Friday 27 October 2017

Tamara Karsavina: Stravinsky's First Firebird by Janie Hampton

Tamara Karsavina in the studio of Wilhelm-Alfred Eberlin.
His self portrait is on the shelf, 1910.
This is the story of a British diplomat and a Russian prima ballerina caught up in the October 1917 Russian revolution, and their dramatic escape with their love-child.
In old age, relatives sometimes reveal family stories that are not secrets, they have just not mentioned them before. In her eighties, my mother told me that her father’s cousin had been a British diplomat during the 1917 revolution, and his lover was a Russian ballerina who had first danced Stravinsky’s The Firebird. I wanted to know more, so my daughter Daisy and I flew to St Petersburg. We visited the Imperial Stage School, with its original practice rooms, and the Marinsky Theatre, unchanged since its construction in 1860. We also found their apartment, now the premises of the Russian Red Cross Society, and discovered archives no-one had seen since 1917.
Henry James Bruce (1880-1951) was brought up in a stately home in Northern Ireland, built by Italian architects for his ancestor the Earl of Bristol. Henry’s father, Sir Hervey Juckes Bruce preferred animals to humans. He kept a tame grouse and a hare loose in the house; and his own pack of fox-hounds. One evening at dinner he said to the dowager on his right, "May I peel this peach for you? It’s too ripe for the monkey." Henry was educated at Eton and Oxford. In order to pass his entrance exam into the Foreign Office, he picked up French prostitutes in The Strand and gave them lunch in exchange for conversation. His good looks, intelligence and charm helped his promotion in 1913, to Head of Chancery at the British Embassy in St Petersburg at only 35 years. In addition to being highly skilled in de-cyphering codes, he was also an accomplished painter and writer.
Henry James Bruce in 1907.
Tamara Platonovna Karsavina (1885-1978) spent eight years of her childhood coping with the strict and punishing regime of the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, boarding for 50 weeks of the year. At fifteen, she performed for Tsar Nicholas II and his cousin the German Kaiser, and when she graduated aged 17 her exceptional proficiency was noticed and she was appointed as a soloist at the Marinsky Ballet. She toured Europe with classics such as Giselle and Les Sylphides.
Graduation from Imperial Ballet School, Theatre Street, 
St Petersburg, 1902. Karsavina is on the far right, aged 17. 
Ballerinas were usually considered to be merely decorative but the Russian intelligentsia embraced Tamara. Her beauty, technical perfection and intelligence enchanted and inspired choreographers, composers and designers. As Nijinsky's first dance partner, Tamara worked with impresario Diaghilev, artists Benois, Picasso and Matisse, the poet Potemkin, and the choreographer Michel Fokine. In 1909, she introduced Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to London and a year later inspired Igor Stravinsky to compose The Firebird . She influenced not only the theatre and dancing but also fashion, music and culture, all over Europe.

Rehearsal with Diaghlev's Ballet Russe company, probably 1910.
Seated at the piano is Stravinsky, Fokine is standing, Karsavina in centre in tutu. 
Henry and Tamara first met in 1913 at the Stray Dog Arts Café, a crowded cellar of Bohemian artists and poets. She danced barefoot among flowers to music written specially by Zelenski, played on an upright piano. Tamara had been having English lessons with the novelist Hugh Walpole (1884-1941), head of British propaganda in St Petersburg, who described Henry as "too handsome for his high intelligence". Henry and Tamara soon fell in love but she was already married to a dull aristocratic banker named Vasili Moukine. 
Vasili Moukine c 1915
In July 1914, Tamara danced in Debussy’s Daphnis et Chloe and Strauss’s Cleopatre at London’s Drury Lane. She was performing in Paris when war broke out that August. Determined to re-join the Imperial Ballet and Henry, she learned that the Russian border with Germany was closed, so travelled alone via Dover and Finland. In 1915 Tamara became pregnant and Moukine agreed to give her up, even though divorce was not possible under Russian Orthodox law. Despite the war in Europe, Tamara and Henry continued working in Petrograd, and lived together as a family, with baby Nikita.
Tamara Karsavina as Pharaoh's Daughter, circa 1904

On October 24, 1917, Henry wrote in his diary, “At 7 o’clock I left the Embassy to go to the ballet where I arrived peacefully by tram. The others [his embassy colleagues] arrived later, having all been arrested en route and taken to the barracks of the Pavlosk regiment, where they were apparently treated quite civilly and given a bit of paper to allow them to proceed.” The ballet that evening was The Nutcracker composed by Tchaikovsky in 1892, with Tamara as the Sugar Plum Fairy. “Tamara danced magnificently and had a tremendous reception. But the poor Marinsky was the ghost of itself, the stage half empty. After the ballet Tamara, Madam B and myself went by tram up to the Suviroff Square and proceeded to walk down the Millionaya, barred by pickets. The first person we met was a completely unperturbed Havery engaged in explaining to a soldier in his peerless Cockney Russian that he couldn’t help the soldier’s troubles; he had some letters to post, battle or no battle." Mr. Havery was the British Embassy messenger who had arrived in Russia 20 years earlier. Through thick and thin he ensured that embassy post was always delivered. In the preceding few days there had been intermittent gun-fire at night, but it was never clear who was shooting at whom.
“Everything had been quiet in the rest of the town, so we were surprised to find the Lord’s own holy racket going on round the Winter Palace, where the Government was putting up a last stand – field-guns, machine-guns, rifle fire, a destroyer from the river et tout le tremblement. Never heard such a row. Altogether the walk a very jumpy business.” They gathered that all the lift bridges across the River Neva were up, thus cutting off the north of the city, and a destroyer was pointing its guns at the Winter Palace, at the far end of their street. There was no electricity in their apartment and to take their minds off the sound of machine guns, they played cards by candlelight. “The last thing we heard last night was that everything is in favour of the Government and the Revolutionary Committee had been arrested. After supper I escorted Madame B home to a machine-gun obbligato and so to a very noisy bed.
“This morning early nobody knew what had happened, though it seemed pretty clear that the Government was down and out. This became increasingly clear as the day went on, until we heard that the whole town was in the hands of the Bolsheviks who had taken the State Bank, Telephone, etc.”  The next day Henry’s diary entry said simply, "Arrived safely at the Embassy to learn that Lenin was Prime Minister, Trotzky Foreign Minister."
Tamara Karsavina and Nikita Bruce in Petrograd, 1917
After the October Revolution, life grew steadily worse and everyone was a potential enemy. Despite Lenin’s great plans, there were still huge debts from the 1914 war; political and social anarchy; and a collapsed economy. During that winter, food became so scarce that after performances Tamara was presented with bags of flour, instead of flowers. Even so, she sometimes fainted after dancing. Tamara was no Tsarist: during the revolution in 1905, she and her friend, the dancer Anna Pavlova, had organised a dancers’ strike in solidarity with the factory workers. Tamara was threatened with dismissal, but saved by the Tsar's amnesty for strikers. She had welcomed the Tsar's abdication in March 1917, and she was relieved when the Bolshevik government insisted that the Marinsky should continue at the state’s expense. She was voted president of the Marinsky Theatre's Soviet Council, but nobody trusted anyone. The gilded imperial eagles in the theatre were ripped down, and the attendants' satin livery was replaced with military jackets. As part of the policy of the redistribution of decision-making, the carpenters chose the Marinsky’s programme. However their choices were based not on any knowledge of opera or ballet, but on which sets were easiest to construct. There was even talk of nationalising women, in order to re-distribute the beautiful wives of merchants among the factory workers.
In March 1918, fearing possible foreign invasion, Lenin moved the capital from Petrograd to Moscow, so all embassies had to move too. Three months later he declared Britain the enemy of the Bolshevik government, and British diplomats were ordered home, south via the Crimea. However, Henry travelled north to Petrograd to be with Tamara, and their 19-month-old son Nikita. In their spacious apartment in Millionaya Street, the ‘Park Lane’ of Russia, lived Nikita’s nursemaid, their Polish cook and Tamara’s old nanny. Now they also shared it with five other families, one to each room. There was only one kitchen and constant arguments between the women over the washing hanging in the passage. Water still flowed from the tap, but it was contaminated with cholera, and there was little fuel to boil it. The trees in the park had all been felled and even the wooden street cobbles had been dug up.
Because Nikita was half-British, and Tamara the lover of a British diplomat, they were both at risk of being denounced as enemies and imprisoned. As Tamara recalled 12 years later: “Rumours multiplied like microbes in a diseased body. Newspapers born overnight spread panicky informations and coined libels.” Tamara and Henry decided they had to leave Russia with Nikita as soon as possible. But all routes out of Petrograd were closed.
In the next instalment, find out how these lovers from opposing nations and clashing cultures, crossed lakes, marshes, forests and oceans, and survived revolution, capture and storms. 
Part Two is next month on November 27.
Tamara Karsavina in The Firebird, 1910.
Note: St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd in 1914. In 1924 it was changed to Leningrad, and back to St Petersburg in 1991.


Lesley Downer said...

Fascinating and timely!

Mary Hoffman said...

What a wonderful post! Can't wait for part two.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I had heard of this dancer, probably in the How And Why Wonder Book of Ballet, as a child, but not the accompanying story.

Sounds like a subject for a novel! When will you write it? :-)

Unknown said...

Karsavina was a great artist. Fascinating to read your post. I knew about Henry Bruce but obviously not in the detail you have uncovered. I always found it shocking that Karsavina could not be presented at court when she came to England because a dancer was still considered a dubious profession, So interesting that you are related to Henry Bruce.

AnnP said...

Fascinating story - I'm looking forward to hearing what happened next.

Janie Hampton said...

Yes, there is a book in this. I did write a proposal a few years ago. I did loads of research, and even learned Russian for it! But the advance I was offered by the publisher wouldn't have kept me for a month. Maybe now I'm a pensioner, I'll just write the whole book and see who wants it.

Unknown said...

It's a lovely piece, Janie. I know you've been working on this story ever since I met you nearly 20 years ago and it is one that deserves a wider audience.

aks said...

I'm reading Thirty Dozen Moons by H J Bruce which is what led me to this site.

Unknown said...

Concerning Karsavina's marriage to Benjie Bruce, the Petrograd Gazette wrote on 3/7/1918: “The beauty of our ballet T. P. Karsavina will in all probability leave Russia forever, for family reasons: the ballerina’s marriage to Mr. Bruce took place a few days ago.” You might be interested that I covered the Mukhin/Bruce relationship in my 2010 biography of her - Tamara Karsavina, Diaghilev's Ballerina.