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A consummate costumer.

"Costumes [are] that which uncovers the soul," wrote the great theatrical designer Edward Gordon Craig. "The flesh and bones are the costumes of the soul. Reveal them then." He could have been speaking of the ultimate triumph of Barbara Karinska, one of the great dance costumers of the twentieth century. Her fifty-year career, from 1927 to 1977, is inseparable from that of her most important collaborator, choreographer George Balanchine. She executed more than seventy-five of his ballets, and together they forever altered the appearance, line, and capabilities of the modern-day ballet dancer.

Karinska dressed her first ballet for Balanchine in Monte Carlo for the Ballets Russes in 1932; she took her magnificent farewell bow, at age 92, in New York City forty-five years later, in a mesmerizing swirl of Parisian satin that flooded the stage in Vienna Waltzes. At her death in 1983, she left behind a legacy of thousands upon thousands of costumes that together form a sensual trail of velvet, silk, chiffon, and tulle that forged a path through the performing arts of the twentieth century.

Born Varvara Andryevna Zmoudsky in the Ukraine in 1886, Karinska was, appropriately enough, the daughter of a textile merchant and eldest of his ten children. After a privileged childhood marked by a sophisticated education from European governesses, Karinska had two brief marriages before she fled the Bolsheviks and her native Russia forever in 1924 with her daughter Irene and nephew Lawrence Vlady in tow. For her escape, in an uncanny foreshadowing of her future career, she stitched the family jewels inside Irene's hat and muff. Perhaps a seed was planted in this covert act, for Karinska would spend the rest of her long life, as if in rebellion to her oppressors, sewing jewels on the outside of garments for all the world to enjoy.

Though her crowning achievement lay in the 9,000 costumes she made for New York City Ballet, Karinska's influence could be found in virtually every arena of the performing arts--from the dramas of Louis Jouvet, the farces of the Comedie Francaise, to musicals and dramas on Broadway, to ice shows, cabarets, and burlesque revues. She treated a production of Mike Todd's Star and Garter showcasing Gypsy Rose Lee with the same care and attention as Turandot for the Metropolitan Opera.

Besides Balanchine's, she clothed many ballets for Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine, Frederick Ashton, Agnes de Mille, and Jerome Robbins, and reproduced in three dimensions the designs of some of the great artists of her time: Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Pavel Tchelitchew, Giorgio de Chirico, Isamu Noguchi, Andre Derain, Balthus, Christian Berard, Leon Bakst, Cecil Beaton, Joan Miro, and Robert Rauschenberg.

In eleven Hollywood movies of the 1940s and '50s Karinska executed costumes for such stars as Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Leslie Caron, Gary Cooper, Vivien Leigh, Gene Kelly, Charles Boyer, and Olivia de Havilland. In 1948 she won, along with Dorothy Jeakins, the first Oscar given for costume design for the film Joan of Arc, starring Ingrid Bergman.

Two years later, back in the land of Balanchine, Karinska developed a new design for a tutu that radically changed the look of his ballets and his dancers. This so-called "powder-puff" tutu, designed for Symphony in C, was the answer to Balanchine's search for a more flattering tutu than the flat "pancake" style that still prevailed from the nineteenth century. Losing the wide, unwieldy hoop at the outer edges of the skirt, Karinska shortened the tutu to reveal more leg, layered the skirt to give it a soft, natural fall on the hips and a jaunty youthful bounce, and cut the panels of the bodice on the bias for a corseted look in which the dancer could still breathe.

This tutu perfectly mirrored Balanchine's lucid, multifaceted portrait of the modern woman as lithe, fast, glamorous, intoxicatingly beautiful, and, most significantly, entirely flee in her movement of both body and spirit. Witness her costumes for Allegra Kent as a geisha in Bugaku, Patricia McBride as a Ruby in Jewels, Tanaquil Le Clereq as a tragic young beauty in La Valse, and the twenty women in Serenade as nothing less than angelic messengers shadowed in the translucent blue hue of another time and space. "To the New York City, Ballet," said Karinska, "I gave my heart." Twenty years after her death, that heart still beats every time the curtain is raised on a Karinska-dressed Balanchine ballet.

Toni Bentley danced with NYCB for ten years and is the author of Costumes by Karinska and Sisters of Salome. She is co-author, with Suzanne Farrell, of Farrell's autobiography, Holding On to the Air. A new edition of her hook Winter Season: A Dancer's Journal, with a revised preface by the author, is now available from the University Press of Florida.
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Title Annotation:Biography; costume designer Barabar Karinska
Author:Bentley, Toni
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Previous Article:Memories of Madame Karinska.
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