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The plaque, which you can see at the end of the block of photos below, blithely proclaims that the Palace Theatre is famed for being the home of London’s longest-running musicals. The hell it is. This venue, located at Cambridge Circus, is famous for being one of the places where Russian ballet established a foothold in Britain in the early 20th century. It was here that Anna Pavlova performed some of her London seasons; here that Nikolai Legat debuted on the London stage; and here where Vaclav Nijinsky unveiled his own company in 1914. In regards to them I understand what is carved in stone over the stage door: “The world’s greatest artistes have passed and will pass through these doors.” But what this has to do with a so-called mentalist like Derren Brown – the house’s occupant (or occupier) when I took these photos earlier this year – I do not know. Surely the timelessness of a gorgeous old place like this is created only by those of the stature of Pavlova, Nijinsky and their like. As for the theatre’s physical appearance, at least in regards to the front facade, it would appear it has not changed much in a century. You can watch a short video of Anna Pavlova dancing a snippet of “The Dying Swan” on YouTube, which begins with a short panorama of the theatre front. Looks very much the same as the shots you see here.
Pavlova performed here at least in 1910 and 1912, and we can even pin one of her performances down to my own birthdate of June 18, in the year 1912, thanks to an old program of that evening’s show which is available for sale for $200 as of this writing. The description of the evening’s fare, incidentally, takes a good deal of the hot air out of my earlier rather pompous claim that the fame of Russian dancers is of more value than that of the other hucksters who may have performed here. Just imagine the show that night, on Tuesday, June 18. Pavlova, the headliner, shared the stage with three comedians, a mime, a comic violinist, a comic juggler, a comic conjurer (Ah! Derren Brown again!), and an ambidextrous caligraphist, among others. Not exactly your sublime evening of high art. In fact, here is a nice description of the kind of entertainment audiences might have seen at the Alhambra Theatre, a Glaswegian counterpart of the Palace, in or around the years 1913 and 1914.
“After the overture in the Alhambra the first act was frequently a play, musical revue, ballet, or short opera, all followed by variety with 6-10 turns, and ending with film. Through the Syndicate, entertainers came from all continents – comics, mimists, singers, illusionists, gymnasts, tumblers, instrumentalists, dancers, whistlers, Arabian whirlers, conjurers, memory men, trick cyclists, quartettes, jugglers, and ventriloquists. Dance and ballet came from the Danish classicist Adeline Genee, the Imperial Russian Ballet, America’s Maud Allan in her provocative free-movement, Lydia Kyasht and her Russian corps de ballet, Nicolas Legat’s Russian company, Anna Pavlova and others.”
Be all that as it may, Pavlova’s memory is so closely associated with the Palace that there is speculation about hers being one of two ghosts who continue to haunt the backstage area to this day (for the record, the other is of the Welsh composer and actor Ivor Novello).
We can also focus in tightly on another moment from those long-gone days by perusing an unsigned newspaper review of Pavlova’s April 18, 1910, performance, which appeared in the Daily Mail on April 19:
“London – that is to say art and pleasure loving London – has a new sensation which will be discussed as widely and as eagerly as Elektra and the Sicilians, with the one difference that the new topic does not lend itself to argument. Anna Pavlova and Michael Mordkin, ‘Russia’s acknowledged greatest dancers and the famous leaders of the Imperial Russian Ballet,’ who made their debut at the Palace Theatre last night, are the last word in the art of dancing. The perfection of their art cannot be disputed. It is such as to re-establish the supremacy of the traditional ballet style over the so called ‘classic’ dance and its offshoots, of which we have had a very surfeit during the last year or two.
It is impossible to do justice to Anna Pavlova by mere description. Such grace as hers, such litheness of body, and such perfect balance in motion so quick that eyes can scarcely follow it must be seen to be believed. It is not alone the top-like whirling round on tip-toe, ending in a difficult poise that would defy the efforts of an ordinary dancer, even if it were attempted from an attitude of repose; it is none of the conventional tricks of the ballet-dancer that causes wonderment in the dancing of Anna Pavlova and her no less amazing partner, but their extraordinary effects of movement arrested, as it were, in mid-air – a pause, a hesitation that seems to defy the laws of gravity and makes you look instinctively for the wires on which these graceful marionettes must surely be suspended.”
I must add a few words about Pavlova’s “no less amazing partner” Michael, or Mikhail, Mordkin, with whom Miss Pavlova apparently had a turbulent relationship. I am grateful to the Victoria and Albert Museum website for the following tidbit:
“In 1912 Pavlova appeared in the first Royal Variety Performance. She was very competitive and during a curtain call slapped the face of her partner, Michael Mordkin, because she thought he was getting more applause.
The feud between Pavlova and Mordkin was much reported in the press. The pair were a sensation when they appeared together at the Palace Theatre, one of London’s leading music halls, in 1910.
They first appeared in a classical pas de deux, performed with such style and beauty that they took ten curtain calls, an extraordinary number for a music hall. Nothing prepared the audience for what came next.
Gone were Pavlova’s tutu and Mordkin’s ballet costume, gone her pointe shoes. In Greek tunics and sandals, they flung themselves onto the stage in the Autumn Bacchanal, one of the most tempestuous and passionate dances ever staged.”
Nijinsky’s most memorable, if not successful, connection to the Palace comes over just a two-week period in the spring of 1914. After breaking with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, who had raised him to the status of a living legend, Nijinsky attempted to put together his own troupe with which he planned to tour. It never happened. Immediately following the two-week run at the Palace, the new company fell apart. A minor detail of that doomed endeavor was that Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, commissioned by Nijinsky, was given its world premiere during the performance of March 2, 1914 – the opening night of the run. Writing in her memoirs, Nijinsky’s sister Bronislawa wrote in some detail about the thought (or lack of it) and preparations that went into the new company. “The performances were to begin on March 2. There were only four and a half weeks to opening night, and Vaslav [her spelling] had not even started the work. To sign a contract with such a short time for preparation seemed to me to be pure folly, but it was too late to talk about it, least of all with Vaslav.” According to Bronislawa, the program for the Saison Nijinsky was to include major pieces such as Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Le Spectre de la rose, and Nijinsky’s own choreography of Carnaval and Les Sylphides among smaller dance numbers.
Nikolai Legat first danced abroad with Anna Pavlova no later than 1908. You can see a photo of the two in Swan Lake from that year when they toured Europe. Legat, however, although he enjoyed dancing abroad and did so for many years, remained in Russia at the Imperial School where he built his reputation as a teacher and choreographer. Still, Diaghilev convinced him to come West and take over as the ballet master of the Ballets Russes in 1923. Legat left to found his own school in London in 1926. I don’t readily find specific dates for Legat performing at the Palace, although there is a posed photo of Anna Pavlova performing in Legat’s choreography for Les Coquetteries de Columbine which premiered at the Palace on April 15, 1912.