choreographer Anton Dolin.

 

Russian ballet at the Palace Theatre, London

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The plaque, which you can see at the end of the block of photos below, blithely proclaims that the Palace Theatre  is famed for being the home of London’s longest-running musicals. The hell it is. This venue, located at Cambridge Circus, is famous for being one of the places where Russian ballet established a foothold in Britain in the early 20th century. It was here that Anna Pavlova performed some of her London seasons; here that Nikolai Legat debuted on the London stage; and here where Vaclav Nijinsky unveiled his own company in 1914. In regards to them I understand what is carved in stone over the stage door: “The world’s greatest artistes have passed and will pass through these doors.” But what this has to do with a so-called mentalist like Derren Brown – the house’s occupant (or occupier) when I took these photos earlier this year – I do not know. Surely the timelessness of a gorgeous old place like this is created only by those of the stature of Pavlova, Nijinsky and their like. As for the theatre’s physical appearance, at least in regards to the front facade, it would appear it has not changed much in a century. You can watch a short video of Anna Pavlova dancing a snippet of “The Dying Swan” on YouTube, which begins with a short panorama of the theatre front. Looks very much the same as the shots you see here.
Pavlova performed here at least in 1910 and 1912, and we can even pin one of her performances down to my own birthdate of June 18, in the year 1912, thanks to an old program of that evening’s show which is available for sale for $200 as of this writing. The description of the evening’s fare, incidentally, takes a good deal of the hot air out of my earlier rather pompous claim that the fame of Russian dancers is of more value than that of the other hucksters who may have performed here. Just imagine the show that night, on Tuesday, June 18. Pavlova, the headliner, shared the stage with three comedians, a mime, a comic violinist, a comic juggler, a comic conjurer (Ah! Derren Brown again!), and an ambidextrous caligraphist, among others. Not exactly your sublime evening of high art. In fact, here is a nice description of the kind of entertainment audiences might have seen at the Alhambra Theatre, a Glaswegian counterpart of the Palace, in or around the years 1913 and 1914.
After the overture in the Alhambra the first act was frequently a play, musical revue, ballet, or short opera, all followed by variety with 6-10 turns, and ending with film. Through the Syndicate, entertainers came from all continents – comics, mimists, singers, illusionists, gymnasts, tumblers, instrumentalists, dancers, whistlers, Arabian whirlers, conjurers, memory men, trick cyclists, quartettes, jugglers, and ventriloquists. Dance and ballet came from the Danish classicist Adeline Genee, the Imperial Russian Ballet, America’s Maud Allan in her provocative free-movement, Lydia Kyasht and her Russian corps de ballet, Nicolas Legat’s Russian company, Anna Pavlova and others.”
Be all that as it may, Pavlova’s memory is so closely associated with the Palace that there is speculation about hers being one of two ghosts who continue to haunt the backstage area to this day (for the record, the other is of the Welsh composer and actor Ivor Novello).
We can also focus in tightly on another moment from those long-gone days by perusing an unsigned newspaper review of Pavlova’s April 18, 1910, performance, which appeared in the Daily Mail on April 19:
London – that is to say art and pleasure loving London – has a new sensation which will be discussed as widely and as eagerly as Elektra and the Sicilians, with the one difference that the new topic does not lend itself to argument. Anna Pavlova and Michael Mordkin, ‘Russia’s acknowledged greatest dancers and the famous leaders of the Imperial Russian Ballet,’ who made their debut at the Palace Theatre last night, are the last word in the art of dancing. The perfection of their art cannot be disputed. It is such as to re-establish the supremacy of the traditional ballet style over the so called ‘classic’ dance and its offshoots, of which we have had a very surfeit during the last year or two.
It is impossible to do justice to Anna Pavlova by mere description. Such grace as hers, such litheness of body, and such perfect balance in motion so quick that eyes can scarcely follow it must be seen to be believed. It is not alone the top-like whirling round on tip-toe, ending in a difficult poise that would defy the efforts of an ordinary dancer, even if it were attempted from an attitude of repose; it is none of the conventional tricks of the ballet-dancer that causes wonderment in the dancing of Anna Pavlova and her no less amazing partner, but their extraordinary effects of movement arrested, as it were, in mid-air – a pause, a hesitation that seems to defy the laws of gravity and makes you look instinctively for the wires on which these graceful marionettes must surely be suspended.”

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I must add a few words about Pavlova’s “no less amazing partner” Michael, or Mikhail, Mordkin, with whom Miss Pavlova apparently had a turbulent relationship. I am grateful to the Victoria and Albert Museum website for the following tidbit:
In 1912 Pavlova appeared in the first Royal Variety Performance. She was very competitive and during a curtain call slapped the face of her partner, Michael Mordkin, because she thought he was getting more applause.
The feud between Pavlova and Mordkin was much reported in the press. The pair were a sensation when they appeared together at the Palace Theatre, one of London’s leading music halls, in 1910.
They first appeared in a classical pas de deux, performed with such style and beauty that they took ten curtain calls, an extraordinary number for a music hall. Nothing prepared the audience for what came next.
Gone were Pavlova’s tutu and Mordkin’s ballet costume, gone her pointe shoes. In Greek tunics and sandals, they flung themselves onto the stage in the Autumn Bacchanal, one of the most tempestuous and passionate dances ever staged.”
Nijinsky’s most memorable, if not successful, connection to the Palace comes over just a two-week period in the spring of 1914. After breaking with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, who had raised him to the status of a living legend, Nijinsky attempted to put together his own troupe with which he planned to tour.  It never happened. Immediately following the two-week run at the Palace, the new company fell apart. A minor detail of that doomed endeavor was that Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, commissioned by Nijinsky, was given its world premiere during the performance of March 2, 1914  – the opening night of the run. Writing in her memoirs, Nijinsky’s sister Bronislawa wrote in some detail about the thought (or lack of it) and preparations that went into the new company. “The performances were to begin on March 2. There were only four and a half weeks to opening night, and Vaslav [her spelling] had not even started the work. To sign a contract with such a short time for preparation seemed to me to be pure folly, but it was too late to talk about it, least of all with Vaslav.” According to Bronislawa, the program for the Saison Nijinsky was to include major pieces such as Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Le Spectre de la rose, and Nijinsky’s own choreography of Carnaval and Les Sylphides among smaller dance numbers.
Nikolai Legat first danced abroad with Anna Pavlova no later than 1908. You can see a photo of the two in Swan Lake from that year when they toured Europe. Legat, however, although he enjoyed dancing abroad and did so for many years, remained in Russia at the Imperial School where he built his reputation as a teacher and choreographer. Still, Diaghilev convinced him to come West and take over as the ballet master of the Ballets Russes in 1923. Legat left to found his own school in London in 1926. I don’t readily find specific dates for Legat performing at the Palace, although there is a posed photo of Anna Pavlova performing in Legat’s choreography for Les Coquetteries de Columbine which premiered at the Palace on April 15, 1912.

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Nijinsky opens ‘Rite of Spring’ at Drury Lane, London

DSCN7240 DSCN7248Isn’t it the way? What the French called scandalous barely caused the Brits to wiggle and waggle their stiff upper lips. We are talking about Vaclav Nijinsky’s famous, legendary, incendiary, monumental ballet choreographed to Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary and seminal 20th-century music – The Rite of Spring. Everybody and their uncle knows of the “riot” that occurred opening night in Paris on May 29, 1913. Whether or not there really was a riot is a different story, and it has been told many a time from many an angle.
Lydia Sokolova, one of the dancers on the stage that night, said the audience came prepared,” the BBC reports. ‘They had got themselves all ready. They didn’t even let the music be played for the overture. As soon as it was known that the conductor was there, the uproar began,’ she said in an interview recorded in 1965.”
Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, which put on the performance, is said to have been hankering for a scandal. What impresario isn’t? The BBC again: “‘He knew there was going to be trouble,’ said Lydia Sokolova, and there are some signs that he was hoping for a scandal. Announcing the Rite of Spring in the Parisian press, Diaghilev had suggested it would cause ‘impassioned debate.’ In so doing, Esteban Buch suggests, he was setting the scene ‘for maybe not a riot, but at least a controversy.’ He certainly got one.”
Stravinsky is on record as having said that the storm only broke after the overture, “when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down.”
According to a piece in The Arts Desk, “the newspapers dubbed it ‘Le Massacre du printemps.’ Diaghilev’s satisfied comment was, ‘Exactly what I wanted.’”
Whether or not 40 people were arrested that night will probably remain a point of contention at least until someone decides to research the police records for that night in the Champs Elysees precinct.
But let’s now leave Paris to Paris, for today, in fact, we wander the streets of the City of Westminster, where, a month later, the scandalous Rite of Spring was offered to the judgment of London’s theatergoers at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Following the six-day run in Paris in May-June 1913, the four-day London run opened July 11.
Today the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, like so many London houses, hosts one of those abominable, endlessly-running musicals. In this case, it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, about which we couldn’t possibly care less. Do your best, when perusing the photos, to blot the Charlie marquees out in your mind. It will be easier, and more pleasant, to imagine Diaghilev, Sokolova, Nijinsky and company perhaps nervously arriving at the theater and furtively entering by way of the stage door on Russell Street. Imagine crowds of excited ticket holders gathering outside the front of the theater, waiting for the doors to open so that they could take their seats and get a glimpse for themselves of this dastardly ballet…

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Except that it appears London didn’t see anything dastardly at all. Here, as quoted in a book called Confronting Stravinsky: Man, Musician and Modernist, is what Henry Cope Colles, the music critic for The Times of London, had to say:
The functions of the composer and the producer are so balanced that it is possible to see every movement on the stage and at the same time to hear every note of the music. But the fusion goes deeper than this. The combination of the two elements of music and dancing does actually produce a new compound result, expressible in terms of rhythm – much as the combination of oxygen and hydrogen produces a totally different compound, water.”
Damn! “Balanced!” “Fusion!” “New compound result!”
Where are the flying tomatoes? The razzes? The fights and the arrests?
I would like to point out, by the way, that this review appeared in the Times the next morning after the London premiere. That is, Colles winged this – he hurried from the theater to wherever he was wont to write, and he filed this story on short deadline in order to make the morning’s papers. And look at that clarity of thought, the insight, the ability to make sense of what we now know was something absolutely, entirely new. Folks, I’m impressed. My hat’s off to Henry Cope Colles, my new hero.
On the occasion of the work’s 100th anniversary in 2013, James S. Murphy, seeking to debunk the old tale about a riotous premiere, discussed the London premiere  in the Paris Review:
When the Times of London reviewed the British premier (sic), it declared in the first sentence, ‘London takes both its pleasures and its pains more quietly than Paris.’ The review notes that ‘the applause was measured, but so were the cries of disapproval.’ The Rite went off without any major incident, as it had done in the four subsequent performances in Paris after the premiere. This is worth remembering, particularly since the anniversary has provided the occasion for several critics to indulge a nostalgia for the good old days of repression, when art could still shock. An essay in the New York Times this year by the eminent Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin captured this consternation perfectly in its headline: ‘Shocker Cools into a Rite of Passage.’ While several people have pointed to Walt Disney’s cooptation of Stravinsky’s music for Fantasia in 1940 as the moment when the work officially lost its edge, reports on the subsequent performances in Paris and the reviews of the London premiere show that it did not take three decades—or even three years—for audiences to see past the shock and find the beauty in The Rite. It took a few weeks.
Murphy goes on:
“…The extent to which this [Paris first-night] disturbance counts as a riot really is beside the point, as is the question of what actually happened that night. What matters most is that whatever it was, it never happened again. Not once. Some small disturbances were reported at the second performance four days later, but nothing of note occurred at the final two performances of the ballet in Paris. A report on the third performance in London speculated that the English audience ‘is either surprisingly quick or surprisingly careless in accommodating ourselves to new forms of art. The first performance of [The Rite] evoked something like a hostile demonstration from a section of the audience. The third and last performance [my understanding is that there were four] was received with scarcely a sign of opposition.’ That the scandal of France could be accommodated so quickly by an English audience bewildered the reviewer and has continues (sic) to bedevil many lovers of the work.”
Fascinating stuff, I say. If you’re interested in the reasons for, and the background of, this story, start your search with the sources I have quoted. There is good information to be had. But my purpose is not to dot the last “i” in this tale, but rather, simply, to take the time to walk around the walls of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and to take the time to think about what it might have been like that opening night in London in the summer of 1913. How might it have felt, how might it have looked and sounded. Apart from the vile Charlie marquees (and that moronic quote of some critic who shall never deserve to share his profession with H.C. Colles [“Dazzling Charlie is Choc-Full of Delights!!!!!!!”]) this structure affords us a nice opportunity to do that. It appears to have changed little in the 100+ years since Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky stormed into London to play The Right of Spring.
One more tidbit: The four London performances were the last ever of the original Nijinsky choreography. Shortly thereafter, Nijinsky ran off and married Romola de Pulszky, infuriating, and breaking the heart of, Diaghilev beyond measure. As such, this theater here marks the end of the “scandalous” first performances of The Rite of Spring, as well as the end of the storied collaboration between Diaghilev and Nijinsky.

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