At the peak of her dancing years – between 1916 and 1926 – Lydia Lopokova was one of the world’s most popular ballerinas, stamping the signature of her quick, bright technique and irrepressible stage personality onto the repertories of Massine, Fokine and the young Frederick Ashton. She was also closely connected to some of the key personalities in early 20th century ballet, moving as she did from the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and eventually to London where she become a leading figure in the newly emergent ballet culture.
The fact that Lopokova is now far less well known than many of her contemporaries has something to do with her refusal to insist on her dancing fame once she retired, but also to do with the willingness with which she embraced her subsequent role as wife, muse, travelling companion and eventually nurse to the great economist John Maynard Keynes.
This talk at Dancing Lives is essentially about the pleasures and obstacles of writing Lopokova’s biography, the challenge of piecing her life together from footnotes, anecdotal gossip and fragments of ballet history. It focuses on the difficulties of evoking her singular qualities as a dancer when all that survives of her performances are the erratic impressions of contemporary reviewers, a limited archive of photos and a very tantalising few minutes of film. It also considers the issue of how a biographer should weight the narrative of Lopokova’s life – not only in setting the story of her professional career against the dramatic events through which she lived (the Russian Revolution, the First and Second World Wars) but also in balancing the inevitably sketchy chapters of her dancing years against the far better documented chapters of her marriage to Maynard, which took her from the drawing rooms of the Bloomsbury Group, to the common rooms of Cambridge, to the inner circles of power in Washington and London.
Judith Mackrell studied English and Philosophy at the universities of York and Oxford, and became dance critic of The Independent in 1986, moving to The Guardian in 1995. She has broadcast widely on radio and television and written several books on dance including Out of Line and Reading Dance. Her works of biography and social history include: Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova – Imperial Dancer and Mrs John Maynard Keynes (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008); Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation (Macmillan, 2013); and The Unfinished Palazzo: Life Love and Art in Venice (Thames and Hudson, 2017). She has just started work on a group biography of women correspondents writing and photographing during the Second World War, to be published by Macmillan.