Bloomsbury ballerina

Canvas Issue 21 by Judith Mackrell

Anyone who has read even a sample of Bloomsbury memoirs and biographies will be familiar with the name of Lydia Lopokova. The witty, vivid little ballerina who danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and was married to the economist John Maynard Keynes has flitted through hundreds of footnotes and anecdotes attached to the lives of Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey et al. Yet these anecdotes reveal very little detail about Lydia herself. Based on the literature of Bloomsbury, readers could hardly know that at the peak of her career Lydia’s celebrity was greater than that of any of the writers or artists whom she encountered at Charleston or Gordon Square. They could not know that when journalists flocked to her wedding with Maynard in 1925, it was Lydia who was the main draw. ‘Famous ballerina marries British economist’ was the evening headline – revealingly stressed.

It was the brevity of Lydia’s appearances in Bloomsbury records that initially sparked my own interest in writing her life. I wanted to know why (with the exception of biographies of Keynes) so little had been made of her. Two main factors emerged from my research. The first was Lydia herself, for after she had given up the stage in 1938, and after Maynard’s death in 1946, she displayed an almost perverse indifference to perpetuating the glories of her former career. Living in increasingly contented seclusion in Tilton, the house in Sussex where she had lived with Maynard, she stubbornly refused to write her memoirs, to speak to journalists or to be feted in any formal way by the ballet world. (When a commemorative exhibition of the Ballets Russes was held in London in 1954 Lydia refused to go to the gala opening, but was later spotted queuing up for entrance among a troop of boy scouts.)

To some extent the historians of Bloomsbury cannot be blamed for reporting the facts of Lydia’s career so fleetingly. She herself was so effective in erasing her fame that even within ballet circles few now remember that there was a time when Lydia meant as much to her public as Margot Fonteyn or Darcey Bussell subsequently did to theirs.

But another factor influencing Lydia’s peripheral role in Bloomsbury literature is that even when she was living in the heart of the circle and was a daily presence in Gordon Square as Maynard’s mistress and then as his wife, her neighbours could not quite take her seriously. Lydia’s origins were so foreign, her professional concerns so unlike their own, that she appears not to have fully engaged their collective imagination. Duncan, Vanessa, and Roger Fry might have painted her; Clive Bell, during a brief balletomane phase, might have composed an essay about her dancing. But reading through the letters, the diaries and reported conversations, what emerges is a fundamental lack of curiosity, an unwillingness to treat Lydia as more than an exotic novelty, a ‘canary brained ballerina’.

Such generalisation may sound overly defensive and as Lydia’s biographer I have tried to avoid raking over issues of Bloomsbury insiders and outsiders, of casting her as yet another victim of the group’s cliquishness. David Garnett was always fascinated by her, and so eventually was E.M. Forster. Yet Forster would also guiltily write of ‘how we all underestimated her’ and it is hard to disagree. When Maynard first introduced Lydia to his circle in 1922 the surprise and consternation that ensued was not simply on account of his having finally fallen in love with a woman. It was that Lydia was so very obviously different. Uneducated – and a foreigner.

The following anecdote is revealing. In 1923 Maynard assembled a group of friends in a large country house in Dorset, to share his and Lydia’s summer holiday. She did not enjoy herself. Her fellow guests were a dauntingly select group of Cambridge and London intellectuals, and Virginia Woolf, who was among them, observed with detached amusement how miserably Lydia squirmed against being patronised. Writing to her friend Jacques Raverat, she joked, ‘Poor little wretch, trapped in Bloomsbury… Nobody can take her seriously, and every nice man kisses her. Then she flies into a rage and says she is … a seerious wooman.’ (Virginia Woolf to Jacques Raverat, 4 November 1923)

Virginia was also observing Lydia’s difficulties with English etiquette, and with the starched army of servants who ran Knoll House, the seaside home of the Duke of Hamilton. Especially diverting to her was an incident through which Lydia caused drastic offence to the household, discarding a used sanitary towel in a fireplace. As Virginia reported to Raverat, ‘Lydia, whose father was porter in a Petersburg hotel and whose entire life has been spent hopping from foot to foot with the daughters of publicans, did not know this perhaps most binding of all laws of female life. The cook’s husband and the Duke’s valet did the room. Soon the Cook herself requested to speak with the lady. There was such a scene … rages, tears, despair outrage.’ (ibid.) Raverat was at this point a dying man, and Virginia’s letter was intended, above all, to distract and entertain. She had to be allowed comic licence. Yet even granting this, Virginia’s cavalier dismissal of Lydia’s past was an all-too-typical Bloomsbury reflex and it showed a typical disregard of what was, in fact, a rich and remarkable story.

Lydia was certainly the daughter of a poor man, but Vasili Lopukhov had been a great deal more than a hotel porter. Quick-witted and gregarious, a natural singer and actor, he hankered after a world of culture and after serving his term in the army he got himself employed in St Petersburg’s most magnificent theatre, the Alexandrinsky. Here Vasili’s abilities earned him rapid promotion to head usher and even though his growing addiction to alcohol would eventually blight his prospects, he was able to use his theatre contacts to launch his children on extraordinary lives. He won four of them places at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, from which Fedor, the oldest son, would go on to become artistic director of the Mariinsky Ballet (later the Kirov); Evgenia, the oldest daughter, to starring roles in Russian musical theatre; and Lydia herself to a career that would be ranked by critics alongside those of Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina.

During the course of Lydia’s early career she experienced a variety of people, places, and events far beyond the placid worlds in which Maynard and his friends had mostly been raised. From the age of nine she was dancing child roles at the Mariinsky, for the pleasure of the Tsar. She was caught up in the turbulence of the 1905-6 uprisings, and when she graduated into the Mariinsky in 1909 she was accepted into the company’s most radical faction of dancers, which itself formed the core of the company assembled by Serge Diaghilev to export Russia’s new avant-garde ballet to Europe.

Lydia danced with the second of Diaghilev’s seasons in Paris, in the summer of 1910. This itself made ballet history, featuring as it did the premieres of Stravinsky’s The Firebird and the provocatively lush Schéhérazade. It changed Lydia’s life. She had left Russia as an eighteen-year-old junior in the corps de ballet, but in Paris she was elevated to the status of ballerina. ‘La Précose’ – as the Parisians called Lydia – captivated her new public with the musicality of her dancing, the blithe spontaneity of her performance manner, and the baby-faced prettiness of her charm. By the end of the summer she was being feted almost as enthusiastically as Nijinsky or Karsavina and was surrounded by theatrical agents competing to lure her onto the stages of London or New York.

She chose New York and, led by a mixture of courage and fecklessness that would typify her career, she abandoned her family to spend the next five years in America. There was no serious ballet culture there, but foreign ‘toe dancers’ were considered a classy addition to vaudeville, cabaret and musical comedy. Within months of her arrival Lydia had not only acquired an adoring following but an astonishing market value, and between 1912 and 1913 was earning $2,000 a week, dancing on Broadway.

But Lydia was also easily bored. In 1916, when Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes arrived to dance in New York, she threw over her thousand-dollar contracts, along with her engagement to the celebrity journalist Heywood Broun, in order to rejoin the company on its globe-trotting tours. By this time much of Europe was locked down in war and the conditions of Lydia’s new life were frequently perilous. She and her colleagues were barricaded into a Lisbon hotel for three days during the Portuguese revolution; they routinely had to dodge German U-boats on Atlantic crossings; they endured poverty, exhaustion and the threat of Spanish influenza; and during much of this period they were also gripped in anxious speculation about the fate of their families back in Russia, as the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and the world in which they had grown up was ripped apart.

Yet there was also intense creative excitement. During this period Lydia performed roles in some of Diaghilev’s most vibrant new repertory, including the Cubist ballet Parade, created in 1917 by Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie and Léonide Massine. She became close to these men, Picasso in particular, and also Igor Stravinsky, with whom she had an affair. And if Lydia would later regret her lack of university education, by the time of her first visit to London in 1918 and certainly by the time she became Maynard’s mistress she was formidably experienced – fluent in three languages, an accomplished pianist, an actor of some talent as well as a dancer of international renown.

We do not, however, read about this adventurous, ambitious life making any great impression on Maynard’s circle. Virginia would use Lydia twice for her own literary purposes, observing her as a (rather unsympathetic) character model for Rezia, the little milliner in Mrs Dalloway; then in 1928 requesting her help in checking the accuracy of the Russian chapters of Orlando. Years later Quentin Bell would recall having had fascinating conversations with Lydia when he was a schoolboy, sitting in the kitchen of Number 50 Gordon Square with her and listening to stories about the ‘droshkies and zakusis and wolves and samovars’ of Russia.

The fact that Lydia was not taken seriously as a fellow artist underlies, I believe, certain truths about the cultural register of Bloomsbury, in particular its very English aesthetic and sensibility. Despite the group’s interest in the Post-Impressionists or in contemporary French literature, the worlds described in Woolf’s novels, the characters in Strachey’s essays, the scenes painted by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant tended to be very close to home. Their focus tended to be private and domestic and Lydia, who had never lived in anything more permanent than a hotel room until she’d met Maynard and who performed her art on an international stage, represented a world that was perhaps too crowded and above all too theatrical to appeal.

Certainly ballet itself did not rank highly within Bloomsbury. Before the First World War, when Diaghilev’s company had given its first London seasons, the general consensus was that while the dancers were spectacularly gifted, the repertory (at that period trading heavily on Russian folklore and romantic exoticism) was too self-promotingly colourful a spectacle. That changed in the period between 1918–19 when the Ballets Russes returned to London. Diaghilev had by now positioned himself at the heart of European modernism, not only through his collaborations with Picasso and Cocteau, but through his contacts with the Italian Futurists. In the brilliant novelty of the company’s first post-war season, most of intellectual and artistic London including Bloomsbury turned momentarily balletomane. Ezra Pound, Rebecca West and

T.S. Eliot were writing about the Ballets Russes in the small magazines while the painters were fascinated by the ways in which the company’s new, semi-abstract repertory shaped the dancing body and configured it in space.

Lydia at that moment was much courted. She was Diaghilev’s lead ballerina and with her near-fluent English she was an easier party or supper guest than many of her colleagues.. Yet by the time that she and Maynard had become a couple and she was poised to become more than a social novelty in Bloomsbury, the group’s flirtation with ballet had waned. Duncan was the interesting exception, not only sketching Lydia but designing several costumes for her. Otherwise Vanessa’s complaint to Roger Fry that ‘there is some truth to Clive’s complaint that Lydia has just one subject, ballet’ suggests how limited their interest now was in her art.

By this point, too, Bloomsbury’s appreciation of Lydia was muddied by other issues. Maynard, with the best of intentions but with typical impatience, had immediately moved his new mistress into the heart of Bloomsbury, where she shared living space with Vanessa at 50 Gordon Square and communal meals at Number 46. He saw no reason why Lydia would not be welcomed there, but there were all too many. Duncan, as Maynard’s former lover, found it disturbing that Maynard had fallen so very much in love with a woman. Clive, who had once fancied Lydia himself, was jealous. Vanessa, who had her own possessive claims on Maynard’s time and friendship, felt ousted. And what drove everyone mad was being put into daily contact with Lydia’s very Russian and very theatrical style of socialising. When she came home from the theatre she liked to talk, and not only did she interrupt Vanessa at her easel but she interfered with the social dynamic at meal times and parties. Unskilled in the nuances of Bloomsbury conversation, Lydia, with her jokes and chatter and gossip, was increasingly perceived as an intrusion. ‘One cannot argue solidly in her presence,’ fumed Virginia. And once Maynard began to show signs of wanting to make her presence permanent, Lydia appeared even more of a threat. As Maynard’s wife it was feared that she would dull his intellect and lure him into other, less rarefied social circles. She would divide him altogether from his friends.

Given the degree of suspicion, irritation and even hostility that Lydia aroused, it is hardly surprising that the Bloomsbury letters and diaries of the 1920s feature her in an un-flattering light. But from Lydia herself we get far more carefully censored views. The snubs that she received certainly wounded her – once when she saw Vanessa in the street she shook her fist at her, believing herself to be unseen. But while she would confide her hurt and confusion to her close friend Vera Bowen, confessing in the winter of 1923 that she believed Bloomsbury was conspiring to kill off her relationship with Maynard, to Maynard himself she revealed almost nothing.

A combination of pride and caution prevented her from forcing the issue into the open and she would risk only the occasional joke about the elevatedness of Bloomsbury conversation and her own apparent unfitness for it. ‘Why do I blab so much?’ she wrote. ‘I ought to be like Lytton when he is in society, but then there is no beard attached to me.’

During her long and sometimes isolated career Lydia had learned pragmatism and self-reliance. She knew that her best line of defence was simply to dig herself in; and over the years, as Bloomsbury was faced with the peculiarly tender happiness of her and Maynard’s marriage, and was forced to acknowledge that she had a more ‘solid head piece’ than had initially been allowed, most of the group came to accept Lydia. In some cases (notably Duncan, Leonard Woolf, Bunny Garnett and E.M. Forster) they came to love her. Yet Lydia was not treated as an equal. During the 1960s, when Henrietta Garnett used to listen to her grandmother Vanessa tell stories of the old days, the girl was puzzled by the fact that any reference to Lydia and her dancing was undercut by ‘a tolerant and superior laugh’.

Then, as now, when the collective talents and achievements of Bloomsbury were assessed, scant recognition was given to Lydia as the great ballerina in their midst.

Judith Mackrell’s Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova, Imperial Dancer and Mrs John Maynard Keynes is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25.00

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