Susan Sellers’ novel Firebird: a Bloomsbury love story is inspired by the life of the dancer Lydia Lopokova and her love affair, and eventual marriage, with the economist John Maynard Keynes.  One of the problems for the novelist telling a true story is that at any point the reader is likely to know what happens next, yet Sellers’ compelling narrative creates suspense both through the immediacy of her writing  (she largely uses the present tense) and by shifting the gaze from one character to another to give alternative points of view.

Lopokova and Keynes were from completely different backgrounds.  She came from St Petersburg and was trained at the Imperial Ballet School, he was educated at Eton and Kings College Cambridge, and the general consensus among his friends in the Bloomsbury Group was that they were ill-matched.  Interestingly, in Sellers’ account, they are both to some extent outsiders among these people, who consider their table manners uncouth, and look down them for their willingness to work for a wage, albeit in very different fields.

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The Dancing Lives conference at Wolfson College offered an exceptional opportunity for archivists, academics and dance practitioners to discuss and discover new ways to research and write about dance and dancers’ lives.

The speakers for first panel, on Historical Dancing, demonstrated the vast range of material that dance historians draw upon to investigate the past. Mike Webb and Jennifer Thorp used Jeffrey Boys’s manuscript annotations in his almanac of 1667 to paint a picture of the social dancing scene in seventeenth century London; Michael Burden used caricatures vividly to recreate and interpret the scandalous adventures of Mademoiselle Mercandotti, and Julia Bührle showed how the technological invention of the lithograph helped to make Marie Taglioni a ‘superstar’. While the first four speakers showed how creatively scholars use documents, images and ephemera to advance our knowledge, the plenary session, in which Sue Jones expertly interviewed Jennifer Homans, began to explore what the dance itself can reveal. (more…)

The Laura Knight exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery includes four pictures of special interest to ballet fans.  Firstly, there are the two portraits of Barbara Bonner, one of which seems to be a study for the other, that was commissioned by Earl Hoover, who chose her to be the model.  Although the final portrait is “staged”, in that the dancer is shown with a dresser who was actually Knight’s dressmaker, it is interesting not only because the artist (or possibly the patron) has chosen to show the dancer backstage, but also because Bonner is presented as such a strong and meditative figure;  this is no wafer-thin dreamy sylph, but a muscular and thoughtful woman. (more…)