A valid question would be: Why has Muriel’s story been written and why should we remember her?
We should remember her because the accident of her birth in that precise moment of ballet history enabled her to extend the Russian Ballet’s influence almost to the end of the twentieth century – and, by proxy (with the continuance of her school) into the twenty-first.
If she had been born ten years later, she would have missed the Diaghilev and Pavlova eras and instead might have taken part in the beginnings of English ballet. That would be a different story; as it is, she was able to pass on, from 1933 to the 1980s, the style, technique, and ethos of Russian ballet to generations of students.
We might ask what part Muriel’s Jewish and Russian-Polish heritage played in her life and character.
Embedded in her gene history was the determination to overcome adversity. She was lucky enough to have been born after her émigré forebears had made their brave new beginnings, but she nonetheless exhibited their dogged qualities in her absolute perfectionism when it came to passing on her art. Nothing was to stand in her way. She would form a successful school of Russian ballet, recognised and admired by the proper authorities; she would succeed on her own, a single woman from a minority ethnic background; and her pupils would understand the rigour and self-discipline of that school, learning how to combine it with the Russian feeling and spirit.
Her stubborn-ness in matters pertaining to her school often meant sacrificing ‘being liked’ – something clearly less important to her than being right! But it mustn’t be forgotten that she was a teacher in the mould of her own teachers, hard taskmasters who pushed one to the limit.
We should also remember her for her achievements as a woman on her own in a time when men still tended to hold the purse strings and the power. She had no husband to back her financially, or to support her in other ways, sharing her good and bad times. So she became, perhaps, a little ruthless in her business, as people with a mission are apt to do.
From the outset she did, of course, have quite an advantage – her well-to-do family background. Her confidence came from this, as did her youthful awareness of the world outside, along with the possibility that she might one day do something in that world. It doesn’t seem that her parents disapproved of her career choice; far from it; and such encouragement goes a long way.
And in her Bournemouth school she had one more advantage – Grace Greenway. Grace, after training first with Dorothy Greenhill, and then with Ninette de Valois at the Sadlers Wells Ballet School, had danced as a soloist with both the Sadlers Wells Opera Ballet and the International Ballet. In the early nineteen-fifties, as a young widow with a small son, she was in Bournemouth looking for a job. By one of those fortuitous encounters in life, she heard of Muriel just when the latter needed someone. Grace became Muriel’s assistant teacher – an inadequate job description, as it turned out – and for three decades made a huge contribution to the school, both in her teaching proficiency and in her tactful, encouraging manner, a helpful contrast to Muriel’s occasionally acerbic style. Moreover, Muriel could hardly have managed the fast-growing number of pupils without Grace to take private lessons, stay on late and generally help out both practically and artistically.[i]
So that was good luck; but we do make our own luck. At the end of her life Muriel must have felt she had fulfilled her promise; she had performed in the most famous classical companies of her day, extended her range in variety and cabaret, and set up a highly successful school, all due to her own exertions. Certainly her influence continues in the lives of her pupils: self-discipline, perfectionism – we cannot throw these qualities off. Yet, if we believe that the older Muriel was all solemn dedication, we are much mistaken. On the eve of their wedding, Muriel’s niece and her fiancé came to pick her up and were astonished when she executed a very high kick, then and there on the landing. She was seventy-nine.
Of course, professional achievement isn’t everything in life. Loyal and generous in her friendships, Muriel mellowed once she allowed herself to be teased; it was particularly rewarding to provoke her smoky laugh. Although she liked to hold the floor and relished a good argument, she had a softer side and could occasionally be observed flirting gently – and, of course, perfectly properly – with pupils’ fathers. Probably most satisfying of all for Muriel and most telling was the correspondence she kept up with dozens of ex-pupils almost until her death.
Muriel never married and never spoke of any romantic attachment, except in a confidential moment to one former pupil, who inferred that there had once been a man in ‘Madame’s’ life but nothing had come of it.[ii] Surely, though, if she had settled down with a husband, domesticity would have warred with creativity, preventing her from putting so much of herself into her school. And what a great shame that would have been for generations of pupils.
One hopes that the Murilova Ballet School will continue for many years and that its students past and present will be interested to hear something about its founder: the woman who began life as Muriel Barnett, and went on to become Muriel Bartova, Nalda Murilova, Muriel Lawrence, Nalda Muriloff, one of The Barnetts, and – the name that most of us use, and which surely suits her best – ‘Madame’.
(Muriel Louisa Lawrence Barnett)
July 6th 1906 – June 4th 1990
[i] Grace Greenway’s reflections on her own career and on teaching with Madame Murilova have been recorded in a conversation with Angela Barlow and Sue Palmer.
[ii] Cherry LePoidevin
|Album:||Muriel’s theatrical and personal photograph albums,|
held by Julia McLavenJ McL:Barnett family archive, held by Julia McLavenS McA:Sandra McAuliffe Collection of Murilova memorabilia (given by Grace Greenway)
- ‘Mme’ Murilova, from her 1947 Bournemouth Ballet School prospectus. S McA
- Serge Diaghilev. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
- Anna Pavlova in La Fille Mal Gardée. Photo: Schneider, Berlin
- Letter from Novikoff. S McA
- Signed photo of Novikoff. S McA
- Vivian Barnett & Andrew Novikoff. Album
- Barnett Family. J McL
- Young Muriel. Cliff Abelman
- Outside Novikoff’s Studio. Album
- Drury Lane programme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. J McL
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Album
- Vera Nemtchinova in Les Biches. S McA
- Tamara Karsavina as The Firebird. Wikimedia Commons
- S McA
- The reverse of Karina’s photograph. S McA
- Pavlova Company tour schedule. S McA
- Toe to toe. Album
- Barnett family touring France. Album
- Barnett family at Biarritz. Album
- Lawrence Barnett. J McL
- A page of Muriel’s Tournée schedule. S McA
- Pavlova as Giselle. Postcard. AB. Photographer unknown
- Victor Dandré. Album
- Volksoper Hamburg, from St Pauli, Hamburg collection at http://www.stadtteilgechichter.net
- The Swan. Photographer: Frans van Riel, Buenos Aires.
- Pavlova Co programme for May 10th 1927, Hamburg. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
- Muriel Lawrens named as a Marketenderin in The Fairy Doll, and as part of the © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
- Aubrey Hitchens & Anna Pavlova in Autumn Leaves. Photographer: Frans van Riel, Buenos Aires
- Mme Pavlova on a train. Album
- The Pavlova Company on tour. Album
- After a rehearsal. Album
- Pavlova as the Dragonfly. Photographer: Herman Mishkin, New York
- The Dragonfly Figurine. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
- Muriel Lawrence. S McA
- Oumansky playbill, Berlin. Album
- Dancing Times Sept 1929. Album
- Stroganoff publicity. Album
- Spite? / La Malice? © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
- Nalda Murilova publicity shot. S McA
- Three Stroganoffs off-duty. Album
- Alexandria playbill. Album
- Dita, Muriel, and Frans. Album
- Phantasy Waltz. Cliff Abelman
- Lift with unknown partners. Album
- On the beach with Frans. Album
- On the beach with Frans. Album
- On the beach with Frans. Album
- On the beach with Frans. Album
- On the beach with Frans. Album
- Muriel in a Stroganoff Ballet solo. Barry Clarke
- The Barnetts. Album
- The Barnetts again. Album
- Muriel and Frans Muriloff, from the Muriloff School of Stage Dancing prospectus. Grace Greenway
- The Muriloff School of Stage Dancing; a page from the prospectus. Grace Greenway
- Pavlova and Enrico Cecchetti. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Nalda Murilova, 1982. © Guernsey Evening Press and Star
Algeranoff, Harcourt, My Years with Pavlova (London: Heinemann, 1957)
Beaumont, Cyril W, Anna Pavlova (London: C W Beaumont, 1945)
Beaumont, Cyril W, The Diaghilev Ballet in London (London: Putnam, 1940)
Benari, Naomi, Vagabonds and Strolling Dancers: the Lives and Times of Molly Lake and Travis Kemp (London: Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, 1990)
Borodin, George, This Thing Called Ballet (London: MacDonald, 1945)
Cannon Bell, Jasmine, Anna Pavlova, a Photographic Essay (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1981)
Chadd, David, and Gage, John, Exhibition Catalogue, The Diaghilev Ballet in London (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, 1979)
Dandré, Victor, Anna Pavlova, in Art and Life (London: Cassell, 1932)
Dolin, Anton, Autobiography (London: Oldbourne, 1960)
Grigoriev, S L, The Diaghilev Ballet 1909-1929 (Penguin Books, 1960)
Haskell, Arnold, Diaghileff, His Artistic and Private Life (London: Gollancz, 1935)
Hyden, Walford, Pavlova: The Genius of Dance (London: Constable, 1931)
Kavanagh, Julie, Secret Muses, The Life of Frederick Ashton (New York: Pantheon, 1996)
Pritchard, Jane, with Hamilton, Caroline, Anna Pavlova, Twentieth Century Ballerina (London: Booth-Clibborn 2013)
Pritchard, Jane (ed), Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929 (London: V and A Publishing, 2010)
Sokolova, Lydia (ed: Buckle, Richard), Dancing for Diaghilev: the Memoirs of Lydia Sokolova (London: John Murray, 1960)
Sutton, Tina, The Making of Markova (New York: Pegasus Books, 2013)
Special thanks must go to members of the two families who have given me access to personal material about Muriel:
First and foremost, to her niece, Julia McLaven, whose generous, open-ended loan of Muriel’s professional and private albums of the ‘20s and ‘30s has made this account possible; also for her welcome to me as the writer of the project, and for her delightful reminiscences about her aunt and the Barnett family – a strong basis for this story. Then to Barry Clarke, Muriel’s first cousin twice removed, who discovered me on the Internet, while Googling the name of an unknown woman on a family photograph, a dancer called Murilova. Barry tirelessly mined the memories of his relations, particularly Cliff Abelman and Shirley Barnett Rodwell, who kindly allowed their information about Muriel to be passed on to me. Most importantly, if Barry had not found and put me in touch with Julia, this story might not have been written. Not content with that piece of detective work, he went on to seek out Frans’ grand-daughter, Daphny Muriloff, who has filled in so many gaps; to Daphny, my grateful thanks for passing on to me her affectionate memories of her exceptional grandfather.
Warmest thanks go to Grace Greenway for her friendship and for her ever-ready willingness to share memories of Muriel. Her astounding recall, her deep knowledge of the world of ballet, and her persistent pursuit of accuracy have all contributed hugely to Muriel’s story.
I’m immensely indebted to Sandra McAuliffe for lending me the Murilova files, given to her by Grace Greenway. They’ve been a major source for my detective work, revealing more and more, month by month.
I particularly want to say thank you to Jane Pritchard, Curator of Dance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for her kindness and personal involvement in the search for details of Muriel’s engagements with the Russian Ballets. It was Jane who discovered Muriel’s alias, Muriel Lawrence, a discovery that opened doors to new areas of research. Jane’s encyclopaedic knowledge of early twentieth-century dance has been inspiring, as have her two marvellous books on Diaghilev and Pavlova.
My dear friend Sue Palmer was in on this project from the beginning. I want to thank her for matching my excitement step by step, and for sharing with me her wide knowledge of ballet in general and of the Russians in particular.
Two other good friends whose input has been invaluable are David Taylor and Jenny Berwyn-Jones. Affectionate thanks to them for their help and encouragement.
I am very grateful to Cherry Le Poidevin, née Bristowe, for allowing me to use her wonderfully vivid memories of Muriel. If only I could have included them all!
Last, but emphatically not least, I want to thank my husband, Andrew Buchanan, for everything he has done – in all possible departments – to help this project come to fruition; but most of all for never failing to share my enthusiasm for discovering and writing Muriel’s story.