THE BLOOMSBURY BALLERINA

A BIOGRAPHY OF LYDIA LOPOKOVA | June 16th 2008

Lydia Lopokova

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A star ballerina and renowned muse, Lydia Lopokova wooed the notoriously gay John Maynard Keynes into decades of marriage. James Woodall interviews Judith Mackrell, the author of a new biography ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

Readers of The Economist require no introduction to John Maynard Keynes, but might need help recalling his wife. Her very existence might astonish some--a surprise surely reinforced by Evan Zimroth's exposé of Keynes's "sex diaries", published here in January, which revealed the pioneering economist's habit of using a special code to chronicle his many homosexual conquests. Zimroth barely mentions Lydia Lopokova, Keynes's wife for 20 years. As it should be: prior to their nuptials in 1925, the man was happily--and thoroughly--gay.

So who was Lydia Lopokova? And how did she manage to woo Keynes and "turn" him heterosexual? Answers to these questions and more can be found in a wonderful new book: "Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova, Imperial Dancer and Mrs John Maynard Keynes" by Judith Mackrell, the Guardian's dance critic (one of the best in London).

Ms Mackrell became aware of Lopokova over 20 years ago. "She crops up in many Bloomsbury Group memoirs, as well as biographies of the dancer Nijinsky, and of Picasso and Stravinsky, which I was reading in my early 20s," she explains on the phone from her home in Hackney, London. "But she's always on the margins. I wondered why so little was known about her and why, indeed, she married Keynes."

Lopokova, born in 1891, enjoyed a storied early career. After training at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, she moved to London to dance with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. There, with one of the most influential ballet companies of the early 20th century, she became a star.

The Ballets Russes had already famously cut a swathe in Paris, with dancers Michel Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky taking western Europe and then New York by storm. In London, Lopokova earned the affectionate nickname "Loppie". A small, slightly round figure, far from the classic ballerina mould, she danced luminously in Diaghilev's ballets. She had an ebullient jump and "an intriguing modern bounce tethered to a chaste classical restraint," Mackrell writes. Lopokova gave the impression of music and steps emerging spontaneously.

Her face, moreover, was that of "an earnest cherub" with an unexpectedly wistful streak (one admirer referred to her "exquisite, plebeian beauty"). Lopokova also became a muse of sorts. Picasso drew her many times and J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, began to write a play for her.

"Bloomsbury Ballerina" is thus the biography of a Russian who danced her way into western culture and fell in love with London's most astute analyst of capitalism. It was an unlikely yet unique coupling. That Keynes was besotted by Lydia, Mackrell leaves us in no doubt.

Keynes first saw her perform in 1921. In December of that year they saw each other face to face: "[Maynard] seems to have anticipated no more than a casual date," Mackrell writes. "Yet desire evidently sparked at that meeting and it flared so fast that within two weeks Maynard had become Lydia's lover, and within seven weeks had established her in rooms that were just four doors away from his own house."

The close-knit Bloomsbury Group already had its doubts about Keynes's less than socially exalted background. Its members openly resented his new, oddball, female lover. But their relationship was both more solid and more playful than any other in the group.

She called him "the big walk" of her life; he had an armoury of affectionate nicknames for her--"Lydochka" and "pupsik" among them--and their sex life was inventive and intense, according to the extracts Mackrell quotes from their letters.

Lopokova stopped dancing at 41. When Keynes began to suffer serious heart problems in the mid-1930s she became his devoted nurse, and lovingly remained so until his death in 1946. Then, Lopokova vanished. In her widowhood, she seemed to wither. She rebuffed journalists and took scant interest in post-war British dance. Instead she retreated to the countryside for a life of solitude. The exquisite beauty of her work was quickly forgotten.

Mackrell spends little time writing about Lopokova's final decades. A mere 28 pages--in a book of over 400--are devoted to portraying a strange old bird, who wrapped herself in layers of coats and spoke Russian to occasional visitors (against protests that they didn't understand, she would say "I do"). She died in 1981.

"Lydia drifted through old age and my narrative could have drifted too," Mackrell explained in response to a question about the brevity of this section. "It was important to me that her uneventful years take nothing away from what she'd been."

An important question remains: could Lopokova have played a bigger role in the world of ballet after her dancing career ended in 1933? Almost certainly, Mackrell argues. But even if she hadn't chosen to absent herself from the profession, there was the problem of Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet.

De Valois was famously prickly about anyone wanting to revive the glory days of Massine, Diaghilev and Tamara Karsavina, another great Russian ballerina (also British-based) from before the second world war. The Royal Ballet had to be something new.

Mackrell points out that though Lopokova and De Valois were friends, the self-imposed isolation of one and the inflexibility of the other effectively suppressed the innovations and legacy of the Ballets Russes. "Lydia had so much to give," Mackrell laments.

With "Bloomsbury Ballerina", Mackrell has performed a great act of retrieval. Her book not only shines light on an unexamined slice of ballet history but also explores the often cantankerous relations between some key thinkers and artists in European Modernism.

As for Keynes, did he really become un-gay?

"He never lost his interest in young men," asserts Mackrell, "and had an active fantasy life, I'm certain. But he stayed faithful. For that and for his brilliance, I came--this you have to do as a biographer--to love him, almost more than Lydia."

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

(James Woodall is a writer based in Berlin. He last wrote about Péter Zilahy's "The Last Window-Giraffe")