If being part of the Pavlova Company was the most prestigious engagement of Muriel’s career – even more so than her time with Diaghilev – her next long-term venture would appear to have given her the most enjoyment. The photographs of her with the Stroganoff Ballet[i] simply exude exhilaration and joy of dance. She joined the Stroganoffs some time in 1929, so what happened in 1928? Did she go back to Diaghilev? Or to Pavlova? Did she perhaps tour the Continent again with the latter from December 1927 to May ’28? It’s possible. We know there was no Covent Garden season this year. Maybe Muriel was out of work. However, it’s certain she was on holiday on the Côte d’Azur in August 1928; photos show her with her brother, an older woman (her mother?) and an older man.
In December ’28 she had a job with the Russian dancer Lydia Kyasht in a small company of five: Kyasht herself, Muriel, Molly Lake (one of Pavlova’s ‘girls’), Leon Kellaway and Alexander Daniloff, ‘supported by corps de ballet’. They appeared in two venues that we know of, and maybe more: over Christmas with orchestras at the Pump Room in Bath, and in Bournemouth at the Winter Gardens.
Kyasht, a fun-loving character in her early forties, was about to bring out an autobiography, Romantic Recollections, with the emphasis very much on the ‘romantic’. This little company of hers became the forerunner of her better-known venture, Ballet de la Jeunesse Anglaise, a decade later. A great teacher, and a woman undeterred by age, she was to visit Bournemouth again in her seventies to give a class at Muriel’s studio, bringing with her a young man as partner. He accommodatingly held her suspended in the air in leaps she could no longer do on her own, while she explained the technique of each pas in her broken English[ii].
In Bath and Bournemouth, that winter of 1928, I suspect some of the items in the programme to have been borrowed from Pavlova – Christmas to the Tchaikovsky music, danced by Kyasht, and Mexican Dance performed by Molly Lake. Muriel Lawrence danced Pizzicato (not the Drigo one, but using the well-known music by Délibes), Paysanne (Délibes), La Malice, La Danse and Fantasie. Also a number called Plastique to music by Kreisler; this suggests something acrobatic rather than classical and may be a hint of what was to come in the Stroganoff Ballet.
Next, though, in March 1929, Muriel Lawrence appeared on a variety bill at the famous London Palladium, as a soloist with the Alexander Oumansky Dancers. In the ‘20s and ‘30s it wasn’t unusual for dancers to fill in their breaks from the larger companies with ‘spots’ on other bills: in musical concerts, variety, and cabaret. As yet, there simply weren’t enough British classical ballet companies of any size to provide work for the growing number of performers.
One night the Oumansky ballet shared the bill with the famed black American singers Layton and Johnstone and a week later with popular Northern comedian Will Hay. A different world! The resourceful Alexander Oumansky seems to have moved with ease from dancing with Diaghilev to producing on the variety circuit. He was also well-known as a choreographer and had arranged the dances on this occasion for his company of seventeen. He said in a London newspaper how impressive he found English dancers (had he come over from America?), and there’s a picture of the speciality dancer ‘Olive’ and a demurely classical Muriel under the headline, ‘English Girls the World’s Best Dancers’.
In April, Oumansky took the show to Germany, with some changes of cast. A pair of acrobatic dancers, Berinoff and Eulalia, were brought in to top the line-up, and Keith Lester, an elegant dancer, later a well-respected choreographer, and reputedly wildly handsome, follows Muriel on the next line of the bill.[iii] The Babylon, a glamorous up-to-date cinema/variety theatre, opened in Berlin on the 11th and the Oumansky troupe performed there on the first night. They played another important venue in Berlin, too, the Titania Palatz, whose beautiful, sleek, curving interior contrasted dramatically with the fussier Victorian and Edwardian-style theatres they were used to in Britain.
In a fit of Berlin nostalgia, Muriel might have gone to have a look at the Theater Westen, where the Pavlova Company spent their month in November 1926. She would certainly have remembered where to get a meal after the show and where to relax on an afternoon off. A couple of photos in her album show three dancers off-duty in the city and by the lake at Grunewald; two of them look familiar from the group at Novikoff’s studio. The third, chic in cloche hat and fur coat, seems to me to resemble Molly Lake (and the name ‘Mollie’ [sic] appears in a list on the back); so she might be the English dancer of that name, late of the Lydia Kyasht company, and now recruited by Oumansky in London.
35 Berlin playbill
Whatever engagements Oumansky took up after Berlin (and he used Muriel at least once more, when she danced as Nalda Murilova in 1930) we know that in that year alone he went on to choreograph or direct no less than nine films, some of them produced by the eminent Michael Balcon at Gainsborough. Sadly, he missed his chance to make Muriel a film star, because by that time she had joined the Stroganoffs.
36 Dancing Times Sept 1929
The Stroganoff Ballet has been hard to research. It was set up round about 1928 by Alfred Stroganoff – obviously a Russian, one would think. ‘Stroganoff’, however, turns out to be an assumed name. Once it became clear that he was really Freddy Nöggerath of the famous Dutch theatrical family who owned the Flora Theatre, Amsterdam, more information became available through Dutch websites. The Stroganoffs, as they called themselves (was the name a joke, associated with the well-known boeuf dish?) were a class cabaret act, headed by two Stroganoff ‘brothers’, touring Europe. Léonid Stroganoff was the stage name of the dancer Louis Bernard; he was apparently no relation to Alfred, but did bear a reasonable resemblance to him.
Usually, the company consisted of four dancers, two men and two women, and cast changes took place from time to time. How Muriel came to join them is unknown, but she was part of the outfit by summer 1929 and became a permanent fixture, the first mention in her scrap-book being a two-week engagement in London from July 1st. The Stroganoffs were dancing at The Princes’ Restaurant, Piccadilly.
The dance numbers in their programme begin with Miss Dance in 1729 and 1929, in which Muriel and partner are robustly interrupted in their eighteenth-century minuet (says one review) by ‘an American collegiate and his “baby” ‘, who perform bang-up-to-date capers, 1929-style. After five other numbers, the programme ends with all four taking part in the finale Hello Miss Paris, having encompassed Muriel’s ubiquitous Pizzicato on the way. One of her dances is titled Spite, possibly the same dance called La Malice in the Kyasht programme. Could it refer to the bizarrely-costumed solo seen in the trio of photographs at the V & A, showing snakes in her head-dress and elongated talons on her fingers?
38 Muriel Lawrence as Spite
The Stroganoff name – plus the equally Russian ‘Murilova’ – hoodwinked the London press. Reviews say that the ‘Russian Dancers’ are of ‘exceptional merit’, and the show ‘one of the best’; they mention ‘the glittering costumes’, and pick out the number Siamese Mask, danced by Léonid Stroganoff ‘in a gleaming, golden costume with a sunlike face’, calling it ‘as wildly imaginative as an inebriated nightmare – without any of its horrors.’
Sylvette, a pretty, willowy girl, doesn’t have a solo, but on July 19th at the next gig in Harrogate, she presents a Speciality Dance, wearing a revealing costume and high heels, one leg high in the air behind her. She tends to perform the acrobatic numbers in the act, while Muriel takes the more classical pointe-work roles – at this stage, anyway.
September 1929 has the troupe in Stuttgart, where a newspaper advertisement promotes Muriel to the dazzling status of ‘Primaballerina vom Pavlowaballett.’ (What would Dandré have said?) And in October, a dramatic head-and-shoulders portrait of Muriel in The Sphere is captioned ‘The Premier Ballerina of the Stroganoff Ballet’; we learn that she has ‘gone to Berlin [with the Stroganoffs], whence she goes to Brussels before returning to England for a Christmas season at Princes.’
This kind of star coverage must have been heady stuff for Muriel, after playing second, third, or even fourth fiddle to Anna Pavlova.
In fact, Muriel receives top billing with the troupe from this time onward. One can see Alfred realising that her ballet pedigree and her versatility – proficiency in classical, period, national, and character dancing – made for wider variety in the shows; and that her personality could carry almost any number. In addition, wouldn’t she have spoken her mind about company policy and choice of dances, and been useful to Alfred as a sounding board and as an occasional choreographer? Remembering her strong opinions and organising ability, I think this not only entirely likely, but also very much to the company’s advantage … as she herself would doubtless have pointed out.
39 Nalda Murilova publicity photo
Some of their bookings in 1930 give us an idea of the great success they were having: Dusseldorf (January), ‘from the Coliseum and Alhambra, London’; Monte Carlo in February at the Restaurant des Ambassadeurs, where Muriel is top-billed as: ‘Late Soloist of Madame Pavlova’s Ballet and Member of Fokine, Kyasht, and Diaghileff Ballet’ [sic]; in Italy in March and April, where the posters proclaim ‘con NALDA MURILOVA’; Germany in June; and so on, for most of the year.
Pavlova died suddenly in Holland on January 23rd, 1931, at the early age of fifty. Her Company, distraught and bereft, found themselves temporarily stranded in The Hague. Algeranoff, who had left at the end of the previous tour, writes movingly of his feelings and of his great admiration and affection for Pavlova, whom he had felt honoured to partner in national and character dances specially created for them both. The funeral, at the Russian Orthodox Church in London, was crowded with people from all walks of life, and with former Company members finding solace in each others’ presence. Muriel would certainly have been there if work allowed her to be in town.
Diaghilev, too, was dead: he had collapsed in Venice in the summer break of 1929. Lydia Sokolova’s account of receiving the news gives a sense of the enormity of the event. The death of Big Serge – the great magician – meant not just the loss of the livelihoods of his technical crew and his artistes, but the end of the foremost ballet enterprise in the world.
With both Russian ballet companies now defunct, large numbers of dancers were looking for work. After their years of almost guaranteed contracts, they were competing for jobs in all sectors of the entertainment industry. Had Muriel stayed on with Pavlova, she would have been in the same situation.
Jump to the Stroganoffs in February 1931, and we find Muriel acquiring a new partner[iv]. When the troupe danced in Copenhagen, the Dutch revue dancer Frans Schmitz came on the scene, and went on to play a leading part in Muriel’s life over the next eight years. In a memoir article, Frans remembers joining the troupe in Copenhagen and participating in an incident that actually got them sacked. In a ballet ‘lift’, the second female dancer, no longer Sylvette but one, Dita, stepped with her full weight onto his crotch rather than onto his thigh, bringing the dance to an unexpected and painful close[v]. End of engagement! This story became a standard anecdote that Frans enjoyed telling into old age.
The sacking had no adverse effect on the company’s reputation, however. Their fame must have spread: after several glorious weeks working back in Italy, summer 1931 sees them on a long contract in Egypt, at the Casino San Stefano in Alexandria.
What a gig! Magnificent weather, huge popularity and – for the time being – no worries about the next job. And always, on the bills, just one performer’s name – Muriel’s: ‘Ballet Stroganoff with Nalda Murilova, of Ballet Pavlova’.
41 Alexandria playbill
In Muriel’s photographs, she, Dita and Frans grin widely, as they embark for Egypt from Genova on their ship the Esperia. Their appearances at the Casino San Stefano were so well received that the engagement was extended by a fortnight; it wasn’t until September that they returned to Italy on the s.s. Umbria ‘to fulfil their engagement at the Teatro Alfieri in Turin.’ [vi]
42 Dita, Muriel & Frans
It’s in Egypt that we come across the first published picture of Frans as Muriel’s partner [vii]. On July 16th, ‘Alexandria Gossip’ (in a publication called The Sphinx) shows the two of them in a romantic duet. The paper records that ‘Nalda Murilova and her partner Frantz [sic] were particularly graceful in a delightful Phantasy Waltz.’ However, by August 11th the paper tells us that something significantly different has been introduced into the programme, ‘a classic acrobatic adagio danced by Nalda Murollowa [sic] and her partner Frantz.’ So: Muriel is now performing acrobatic numbers as well as ballet ones, influenced, presumably, by Frans.
Going back to Muriel’s personal ‘snaps’, I was able to pick out Frans in the photos in Italy, notably in Ostia on the beach, where he, among others, partners Muriel in stunning lifts, showing off her amazingly supple body. In Alexandria even more spectacular stunts take place outdoors at the swimming baths, where she and Frans are having a wonderful time displaying all possible permutations of Man lifts Woman. Not only do these pictures reveal a side of Muriel’s talent that her pupils years later would marvel at – her nerve, her abandon, and her acrobatic ability, always enhanced by pure ballet arms and head – but also a sense of trust in relation to Frans that seems to have led to a freeing up of her style. She had found the right partner. One is struck by the visible enjoyment of the couple. Muriel, particularly, appears, in these pictures, to be in her element. Her spine, trained for years to stay sternly upright, was now allowed to indulge in showy, dramatic backbends, and the leg she had been told to hold low for ‘line’ in arabesque could legitimately be sent sky-high in the ‘splits’.
44 Lift with unknown partners
The switch from ballet to cabaret in Muriel’s career might seem surprising after her rigorous training with Russian ballet teachers and her work in the classical companies. How and why did this happen? Various probabilities come to mind: she may have made a conscious decision to move over to the freer style, finding the narrow sphere of ballet too physically limiting; or, on the contrary, she might have envisaged only a short contract with the Stroganoffs and hoped for a return to Pavlova. Then again, being realistic, it’s possible that she wasn’t getting the offers in the classical world she hoped for, and simply realised she might not make it to the top in ballet. The Oumansky contracts had anyway edged her into the world of cabaret, and one thing often leads to another. But however the opportunity came about to work with the Stroganoffs, surely it proved to be a good choice: it gave her the chance to extend her range, to enjoy herself as a big fish in a small pond, to travel widely all over the Continent, and to have some control in her career.
45, 46, 47, 48, 49 On the beach with Frans
After Egypt, the troupe again worked in Italy, this time for the best part of a year, according to Frans’ memories. Then, the following September, the programmes in Muriel’s scrapbook no longer feature The Stroganoffs. She and Frans have gone it alone. What’s more, Frans has changed his surname to the male version of Muriel’s – a nice reversal of the conventions – and they have become the Muriloffs. In variety shows in Amsterdam and at another Dutch venue, ‘Nalda en Frantz [sic] Muriloff’ appear on the bill. In parenthesis, one of their three numbers, Dance of the Dogs, doesn’t have quite the sophisticated ring of earlier titles …
Muriel’s holiday snaps this year, 1932, show scenes in Holland and also in the Wye Valley in the UK. And in December the Muriloffs have been left behind and have become The Barnetts, with a second man, the Dutchman Dries Krijn, in their act.
Muriel’s English surname seems an odd choice when compared with the theatrical ‘Muriloffs’, but perhaps the new act was so different that they needed to come up fast with another identity. They had a week’s engagement at Arnhem’s Rembrandt Theater – a movie theatre, and The Barnetts performed between Fox Movietone News and the main feature.
This breakaway from The Stroganoffs could be the time that Muriel – as she says in the Guernsey paper – ‘formed her own company’. If this is so, she didn’t do too badly as impresario. In 1933 bookings followed in Paris and London, in Paris ‘présentés par Alfred Stroganoff’. (It’s good to know Freddy was still a friend.) And in London their venue, Grosvenor House, Park Lane, couldn’t be much classier. Here Carl Hyson presents ‘Grosvenor Gaieties’, starring Wendy Toye, who also choreographs. The Muriloffs are back again, first with their Valse Fantasie, and then in Toujours L’Amour, danced by ‘The Muriloff Trio.’ The third dancer could be Dries Krijn, who had worked with them before.
[i] Sometimes styled ‘Ballet Stroganoff’, sometimes ‘The Stroganoffs’
[iii] Keith Lester (1904-1993)’s early career coincidentally mirrors Muriel’s, in that he trained with Astafieva and Legat, appeared in London in a Basil Dean production choreographed by Fokine (Hassan, 1923), and danced in Kyasht’s company in the 1920s. He is primarily remembered and honoured for his work for the Royal Academy of Dancing.
[iv] Frans places the start of his partnering Muriel in 1929, so the dates are at variance here. Dutch web page – http://wiki.theaterencyclopedie.nl/wiki/Frans_Muriloff