Memories of Madame Karinska.
Karinska made legions of glorious garments for ballerinas, premier danseurs, the corps de ballet, divas, and actors portraying all sorts of characters--mice, men, queens, goddesses, and bumpkins for the movies, theater, musicals, opera, and ballet. I was lucky that a few of her woven wonders were made for me.
I first saw Madame Karinska backstage one evening at the City Center while she was directing a last-minute costume delivery. A trim woman in a navy-blue suit, with a short crop of lavender hair, was pointing in various directions to her staff. A team of men and women with costumes folded over their arms was bustling about, searching for the dressing areas. The costumes were for immediate use. And for the most part, the seams world be sewn, not merely pinned, in place. I learned that there was never time to get everything done. This was in 1953, and I was a brand-new member of the New York City Ballet--a wide-eyed 15-year-old who had never witnessed such a spectacle before. Yet what made the biggest impression on me was Karinska's lavender hair. I wondered if the beatify parlor had made a mistake. I was soon to learn that there were no mistakes with this extraordinary woman.
Later that year I was sent down to Karinska's shop for a fitting. Up to that time I had worn oilier girls' costumes, but now I was in the corps of a new work by Lew Christensen called Con Amore. After I had stripped to tights and leotard, my measurements were taken and recorded in a black notebook; not only waist, hips, and bust, but also inseam, head girth, and wrist. Then a long, tulle, yellow-ocher skirt was pinned at my waist and a bodice was positioned over it with little tugs, adjusting the center of me to the center of it. All of lilts was done by a kindly Russian woman. When Karinska appeared at the doorway, her assistant announced, "This is Kent." Karinska nodded nonchalantly and walked over to inspect me, wearing her usual navy blue suit and sensible shoes, her lavender hair adding a touch of wit. Her eye had detected an imperfection on my costume. Scrunching up a bit of fabric with her fingertips, she fiddled and twisted, giving instructions in rapid Russian. I perceived that I was more object than subject. The subject was "tutu." But just as she left the room, she gave ore a small encouraging smile.
Ten years later--when I went in for my Bugaku fitting--Karinska and I were old friends. She had made many costumes for me, including those I wore in The Seven Deadly Sins and Stars and Stripes and even a "secret" white tutu for Swan Lake to pack for our Australian tour, just in ease I had to dance Odette. Now, for this Asian occasion, Balanchine came with me to the shop. As the waistband of my tutu was secured, I looked down and gasped at the beauty of the details. The skirt formed a giant fuschia chrysanthemum. At the tip of each pointed petal was a dewy rhinestone. The paler pink bodice had a few thin gold stripes and kimono sleeves. Karinska gleamed an exultant smile as Balanchine said, "A triumph!" The wig that I was to wear throughout the ballet was a sculpted sweep of shiny black horsehair with two little nests of jeweled ornaments. It was practically weightless. Edward Villella's wig, which I saw resting on a wooden head form, resembled a samurai warrior's hairstyle and mine a geisha's.
But there was more. Over white tights, I tried on a white bikini with appliques made of fabric flowers. And then a white silk organza kimono was brought into the room. All its edges were finished with a roll of white horsehair tubing and it had a long train. Dipping my arms through the sleeves, I secured it in place with one snap hidden under a small flower. The gown had fluidity and transparency but no weight. Dancing in it, I would feel like a flying fish riding over the waves. Bending down, Karinska picked up the long tail and flung it into the air. "All," said Mr. B as he watched the fabric floating to the floor. Choreography and costume had merged with gauzy grace.
In 1970, at another of my fittings at Karinska's shop, Madame was crocheting a green woolen chain, pulling loop through loop with her crochet hook. The new costumes for The Firebird were in production. Working from drawings by the original designer, Marc Chagall--vivid, bold, impressionistic--Karinska had to fill in what was missing. She explained that she was making steins for the flowers to be attached to the maidens' dresses. There was something charming about seeing Karinska working on a stein. Maybe, like me, she had learned to crochet as a child. Maybe her grandmother had taught her. Maybe they spoke together about fairy tales and the mythical Firebird. Certainly Karinska's work for this ballet was of the long ago and far away, springing from her cultural heritage. Firebird, with its magnificent purples and crimsons, was another one of her monumental achievements.
Once, while I was visiting her at home, Karinska led me to her closet to see one of her dresses from the 1920s, a navy-blue sheath entrusted with beads. "Take it down," she requested.
I almost couldn't; it must have weighed twenty pounds or more. I gave her a strange look.
"Yes, I wore it."
Onstage Karinska had created weightless confections for her subjects, yet she had worn heavy clothes in everyday life. For the stage, garments had to he etherealized for effortless motion.
I lived an important part of my life in Karinska's creations. Night after night during many seasons over the course of thirty years, I pursued my childhood dream of dancing, and I did so for the most part in her costumes. I explored some of the greatest choreography ever invented while booked or snapped up in her sumptuous creations.
And I wasn't the only one in my family to wear a Karinska original. One day in 1962 when I went to the shop for a fitting, Karinska had a surprise for me--a little puff of pink on a tiny hanger. "For your daughter," she said. A tender tutu for Trista. Karinska understood that side of me. And it fit my daughter perfectly without a single fitting.
Thank you forever, Madame.
Allegra Kent danced with the New York City Ballet from 1953 to 1983, becoming a principal in 1956. Her autobiography, Once a Dancer, is available from St. Martin's Press.