The first solid evidence of Muriel’s professional career comes with a bang in December 1924, when she was eighteen. She can be seen in the very centre of a huge number of dancers in photos of a high quality production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
10 Programme for A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1924
‘The Dream’ was producer Basil Dean’s Christmas offering that year at Drury Lane, one of the biggest theatres – if not the biggest theatre – in London. The cast consisted of actors renowned at the time: Titania was played by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, recently acclaimed as Juliet opposite John Gielgud’s Romeo; Helena was Edith Evans, who had stolen the notices as Millamant in The Way of the World; Athene Seyler, later to be a striking character actress in films, played Hermia; while Miles Malleson, whose appearances in comedy films later numbered dozens over three decades, gave of his Snout.
The production had a long run, from December 26th, 1924, through into March 1925, having been extended rather over-optimistically by the management. By the end, the principals were on half pay. Presumably the dancers were too, but in one’s first job one is often glad to be paid at all.
Most interesting of all, the ballets were choreographed by Michel Fokine. What a contact for Muriel! Fokine had been Diaghilev’s star choreographer in the early days of the Ballets Russes. They had fallen out and Fokine had left to pursue a freelance career, but he was still an important name. Novikoff would have been aware of the auditions for ‘The Dream’, and had probably known Fokine from his own time with Diaghilev, before he joined Pavlova as her partner. If he didn’t send Muriel along, she would have heard the news from other dancers.
Or possibly from Princess Seraphine Astafieva.
In a recent biography (2013) of the dancer Alicia Markova[i], a photograph appears of a group rehearsal at Astafieva’s dance studio where Markova trained. She, Markova, poses in arabesque, small and skinny at nearly twelve years old, while a young man in a suit lifts onto his shoulder a buxom young woman dressed in bohemian-style evening dress – Muriel to the life. She would have been sixteen in November 1922 when this rehearsal took place for the Ypres Ball, a charity event in London. Without a caption naming her, we still need to confirm her identity, but she has Muriel’s build – although it’s that of a teenager not yet slimmed down – and the same low forehead and strong jaw evident in other photographs. And this would mean she took classes with Astafieva, as well as with Novikoff. Moreover, it was to Astafieva, another ex-Diaghilev dancer, that Fokine went when casting The Dream two years later. He chose Markova, the dancing prodigy, for his ballet. In the event, she had a better offer – from Diaghilev – and turned him down. Perhaps this was when Fokine made contact with other Astafieva pupils, including Muriel, and auditioned her.
It looks as if Muriel did a good audition: she is top of the cast list (non-alphabetical) of the Ballet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even ahead of Ursula Moreton and Queenie Robertson, who are named elsewhere as the ‘Premières Danseuses’ of the show. In a photo of all the dancers, fairies, gnomes, and principal actors, Muriel is one of four central girls. Novikoff would have been proud of her perfectly angled head and relaxed neck and shoulders.
In a second picture the principal actors pose in the foreground, leaving the whole company of dancers, gnomes, etc., safely fenced off upstage. This time Muriel is trying hard to be seen, peering over Ffrangcon-Davies’ arm. Her face says, ‘Don’t miss me! I shouldn’t be at the back.’
A third photo shows Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies lying in Titania’s bower, surrounded by fairies and dancers of all shapes and sizes (and, one would guess, abilities). Muriel is directly in front of her, kneeling, in prime position; again with beautiful épaulement and a positively angelic expression. Behind her stands Ursula Moreton (one of the two ‘Première Danseuses’), at this stage in her career looking perhaps a little wooden, but later to become a dancer in the Vic-Wells Ballet and ultimately a distinguished teacher at the Royal Ballet School.
11 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Titania (Ffrangcon-Davies) in her bower. Muriel kneeling, centre
Muriel is calling herself by a Russian-sounding name in this engagement – Muriel Bartova. Who advised her to do this? It shows shrewdness, as the general feeling in the early 1920s was that the British couldn’t really dance. Muriel’s name stands out among the very English Wilsons, Bennetts and Brownings in the programme. No evidence has yet emerged of later engagements for Muriel with Fokine, but contacts sometimes work in a mysterious way, helping at second- or even third-hand. Importantly, she certainly comes over as confident and able, in what appears to be her first professional job.
[i] Tina Sutton, The Making of Markova, (Pegasus Books, 2013)