Sokolova, Lydia (1896–1974)

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Sokolova, Lydia (1896–1974)

English dancer who performed with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, the company with which her name is always associated. Name variations: Hilda Munnings; stage name at first Hilda Munningsova, then Lydia Sokolova; Mrs. Nicholas Kremnev. Born Hilda Munnings in Wanstead, Essex, England, on March 4, 1896; died at Sevenoaks, England, on February 5, 1974; received her early training at Steadman's Academy in London; studied under Anna Pavlova and other Russian dancers; married Nicholas Kremnev (a dancer), in 1917; children: daughter, Natasha Kremnev (b. 1917).

Made debut in the pantomime Alice in Wonderland (1910); toured the U.S. with Mikhail Mordkin's Imperial Russian Ballet (1911–12); toured Germany and Austria-Hungary with the Theodore Kosloff Company (1912–13); danced with the Ballet Russe of Sergei Diaghilev (1913–29), appearing as The Polovetsian Maid in Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor, in Les Sylphides, and as a nymph in L'Après-midi d'un Faune (1913–14), as Papillon in Le Carnaval and in Le Soleil de Nuit (1915), in Las Meninas (1916), as Ta-Hor in Cléopatre, as a bacchante in Narcisse, as Kikimora in Contes Russes, as the Apple Woman in Til Eulenspiegel (1917), as the Tarantella dancer in La Boutique Fantasque, in the finale of Le Tricorne (1919), as the Chosen Virgin in Le Sacre du Printemps, as Death in Le Chant du Rossignol, as the Miller's Wife in Le Tricorne, in a character pas de deux in Le Astuzie Femminili (1920), as La Bouffonne in Chout, as the Cherry Blossom fairy and Red Riding Hood in The Sleeping Princess (1921); was a principal dancer in the London revue You'd be Surprised (1923); appeared as Chloe in Daphnis and Chloe, as Chanson dansée in Les Biches, as the sorceress in Night on Bald Mountain, as Perlouse in Le Train Bleu, and as a principle dancer in Les Sylphides (1924); appeared as a muse in Zéphire et Flore, as The Friend in Les Matelots, as a soloist in Polovetsian Dances (1926), as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, as a goddess in Triumph of Neptune (1926), as a dancer in Le Bal (1929); retired (1929); reemerged to perform with the Woizikowsky Company (1935), and in the Ivor Novello musical Crest of the Wave (1937); choreographed Russki-Plasski for the Ballet de la Jeunesse Anglaise (1939); retired again; returned as the Marquise Silvestra in The Good-Humoured Ladies (1962).

Born Hilda Munnings in Wanstead, Essex, England, on March 4, 1896, Lydia Sokolova is best known for being the first British dancer to be offered a permanent contract with the Ballet Russe, the celebrated Russian company of Sergei Diaghilev. Though self-deprecating as a dancer, she was by most accounts better than she believed herself to be and was highly regarded as one of the best character dancers with the Diaghilev company.

Although she was related to Sir Alfred Munnings, the British painter of horses and once president of the Royal Academy, there was little in Hilda Munnings' background to suggest that her future would involve an artistic career. As a young girl, she studied piano and reached the point of passing serious examinations when she began taking dance lessons at Steadman's Academy in Great Windmill Street. After about a year of exposure to classical ballet, she made her

debut in the corps de ballet of a production of the Christmas pantomime Alice in Wonderland at the Savoy Theater in London in 1910. Soon after, she saw Anna Pavlova (1881–1931) dancing with Mikhail Mordkin (1881–1944) at the Palace Theater in 1911. At first her parents were unable to understand her excitement over Pavlova and the fact that she was spending her lunch money on repeated matinee tickets to see her idol, but at her pleading they went to see Pavlova for themselves. After watching her perform, they agreed to support their daughter's goal of becoming a professional dancer. Hilda's father wrote to Mordkin to arrange for dance lessons with him at the then high sum of five guineas an hour (worth about $25 at that time).

I never have been and never could be a classical ballerina, but the fun I had taking such different roles by choreographers of such varied genius, was more rewarding … than all the laurels and fortunes of Pavlova.

—Lydia Sokolova

Soon after Hilda began her lessons, however, Mordkin and Pavlova quarreled, and Pavlova broke with him. Most of Mordkin's dancers, the majority of them Polish, took his side in the dispute and, under his management, formed a company of their own, grandiosely titled The All-Star Imperial Russian Ballet. They went into rehearsal at once. Fortunately, the company was made up of some of the finest dancers then appearing outside of Russia, including besides Mordkin and his wife Bronislava Pozhitskaya , such performers as Kühn, Morosa, Schmoltz, Ekaterina Gelzer and Julia Sedova , and was able to secure a tour of the United States. When one of the six English dancers whom Mordkin had hired to flesh out his ensemble took sick ten days prior to departure, Mordkin replaced her with the 15-year-old Hilda Munnings.

The company, which sailed on the President Lincoln in 1911, was immediately dogged by misfortune. After a successful though short engagement at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, during which they performed Swan Lake, Giselle, Copéllia, and Russian Wedding and Grands Divertissements, the company set out on tour. Jealousies among the dancers over billing and over who was the prima ballerina plagued the tour, and one by one the dancers dropped out. By the time the company returned to New York, there was hardly anyone but the English girls left in the cast. At this point, the Moscow-born dancer Alexandre Volinine (1882–1955), who had previously arrived in America on a ballet tour sponsored by the impresario Charles Frohman, took it upon himself to form a second company with the six English girls. Lydia Lopokova , also in America with Frohman, joined somewhat later as a soloist. The second company fared no better than the first and ended with the cast being stranded in New Orleans. Eventually, Hilda succeeded in returning to England after having danced in 120 towns in seven months and often giving two performances in a single day in two different localities.

Upon her return to London in 1912, Hilda immediately secured a position with Theodore Kosloff's family troupe, performing with Kosloff himself at the London Coliseum and then on tour in Germany and Austria-Hungary. In April of the following year, she was accepted into Diaghilev's company, the Ballet Russe. Here she found her professional home, remaining with the company until Diaghilev's death in 1929, leaving it only occasionally to perform in various London productions (1914–15) and some outside productions of Léonide Massine's company (1922–23).

The quarter century between 1890 and the First World War was of overwhelming importance both in the history of Western civilization and in the emergence of the modern world, the era that saw the coming of the automobile, aircraft, motion picture, and radio, the triumph of the electric light, phonograph, and telephone; the era that produced the major works of Einstein, Freud, Shaw, Proust, and a host of other authors; the era that gave us Picasso in art, Stravinsky in music, and innovators in every field of human endeavor. The role of the great transformer in dance at this time belongs to Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929), who, while neither a dancer nor a choreographer himself, had an uncanny gift for recognizing new and exciting talents and with exquisite taste and extravagant flair developed a new world of classical ballet for the new 20th century. Patronized by the imperial family, Diaghilev brought Russian ballet to the Western world—not the traditional ballet of the Bolshoi and Marinsky theaters but a fresh, exciting ballet that explored fresh ground in choreography, music and theatrical presentation. Founded in Paris in 1909, his Ballet Russe from the beginning gathered together the most innovative choreographers: Michel Fokine, Léonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, his sister Bronislava Nijinska , and a very young George Balanchine; the newest dancers: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina , Gelzer, Mordkin, Adolph Bolm and, again, Nijinsky and his sister; the most contemporary composers: Rimsky-Korsakoff, Ravel, Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Richard Strauss and the then avant-garde Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev; and young and exciting scenery and costume designers drawn from the broader world of art: Picasso, Utrillo, Braque, Miro, Matisse, and especially Leon Bakst. Together these artists dazzled first Paris and then all of Europe with their lavish productions of such exotic new ballets as The Firebird, Les Sylphides, Schéhérazade, Petrouchka, Spectre de la Rose, and Le Sacre du Printemps, which created a riot in the theater at its first performance in Paris in 1913. It was into this brilliant, glittering and exotic new world of 20th-century ballet that the not quite 17-year-old English girl Hilda Munnings walked when she joined the Diaghilev company in Monte Carlo in April 1913.

Under the aegis of Diaghilev, Hilda was at first dubbed Hilda Munningsova, but in 1915 he personally rechristened her Lydia Sokolova in honor of the Russian dancer Anna Sokolova whom he much admired. This would be her professional name for the rest of her career. Diaghilev was difficult to work with, restless, moody, ever seeking novelty. Since most of the company consisted of Russians who spoke no English, the newly baptized Lydia Sokolova was forced to learn at least some Russian while she absorbed the myriad other lessons, techniques and impressions nearly overwhelming her on every side. Sokolova had already taken lessons from Pavlova, Ivan Custine, and Alexandre Shiryaev, and now came under the discipline of the great Enrico Cecchetti. Following the advice of Shiryaev, she learned everything that she could from her Russian colleagues. Shiryaev had a particularly important influence on Sokolova's career, because it was he who urged her to concentrate on character parts which were to become her great forte.

Above all, Sokolova trained under Léonide Massine, who dominated the choreography of the Ballet Russe from 1917 until he was supplanted by Nijinska in the '20s, to the extent that in time she became known as a Massine dancer. Massine emphasized character dancing, and, struck by Sokolova's strength, endurance and striking stage personality, choreographed several major parts for her and assigned her the most difficult roles, the most important of which was that of the Chosen Virgin in his staging of Le Sacre du Printemps (1920). Previously Massine had created the role of the Tarantella dancer for her in La Boutique Fantasque and the Miller's Wife in Le Tricorne (both in 1919), and later he would create for her the roles of Death in Le Chant du Rossignol (1920), the Tarentella dancer in Le Astuzie Femminili (both in 1920), and The Friend in Les Matelots (1925).

After the death of Diaghilev in 1929, his company broke up, and at 33 Sokolova's career as a dancer came virtually though not entirely to an end. She devoted the rest of her active years to teaching, arranging, and later to assisting the Royal Academy of Dancing. In 1935, she came out of retirement to appear in London as the leading dancer with the company of Leon Woizikowsky, an old colleague from her Diaghilev days, and in 1939 again in London she choreographed Russki-Plasski for Lydia Kyasht 's Ballet de la Jeunesse Anglaise. In 1942, she choreographed The Silver Birch. She also gave lectures and wrote occasional articles on the Diaghilev years, but she is best remembered for her sober account of life with the Ballet Russe in her memoir Dancing for Diaghilev. In 1962, she agreed to appear in a revival of the ballet The Good-Humoured Ladies, taking the pantomime role of the Marquise Silvestra.

Lydia Sokolova may not have been a great ballerina but she was certainly a great character dancer whose gifted interpretations made her one of the perennial and most important ornaments of the Ballet Russe. Though her pirouettes en point may have been less than impressive, she learned marvelous control from Pavlova, the Dalcroze method of Eurythmics from Nijinsky, and was blessed with technical brilliance, excellent timing, and a great comic sense. Her elevation, learned from her Russian colleagues, was also excellent, and her vigorous and forceful style enabled her to take on the most demanding roles originally devised by Bronislava Nijinska for herself. Lydia Sokolova died at Sevenoaks, Kent, on February 5, 1974, at age 78.


Anderson, John. Dance. New York, 1974.

Music Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Sokolova, Lydia. Dancing for Diaghilev. Edited by Richard Buckle. London, 1960.

suggested reading:

Buckle, Richard. In the Wake of Diaghilev. New York, 1983.

Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. New York, 1989.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey