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September 6, 2006

Kschessinska's memoirs

I’ve actually finished a book recently. This is more of an accomplishment than it sounds, since college, especially since I took up knitting because no matter what I try I cannot knit and read at the same time, I feel like I’ve become a functional illiterate.

But in dribs and drabs I managed to finish Mathilde Kschessinska’s memoirs, Dancing in Petersburg. Kschessinka was a prima ballerina assoluta (one of the few who legitimately held the title) of the Mariinsky Theater and also the lover of Tsar Nicholas II . . . as well as several of his relations, eventually marrying his cousin, the Grand Duke André.

It’s a juicy story and she lived in, as the Chinese say, interesting times, but her memoirs are even more fascinating as a study in narrative voice than they are as history. Kschessinska is decidedly selective about what she tells the reader and even as she tells an incident you’re aware that facts are being left out. She was ebullient, scheming, self-justifying, talented, affectionate, beautiful, formidable and a survivor. A cuddly monster.

The book gives a vivid picture of court and theater life at St. Petersburg before WWI and the Russian Revolution. Her stories about her run-ins with theater management or her ambivalent relationship with Pavlova are fascinating – especially the way Kschessinska tries to gloss over the fights. Beyond her servants, Kschessinska is blissfully unaware (or unconcerned) with the life of the working class in Russia and the forces that impelled social upheaval, but their invisibility to her tells you something as well. I wish she had written more about the ballets she danced, but like many great dancers she only seems to know them from the perspective of her own performance; the accolades - and the presents - she received.

She wrote her memoirs in the 1950s and died in 1971 just shy of her 100th birthday. Close to the end of the book she becomes briefly philosophical.

Nijinsky’s memory leads me to an analysis of what separates us from the new generations. Modern dancers, I am happy to say, greatly surpass their predecessors in technique. It is only natural that technique should advance. But few of these dancers are comparable with Rosita Mauri, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vera Trefilova, Olga Preobrajenska, Olga Spessivtseva. Their acting is not as powerful as that of the ballerinas of old.

. . .

Today’s dancers, ready to sacrifice everything on the altar of a frenzied technique, seem to forget that virtuosity without soul is dead art. Their technique is so extraordinary that one wonders how they achieved such results; but these feats leave us cold and cannot give the spectator the least feeling or emotion.

(Kschessinska Memoirs p. 266)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Kschessinska is probably comparing dancers from an extremely strong period in the Mariinsky’s history to dancers from a fallow period at the Paris Opera, which could be part of the complaint. There is also a human tendency to believe in deterioration. Part of what we see as deterioration is a shift in cultural expectations and cues. In correspondence I had with Bob Gottlieb, who’s been watching dance in New York a good three decades more than I, he described a dancer as uninteresting and cold. I found that dancer warm and fascinating; there was a gulf in perception that was more than just taste. The cues he learned that say “fascinating” to him are different than the ones I learned and that the cues and standards of people twenty years younger than me are already different as well. Gottlieb’s standards aren’t incorrect, nor are mine. But I’m already seeing the same gulf after only two decades and I imagine it will only get more pronounced when I’m older and complaining that they don’t make ‘em like Darci Kistler anymore.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at September 6, 2006 12:12 PM

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