Saved: portrait of the queen of dance who changed the course of ballet

Donors contribute to buy painting of Tamara Karsavina, co-founder of the London ballet school

A rare and valuable portrait of the Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova’s great rival and one of the key dancers behind a revolution in ballet, has been bought for the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). Karsavina presided over the London teaching school, which she co-founded, for many years, instilling a modern emphasis on expressive movement over stiff tradition.

“This is such a ravishing and iconic picture, I thought the RAD should have it when I heard it was up for auction at Christie’s at the end of last year,” said Lady Sainsbury of Preston Candover, the former dancer Anya Linden. “The great English choreographer Frederick Ashton once wrote that working with Karsavina was like being visited by ‘a queen from a bigger and more glamorous world’, and he said that her generosity, humanity and discipline had inspired the whole company of Royal Ballet dancers.”

Linden swiftly co-ordinated a fundraising effort among wealthy donors across Britain in December and secured the painting, by Jacques-Émile Blanche, for a sum believed to be around £60,000. “We now think this portrait of Karsavina was painted earlier than believed, probably in Paris around 1912,” she said.

The portrait belonged to the English dance teacher Roger Tully, who died last year, and is one of two of the ballerina by the artist. The other shows Karsavina in costume as The Firebird, a role she created at the Paris Opera, where the painting now hangs near to the stage where the Stravinsky ballet premiered. The RAD portrait will be unveiled this autumn in its new Battersea headquarters.

Karsavina was born in St Petersburg in 1885. After an early career with the Imperial Ballet, dancing leading roles alongside Pavlova, she fled the Red Army for London in 1918 with her British diplomat husband, Henry Bruce. She also starred in Sergei Diaghilev’s influential Ballets Russes productions, sharing a stage with Vaslav Nijinsky in Paris.

Tamara Karsavina dancing in Paris in 1926.
Tamara Karsavina dancing in Paris in 1926. Photograph: © Royal Academy of Dance

Karsavina went on to help establish the Royal Ballet in London and to privately coach prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, as well as designing the syllabuses for the RAD in 1954. “Sadly, I didn’t ever meet her,” said Linden, 88, who trained and danced at Sadler’s Wells. “But I did watch her once from a balcony over a studio as she coached Margot Fonteyn in the mime scene from Giselle. I know she also coached Margot for Firebird. It would have been wonderful to see that, too.”

Ashton absorbed much of Karsavina’s technique, added Linden, citing a key moment in the ballet Spectre de la rose, which the Russian ballerina had danced with Nijinsky. “She wakes up to find a rose that tells her she was not dreaming. The way she moved allowed you to imagine the amazing scent of this flower,” she said. “Fred thought it was important, and I think he took something of that and used it again in a scene in his ballet A Month in the Country.”

The dancer also passed on key original Russian choreographic detail for the Royal Ballet’s beloved Ashton production of La fille mal gardée.

Karsavina could speak little English when she arrived in London but, by 1931 she had written her memoir, Theatre Street, in her second language. In it, she described her dramatic flight from Russia with her husband: “For several days we met no impediment on the way, but the sense of lurking danger was with us the whole time… We were playing for high stakes and playing blindfold.”

After her death in 1978, Karsavina’s achievements were marked with a plaque on the wall in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, known as the actors’ church. Its simple wording gives her name and dates and then affords her the highest status, “prima ballerina assoluta”.

Contributor

Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Isabel Rawsthorne: elusive painter who led the art world a merry dance

Maev Kennedy: She painted Margot Fonteyn, posed for Picasso and may have been a second-world-war spy. Now, 20 years after her death, the little-known British artist has her own exhibition in London

Maev Kennedy

26, Mar, 2013 @9:57 AM

Step-by-step guide to dance: Frederick Ashton
Inspired by the dancing of Pavlova and Fonteyn, Ashton’s lyrical, restrained choreography created a very English kind of ballet

Sanjoy Roy

04, Mar, 2010 @12:42 PM

Plucky Sylvia takes a bow

Dance: Jann Parry on Sylvia | Rambert Dance Company

Jann Parry

07, Nov, 2004 @1:33 AM

Article image
Ballet companies must stop wrecking our bodies, warns Russian star
Irina Kolesnikova, who performs at London’s Coliseum in August, says dancers should be nurtured, not pushed to the limits

Dalya Alberge

30, Apr, 2016 @9:24 PM

Did they do this offstage too?
A new British film will claim that Margot Fonteyn and her celebrated (mostly) gay dance partner Rudolf Nureyev enjoyed passionate clinches outside the theatre.

Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

27, Mar, 2005 @2:02 AM

Article image
Jacqueline Du Pré’s life inspires new Royal Ballet production
The choreographer Cathy Marston drew on personal experience to portray the cellist’s genius and suffering

Dalya Alberge

12, Jan, 2020 @9:08 AM

Article image
Birmingham Royal Ballet; Beijing Dance Theatre – review
Birmingham Royal Ballet go for old and clunky, while it's all smoke and mattresses with Beijing Dance Theatre, says Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

22, Oct, 2011 @11:05 PM

Article image
Judith Mackrell on Diaghilev's Ballet Russes: a century of sensation

It is exactly 100 years since Diaghilev's Ballets Russes changed ballet for ever. Judith Mackrell on how today's choreographers are paying tribute

Judith Mackrell

03, May, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Regency nip and tuck … ‘new’ Constable portrait reveals the artist’s diplomacy
The newly discovered painting of Emily Treslove, the artist’s neighbour, was redone to lose her double chin

Dalya Alberge

18, Sep, 2021 @12:35 PM

Article image
Sergei Polunin says ballet must shake off ‘elitist image’ or die
Controversial Ukrainian star says classical dance must seek out talented directors from the worlds of films and musicals

Dalya Alberge

29, Jul, 2017 @11:05 PM