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Tamara Karsavina

 

Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978), Russian ballet dancer.

 

Excerpt from her memoirs Theatre Street. New York, Dutton, 1931.

 

 

  The great sensation caused in the artistic world by the first appearance of Isadora Duncan was still fresh when, in the spring of 1907, Fokine produced his Eunice this time for inclusion in the repertoire.

 

  Isadora had rapidly conquered the Petersburg theatrical world. There were, of course, always the reactionary balletomanes, to whom the idea of a barefoot dancer seemed to deny the first principles of what they held to be sacred in art. This, however, was far from being the general opinion, and the feeling of a desire for novelty was in the air.

  Certainly the stories of Isadora’s private life, and the fact that she wore Greek costume in private life played no small part in her success, but looking back now over a number of years we can discount these facts.

 

  I remember that the first time I saw her dance I fell completely under her sway. It never occurred to me that there was the slightest hostility between her art and ours. There seemed room for both, and each had much that it could learn to advantage from the other.

 

  Later, in Paris, I viewed her from a more critical angle, because she had developed her now well known theories and explanations of her art. I could no more see her as an individual artist, but as a militant doctrinaire, and moreover I could feel many discrepancies between her ideals and her actual performances, though her theories were for the most part nebulous, and had little real connection with actual dancing on the stage.

 

  She had all the sentimentality of the New Englander, so incompatible with the rôle of a revolutionary.

 

  “It is in the unopened flower that I find the inspiration for the new dance... dancing must be something so big and so beautiful that the beholder says to himself, ‘I see before me the movements of the soul, the soul of an opening flower.’”

 

  In her strictures on ballet, which she termed a “false and artificial art,” Duncan blindly attacked the essential element of all stage art - artificiality. Like a child who knows the alphabet but cannot yet read a book, in her limited sectarian vision, she laid down the principle that the art of dancing must return to its natural state, its very alphabet.

  Whoever said that nature never produced a symphony by Beethoven or a landscape by Ruysdael answered her arguments with finality. However, a great artist can be an indifferent theorist, and the perfectly genuine impulsiveness of her bodily movements should have been sufficient reason for her art, unaided by far-fetched arguments.

 

  Her art was personal by its very nature, and could only have remained so. Through my own experience I realised that teaching is not the conveying of your personal knowledge to the pupil, neither is it to model the pupil after your own individual shape. Teaching of art can only be based on what the consecutive achievement of the ages has built up - technique, in fact.

 

  Duncan’s thesis was completely overpowered when Fokine, equipped with all the technique of balletic form, made Eunice as a direct tribute to her, with a far greater range of movements than those at the command of Duncan or her pupils.

  It was possible for us with our training to have danced as she did, but she, with her very limited vocabulary, could not have emulated us. She had created no new art. Duncanism was but a part of the art to which we had the key. All the amateurs, who to-day seek a short cut to success as dancers, and seek to express themselves by prancing about in Greek costume, are the result of these mistaken doctrines.

 

  My admiration for the artist herself has not diminished in spite of my critical attitude. I have retained two vivid impressions of that season that to me sum up both the shortcomings and the sublime qualities of that remarkable artist.

 

  As was her custom, before the curtain rose on her dances to the music of Tannhäuser, she addressed the public to explain her interpretation, and she told them that she considered that the climax of the Venusberg music was too mighty for expression by the dance, and that a darkened stage and the spectator’s imagination could alone supply the necessary intensity of feeling.

 

  But when she interpreted the Elysian Fields, then her artistic means were not only adequate, but raised to the same level of supreme and absolute beauty as the music of Gluck itself. She moved with those wonderful steps of hers with a simplicity and detachment that could only come through the intuition of genius itself. She seemed to float, a complete vision of peace and harmony, that very embodiment of the classical spirit that was her ideal.

 

  In truth, Eunice was a compromise between our tradition and the Hellenic revival embodied by Isadora.

 

 

 

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