Tamara Karsavina – Timeless Ballerina

Tamara Platonovna Karsavina was born in St. Petersburg on the 10th of March 1885.  She was the daughter of well-known dancer Platon Karsavin and she was lucky enough to study ballet dancing under famous teachers Paul Gerdt and Enrico Cecchetti at the famous Imperial School.

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.”

tamara karsavinaWithout 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… and 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.

After graduating early from the Imperial School, due to financial constraints, she ended up becoming a principal ballerina with the Imperial Russian Ballet and danced the entire Marius Petipa repertory.

Her most famous roles were Lise in La Fille Mal Gardee, Medora in Le Corsaire and Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse.  She was also the first ballerina to dance the Le Corsaire Pas de Deux in 1915.

She started dancing with Ballet Russes late in 1910 and then she joined up with Diaghilev’s company, where she created major roles in the Firebird (which Anna Pavlova turned down), Petrushka, and Spectre de la Rose among others.

Tamara Karsavina made up a legendary partnership with Nijinski.  She and Anna Pavlova were known to have a bit of rivalry between them, and in one performance the shoulder strap of her costume came loose exposing her.  Pavlova reduced an embarrassed Tamara to tears.

tamara karsavina ballerinaTamara Karsavina was renowned for her beauty, and many artists used her in their portraits.

In 1915 her first marriage to ardent balletomane Vassili Mukhin was dissolved. In 1917 she settled in London and married diplomat Henry James Bruce.

In 1918 after years of war fraught with ever-increasing hardship, she left Russia and came to England which remained her home from then on.

She was one of the founders of the Operatic Association which later became known as the Royal Academy of Dance.

The Royal Academy of Dance is now the worlds largest examining and teaching organization.  She was vice president of the association for over thirty years.

She taught ballet dancing and wrote a lot about the world of ballet.

Her writings include articles on technique for the journal Dancing Times, her autobiography Theatre Street (1930), and the text Classical Ballet: The Flow of Movement (1962).

Amongst her pupils, she taught two famous ballerinas absolute, Dame Alicia Markova, who was the first British dancer to hold the rank of Prima Ballerina, and Dame Margot Fonteyn.  She also taught Mari Bicknell, who was the founder of Cambridge Ballet Workshop.

Tamara Karsavina became recognized as one of the founders of modern British ballet.  She also assisted in the establishment of The Royal Ballet.

Tamara Karsavina was bisexual and although married had a much-documented affair with famous Hollywood socialite and writer Mercedes de Acosta.  Tamara remained friends with Mercedes, even after Mercedes released her book in which she told her life story and her many relationships with famous Hollywood personalities.tamara karsavina

Even as she aged, Tamara Karsavina could still reduce a crowded room to admiring silence merely by the manner in which she made her entrances.

She was greatly underused and neglected by the management of the Royal Ballet and only occasionally assisted with the revivals of the ballets in which she danced.

She coached Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in Spectre de la Rose and in 1959 advised Sir Frederick Ashton when he did the revival of La Fille Mal Gardee.  She taught him the original mimed dialogue for the famous when I am married scene.

Tamara Karsavina was gifted with a perfectly proportioned body, a warm rich personality, and was a dark languorous romantic beauty eyes and feet that spoke to her audiences.

She had high and soft elevation, brilliant beats, swift turns and a noble bearing that was unaffected and modest. It is said that her port-de-bras were lovely beyond belief.

Her ability to completely identify herself with a character can only be compared with those of the great Soviet ballerina Ulanova.

She died on the 26th of May 1978.

You can read more about her extraordinary life here.

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12 thoughts on “Tamara Karsavina – Timeless Ballerina”

  1. Nice article there about Tamara Karsavina, I must say a well-done job to you for posting this amazing history of a great dancer. I find it so educative and informative as history because this is my first time of reading about Tamara Karsavina. It made me want to know more about her.

    1. Luckily there is quite a lot of information out there about her. For a more in-depth article, you can go to Wikipedia, and I have provided a link at the end of my post.

  2. First of all its amazing to know that you could still get a “1909” video of Tamara Karsavina ( smile). I must confess that her dancing skills as at then is very inspiring for those who wants to have a career through dancing. I could say that her background makes it easier for her to be able to succeed in dancing as she had a parent who is also into the profession. Though one thing i didn’t like about her was the fact that she was bisexual. Thanks so much for this inspiring article, it has really been helpful.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the read. She is one of the few early dancers who have video footage we can watch.

  3. Hello. I am a ballet dance teacher and I am constantly on the lookout for ways of improving the skills of my students. Tamara Karsavina is one of the idols looked up to by many members of my class. Great article on  a great ballerina. Kudos to the writer and I will definitely be reading more of your articles. 

    1. Great to see a fellow dance teacher and get some great feedback. Glad you enjoyed the article. I find the history of dance fascinating.

  4. How does dancing shape the life of a dance enthusiast?  Does a good teacher in the person of the famous teachers Paul Gerdt and Enrico Cecchetti at the famous Imperial School have a major impact on the famous ballerina Queen’s life? Tamara Platonovna Karsavina was lucky to have a dancing parent that was a mentor , though times were a bit unsupportive, she later became a star in the ballet and ballerina world.

  5. It’s nice to know and read about Tamara Karsavina a great dancer and an icon in dance who has graced this world of ours. 

    I really admire her lifestyle from childhood in achieving her dreams in becoming a dancer at Imperial Ballet School thanks to her mum who supported her and her father being a teacher and mentor to her. 

    She’s dead now but her legacy lives on, only excluding her private life of having an affair despite being married which I don’t agree with. Is the school which she established still in existence? I mean the Royal Academy of Dance. Thanks for sharing this article. 

    1. Yes Fortune, the Royal Academy of Dance is a huge worldwide organization now. I know this because I am one of the teachers who teach under them.

  6. This is an encouraging piece of someone who has a dream and with encouragement from parents pursues it and contributed her quota to make the world a better place through her gifting. 

    The history of The Royal School of Dance in London is incomplete without Tamara. Everyone of us has something to offer. Tamara has the gift of dancing, and she developed it and taught several people who later on in life like Dami Alicia Markova, became famous. 

    Fulfillment comes from doing what gives one joy and satisfaction. One thing, I learned from this post is that we would not have the same experience, Tamara father had a bitter experience as a Dancer, and he wouldn’t want his daughter to experience. This would have been terrible if she had never danced.

    1. You are right Tolu, sometimes its better to forgive and forget than hold grudges. If it were up to her father in the beginning, she may have never danced. Thank goodness her mother intervened.

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