Sunday, 3 March 2013

John Maynard Keynes and English Ballet

When I watched the Birmingham Royal Ballet dance Aladdin last Thursday (see "Birmingham Royal Ballet's Aladdin" Terpsiechore 1 Mar 2013) I could not help reflecting that the Birmingham Royal Ballet and indeed its sister company at Covent Garden might never have come into existence had it not been for the influence and indeed benevolence of John Maynard Keynes in the early years of English ballet. Sadly, there is no acknowledgement of Keynes's contribution on the history page of the Birmingham Royal Ballet's website or in its accompanying chronology.

Although his ideas fell temporarily out of fashion when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister he is still regarded as one of this country's greatest economist.    When I started to read economics at St Andrews in 1968 his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was my text book. Unlike many academic economists he put his knowledge to practical use amassing an enormous personal fortune from shrewd investment on the Stock Exchange.  Much of that wealth he gave away and one of the principal beneficiaries of his bounty were the dance troupes that eventually blossomed into the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Probably even more important than his personal generosity was the influence that he exerted through his membership of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts ("CEMA") and its successor the Arts Council of Great Britain of which he was the founding chair.   The arts in general and ballet in particular were important for sustaining civilian morale during the Second World War and post war austerity.   Keynes understood the importance of ballet and ensured that the Royal Opera House and Sadlers Wells received all the resources that they needed.   The reopening of Covent Garden with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty in 1946 was a glittering affair.   A great contrast to the greyness of the time.

However, Keynes had another connection with the ballet and that was his marriage to the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova. Lopokova was one of the members of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, a great artistic enterprise that brought together not just the dancers of Imperial Russia but also outstanding painters and composers. After the revolution those artists had to tour and it was through touring that a market for ballet was developed in the United States and Britain.  It was upon one of those tours that Lopokova came to London where Keynes saw her dance in The Sleeping Beauty.

According to Alison Light
"Keynes met Lopokova when she was on the verge of becoming a cult figure. Her final frenzied cancan with Massine, which transformed her from an inert doll into a bacchante, sent her fans crazy; they stood on their seats, clapping and chanting her name. It wasn’t long before ‘Lydia’ dolls were being sold. The British press loved her because she was more like the girl next door than an exotic Slav; she was a ‘London sparrow’ with an ‘exquisite plebeian beauty’. Lopokova was a fan of the music hall and her childlike, wistful face could imbue a role with Chaplinesque dignity and pathos. Nor was she above a bit of clowning. When her knickers slithered to the floor as she danced the lead in Les Sylphides – the most poetic of ballets – she threw them into the wings with a flourish (she used other such ‘accidents’ to play to the gallery). In 1921, hoping to bring in the crowds, Diaghilev staged a lavish version of The Sleeping Beauty. The production flopped. The critics felt it was a retrograde step and London’s postwar audiences were too jaded for romance. Except for Keynes. He sat every night in the stalls, enchanted by Lydia as the Lilac Fairy casting spells over the cradle.(Lady Talky London Review of Books, 18 Dec 2008).
They married in 1925 and Lopokova (later Lady Keynes) survived him until her death at the grand old age of 88 in 1981.  No choreographer has ever made a ballet of Keynes's life to the best of my knowledge and belief but perhaps one should.

Post Script 6 March 2014

Although the Birmingham Royal Ballet did not mention Lord Keynes's contribution to ballet in the United Kingdom in its programme its artistic director David Bintley very properly acknowledged it in Dancing in the Blitz: How World War 2 Made British Ballet which was broadcast by BBC 4 on Tuesday 4 March 2014 at 01:20. This remarkable programme is available on the BBC i-player for the next few days.

Bintley also mentions the performance of The Sleeping Beauty at Covent Garden on the 20 Feb 1946 which I discussed in "The Sleeping Beauty - a Review and why the Ballet is important" 29 Sep 2013.

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