Spotlight Saturday: Lydia Lopokova
Today's Spotlight Saturday features a beloved Ballets Russes ballerina who dropped off the radar later in life - Lydia Lopokova. I was fortunate enough to find a biography of Lydia on my last trip to Wellington (Bloomsbury Ballerina, by Judith Mackrell), and it has proved to be an absolute treasure trove of stories, not only about the Ballets Russes, but about intellectuals, artists, and politicians of the time in Europe and America. Warning: this will probably be long, but worth it!
Lydia Lopokova, Lilac Fairy, 'The Sleeping Princess', Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, London, 1921
Lydia (born Lidia Vasilyevna Lopukhova) was born in st. Petersburg on 21 October 1892. Her father worked at the Alexandrinsky Theatre as an usher, and her mother, affectionately known as Karlusha, looked after the six Lopokhov children in a small flat on the Nevsky Prospect. Lydia would later remember that she slept on a shelf above the stove, especially when in the middle of winter to try to keep warm. Her father was, at least at first, good at his job, and managed to wrangle Imperial Ballet School auditions for his children. Three would have long professional careers; Lydia's sister Evgenia was a dancer for the Imperial Ballet and later the State Ballet, and her brother Fedor a successful ballet master and choreographer who was beloved by his students but often on the wrong side of the authorities. Lydia, the younger of the three, was taken by her father to the Imperial Ballet School for a gruelling day of auditions. Spots in the Imperial Ballet School were coveted prizes, assurances of a life of reasonable comfort (at the very least, food to eat and a bed to sleep in, and ballerinas were often the recipients of rich gifts and favours from patrons such as the Grand Dukes). By the end of the day, only ten students were left, and Lydia was one of them.
Lydia dressed for a student role in the Legat Brothers' 'The Fairy Doll', which starred Nikolai and Sergei Legat with Olga Preobrajenska, and was performed before the Tsar; Mariinsky, 1903
Because the Imperial Ballet School was on Theatre Street and not, relatively speaking, too far from Nevsky Prospect, Lydia was sometimes allowed to go home on weekends. Otherwise, her memories of the school gel with the recollections of other graduates like Danilova; the uniforms were scratchy and unflattering, the food unappealing, the baths too cold, and the schoolmistresses strict. It was not uncommon to hear one or more of one's classmates sobbing in the dormitory, missing their mothers. Lydia, however, was a favourite with everyone from the very beginning. She was a pretty, cherubic girl with a surprising sense of humour, a sharp wit, and an infectious energy. The older girls doted on her, and she was the favourite of many of her teachers. Most importantly, she was the favourite of choreographer and teacher Mikhail Fokine. Fokine created several roles at the school for Lydia, and being the star pupil (she was undeniably very talented), she was given many opportunities to appear on the Imperial stage. While awaiting the school carriage after a performance one night, Lydia and her friends were offered a lift by the prima ballerina Mathilda Kschessinskaya. Lydia, shocked, urged her friends to refuse. Kschessinskaya, although an extremely talented dancer, was known to be vain (she wore her famous diamonds on stage, and once threw a tantrum when a choreographer refused to allow this) and was rumoured to have had an affair with at least three Grand Dukes and even the Tsar himself (this was more or less true - Nicholas affectionately called her 'Little K'). To ten year old Lydia, who had been warned by her mother to beware such offers, this was too much. She would later become much more open about such things.
Above: Lydia as the Doll in 'Petrushka', Ballets Russes; Below: Lydia with Alexander Gavrilov in 'Le Spectre de la Rose', Ballets Russes
Upon graduation, Lydia, like all the other graduates, joined the Imperial Ballet. She was part of the corps de ballet, something she was unused to after being the star at school, but once again she charmed everyone. St. Petersburg at the time already had many well established prima ballerinas. The great Pierina Legnani had already left, and her bitter rival Mathilde Kschessinskaya, who had so scandalised Lydia 8 years previously, had retired to marry a Grand Duke. Another great ballerina of the previous decades, Olga Preobrajenska, was now teaching at the Imperial School with Fokine and the great danseur Nikolai Legat (whose even more gifted younger brother Sergei had committed suicide during the 1905 Revolution). Taking their places were the beautiful Tamara Karsavina, and the most worshipped ballerina of the century, Anna Pavlova. Prima ballerinas got an astounding number of shoes per week, whereas corps de ballet members made do with around three at the most. Lydia would later admit to sneaking into Pavlova's dressing room and making off with some of the star's less well-used pointe shoes.
Lydia as Mariuccia in 'The Good-Humoured Ladies', London
But Lydia did not stay at the Imperial Ballet long. Murmurs of dissent were already surfacing within the company. The younger dancers were turned away from the traditions of Petipa towards a freer, more modern style of dance led by, among others, Fokine, and the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. When Diaghilev organised a season of modern ballet for his new Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909, choreographed by Fokine, composed by Igor Stravinsky and starring the exceptional new talent Vaslav Nijinsky (later hailed as the 'God of the Dance'), Lydia was devastated that she could not go. She had always dreamed of Paris; but she was to get her chance soon enough. She was hired by Diaghilev for the 1910 European season. When she finally stepped out of the train in the Gare du Nord, she fainted into a pile of luggage, apparently from the sheer beauty of it. On that season's programme was Fokine's Carnaval, Scheherazade, and L'Oiseau de feu (Firebird), as well as the more classical Giselle, and Les Orientales, a collaboration between Fokine and Nijinsky. The previous season had featured Le Pavillon d'Armide, Les Sylphides, Prince Igor, Le Festin, and Cleopatre, all by Fokine; the stars included Pavlova and Karsavina, as well as Fokine himself and Nijinsky. Lydia was in good company.
Lydia with Vaslav Nijinsky, 'Carnaval', Ballets Russes 1910 Paris season
And then Diaghilev had a problem. Karsavina was overbooked and could not possibly free herself from a contract in time to dance the beginning of the season. He looked for a replacement; he found Lydia. He knocked a year off her age (a trick he was to repeat), advertised her as a child star, and put her on stage in Firebird, one of the most technically demanding roles in the repertory. Karsavina had had massive success with it in Paris the previous year; so too did Lydia, and a star was born. Suddenly she was hounded with offers. When Karsavina rejoined the company, she naturally resumed her previous roles, and Lydia was attracted to New York by an offer of 16,000 a month. She stayed there six years.
Lydia, 'Firebird', Ballets Russes, 1910, Paris
As much as she was beloved by the Americans, she was, essentially, a novelty act. Americans up to this point had seen very little ballet, and even less of it was Russian. Lydia found herself sandwiched between vaudeville acts or in the middle of a Broadway show, suck performing the same repertoire night after night until her contract ran out or the show was forced to close. Even in this environment, she charmed everyone she met, including Heywood Broun, a sportswriter to whom she was briefly engaged, though she had a troubled relationship with her business manager. When she finally broke with him, she rejoined the Ballets Russes in 1916 while they were on tour to New York. She reunited with her former partner, Nijinsky, to the delight of their fans (though by this stage Nijinsky, now a controversial choreographer as well as dancer, was beginning to show early signs of the mental illness which later caused him to experience a full breakdown). Lydia also married her first husband; Randolfo Barrocchi, an Italian who acted as Diaghilev's business manager. She was taken in by his outer image as a sophisticated man of the world, but he stole her earnings and was in fact already married to an American singer. Bigamy was of course a crime, and eventually this would aid Lydia in seeking divorce.
Lydia with Leonide Massine, 'La Boutique Fantasque', 1919
While on a wartime tour in Europe, Lydia began an on-off affair with the composer Igor Stravinsky which would last some years. She followed the Ballets Russes to London 1918, where she became beloved by the British in her quintessential role in The Good-Humoured Ladies and for the Can-Can in La Boutique Fantasque. These ballets were by a new talent, Leonide Massine, with whom Lydia had a troubled if brilliant partnership. Fokine had left the company in a huff after Diaghilev began commissioning ballet from his favourite and probably lover Nijinsky; but he had then proceeded to kick Nijinsky out for contracting his sudden marriage to Romola. Massine, Diaghilev's new favourite, had filled the gap, both on stage and likely in Diaghilev's bed.
Above and Below: Lydia, Can-Can, 'La Boutique Fantasque'
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had shaken the entire company. News from families at home, already hard to come by because of the war, became almost impossible for a time. Lydia sent a monthly allowance to her family and as many items as she could manage, hoping that they would get through the strict new Soviet customs. When she finally heard news, she discovered that the ballet was being kept, for now at least, which meant her siblings still had jobs; but the Mariinsky had limped through the winter with dancers who survived on cabbage soup, and her mother was ill. Almost all the dancers who could get out did; some, like Pavlova, Karsavina, Kschessinskaya, and Preobrajenska were already in Europe (Paris being a favourite of the Russian emigree community) along with those who had been on tour with Diaghilev when the Revolution happened. Others fled the country later, like Marie Petipa, daughter of the famous ballet master and choreographer, but some chose to stay: Agrippina Vaganova, to whom the survival of classical ballet in Soviet Russia may be attributed, the ballerinas Olga Spessivtseva and Elizaveta Gerdt, and Lydia's siblings, Evgenia and Fedor. When, on top of this, Lydia's marriage to Barrocchi finally broke down (and she discovered he had been stealing her savings), it was too much for her. Her friend, the ballet critic Cecil Beaumont, who used to visit her dressing room in London, remembered that she looked pale and always on the verge of tears. Shortly afterwards she disappeared for a short time, likely for a much needed break.
When she finally returned to the stage, she had a number of signature roles under her belt. She had been acclaimed as the Firebird and as the Doll in Petrushka; she had danced in Scheherazade and in Polovetsian Dances; but her best roles were as the coquette in Good-Humoured Ladies and especially La Boutique Fantasque, which she danced with Massine. Finally, in 1921, Diaghilev had his most ambitious idea yet - a full length production of The Sleeping Beauty in the style of the old Imperial Ballet. He spent a fortune on sets and costumes, anticipating a three month run. His production, renamed The Sleeping Princess to differentiate from a pantomime playing at the same time, was regrettably something of a flop. His cast was stellar; Lydia danced Aurora and Lilac Fairy, and the imported ballerinas Olga Spessivtseva and Lubov Egorova also danced Aurora; for Carabosse Diaghilev coaxed out of retirement Carlotta Brianza, an Italian ballerina who had danced the original Aurora for Petipa in Russia in 1890. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that a great number of Diaghilev's fans were Modernists who were not ready to receive his sudden change in direction; the three month run was exceptionally optimistic; and, it being the first time the full ballet had been performed outside of Russia, the brand name of Petipa could not be relied upon to draw the usual crowds it would in St. Petersburg. Some appreciated the daintiness of the ballet, but soon the empty seats piled up, and Diaghilev faced bankruptcy.
Above: Lydia with Maynard, 1920s; Below: Lydia and Maynard dance their signature piece, the 'Keynes-Keynes'
For Lydia, however, The Sleeping Princess had an altogether unexpected outcome. She fell in love. John Maynard Keynes, known as Maynard, had sat in the stalls almost every night to watch her performances. A brilliant economist with an exceptional mind, Maynard's attentions could not have surprised anyone more than they surprised him; prior to Lydia, he had been interested only in men, and had considered his friend and sometime lover Duncan Grant the great love of his life. Nevertheless, the attraction did not wane, and the two married in 1925 as soon as Lydia's divorce from Barrocchi was finalised. Maynard was part of a group of bohemian intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group; among them was Duncan, as well as Vanessa Bell, the painter, and her sister Virginia Woolf, the famous writer. The group were rather snobbish towards Lydia for her thick Russian accent, her frivolity, her unusual taste in bad jokes, and the strange ideas she often came out with. Later, however, many would admit that they had been too hasty to judge Lydia, and that she had had an intelligence of a different sort ('How we all used to underestimate her,' E.M. Forster commented). Lydia, however, had friends of her own; not only the critic Cecil Beaumont, but the photographer Cecil Beaton, the choreographer Frederick Ashton, the writers T.S. Eliot and H.G. Wells, the staunch Ninette de Valois (whom she called Nina), and Pablo Picasso, whose wife Olga she knew from her Ballets Russes days. Picasso once dropped in on Lydia during a visit to London, to the general astonishment of Bloomsbury; she was his muse a great many times, and she is most obvious as his Terpsichore (muse of dance) in The Awakening of the Muses, a mosaic at the National Gallery of London. Lydia was drawn many times; there was something irresistible about her manner which artists found challenging.
Lydia with Fred Ashton and Harold Turner in 'The Masque of Beauty and Pleasure', photograph by Cecil Beaton, London, 1930
Lydia's last appearance in the ballet was in Coppelia for the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet). She had had a great hand in The Camargo Society, a group of British dancers which was formed to give performances after the death of Diaghilev and the breaking up of the Ballets Russes. Having helped her dear Nina (Valois) out in this way, she often turned up to performances, but she never went backstage to meet the dancers, and when companies started doing revivals of the works she had helped to premiere, she was never tempted to go back and pass on her knowledge. Her time at the ballet, on stage and in the studio, was done. Many of her old crowd were gone. Diaghilev, known fondly as 'Big Serge' and who had seemed so eternal, had died suddenly, as had her teachers Fokine and that strict old Italian, Enrico Cecchetti. Nijinsky, who had once embodied the dance, died in the mental asylum in 1950, having never recovered from his breakdown. Pavlova, with whom she had been extremely close, had died so tragically from pneumonia. Stravinsky had cut off all ties with her, as had Massine (which to Lydia was not much of a loss anyway). She mended bridges with Karsavina, whom she visited often. She loved Fred Ashton dearly (he was one of the few she could bear to have visit her after Maynard died), and she got on with Balanchine, but she did not approve of the new directions ballet was taking. Watching the new styles, and remembering back to Fokine and how cutting edge and how daring it had been to premiere his works, she felt old-fashioned. To compound it, she had bad news from Russia; Stalin's Five-Year Plan had driven the country to the bone, and both her mother and sister had died. She had seen them only twice since 1909, when her husband's work allowed them a small stop off in what was now Leningrad.
Lydia (right) with members of the Bloomsbury Group, Virgina Woolf and Quentin Bell
She attempted an acting career, which, though it had some highlights, never really took off. Maynard had an attack of angina (a heart condition) in 1937, after which Lydia devoted herself anxiously to his care. Her attentions and the unusual methods of a young doctor were all that preserved him through the stressful war years, with his most notable role being at the Breton Woods Conference, 1944 (held between the Allied nations to discuss the international monetary and financial situation after World War II). The strain was, in the end, too much, and Maynard died in 1946. Lydia isolated herself more and more, retreating to their country home at Tilton House in Sussex. She did not attend any of the Ballets Russes reunions, and her name was gradually forgotten. She outlived many of her friends and former associates. Finally, when her memory started to go, her remaining family checked her into the Three Ways Nursing Home in Seaford. Her nephew Milton remembered that she often slipped into speaking Russian; he would remind her, gently, that he did not speak Russian, to which she would reply, with devastating logic, 'But I do.'
Lydia Lopokova died at her nursing home in Seaford in 1981, aged 88. She was once one of the greatest and most famous ballerinas of her generation, but she has disappeared from the pages of history. Hopefully this has served to remind even one person of her extraordinary life.
Thanks for reading!