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Lydia Sokolova - Ballet Dancer

Lydia Sokolova 1896 - 1974

Lydia Sokolova was a Prima Ballerina who danced with the Russian Ballet. She was well known as being the first and greatest English dancer to perform with Sergei Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet Russe, the company with which her name is always associated. Sokolova was the stage name of Hilda Tansley Munnings, born on 4th March 1896 in Wanstead, Essex, the daughter of Frederick Tansley and Emma Catherine Munnings. Hilda was related to Sir Alfred Munnings, the British equine painter, so the artistic gene could be said to be running through her veins.

As a child Hilda was not very artistic but she did study piano and passed many exams in the subject as well as loving dance. Her main interest was in ballet, following the ballet dancers of the time. She began her education at All Saints Poplar in Tower Hamlets and went on to train at Stedman’s Ballet Academy in London. She studied under a number of Russian dancers including Anna Pavlova. At first her parents did not share their daughter’s love of ballet but once they saw a performance by Pavlova, they agreed to support their daughter’s goal of becoming a professional dancer.

She made her professional stage debut, at the age of 14, in 1910, in the Corps de Ballet of Alice in Wonderland at the Savoy Theatre, London. She joined Mikhail Mordkin’s All-Star Imperial Russian Ballet in 1911 for an American tour that lasted two years. In April 1913 she joined the Diaghilev Ballet Russe, in Monte Carlo, and stayed with them until the death of Sergei Diaghilev in 1929, leaving it only occasionally to perform in various London productions. It was Diaghilev who decided to change her name to Lydia Sokolova in honour of the Russian dancer Anna Sokolova whom he much admired. Diaghilev encouraged her to try to forget that she had even been any other nationality than Russian, and she even learned the language. Lydia was the first British Ballerina to dance with Diaghilev’s Company and during her time with them she became close to Nikolai Kremnev, a fellow dancer, and married him in 1917 giving birth to their daughter Natasha shortly afterwards. Natasha was to follow in her parents footsteps and became a dancer. She was the leading dancer of the revie ‘Here Come the Boys’ at the Saville Theatre in London. Whilst Lydia and Nikolai were married Lydia had an affair with fellow dancer Leon Woizikovsky, who was also married to a ballet dancer, whom she later married. All four of them were members of the Ballet Russes at the time of the affair.

During her dancing career Lydia danced every well-known role in ballet. Whilst with the Ballet Russe she trained under Leonide Massine who was the main choreographer of the Ballet Russe from 1917. Her most famous role being the Chosen Maiden in Leonide Massine’s reworking of ‘The Rite of Spring’ in 1920. It was generally agreed, within the profession, that this role was the longest and most exhausting solo in the history of theatrical dance. Although she did not believe herself to be a great dancer she was recognised as being better that she believed herself to be and was highly regarded as one of the best character dancers with the Diaghilev company. After the Ballet Russe disbanded, Lydia returned to England and appeared in the London season of Woizikovsky’s company in 1935. She then went on to teach, coach, choreograph and occasionally perform. She also gave lectures and wrote occasional articles on the Diaghilev years, but she is best remembered for her account of life with the Ballet Russe in her memoir ‘Dancing for Diaghilev’ Her last performance was in 1962 when she agreed to come out of retirement to dance at the Royal Opera House, London, with the Royal Ballet, dancing the pantomime role of Marquise Silvestra in Massine’s revival of his ‘The Good-humoured Ladies’.

In 1945 Henry Gibbs (her son-in-law) wrote ‘Affectionately Yours Fanny: Fanny Kemble and the Theatre’. Lydia helped him trace the material needed to write the book and he dedicated it to her. Lydia’s autobiographical work on her years with Ballet Russe, ‘Dancing for Diaghilev,’ was published in London in 1960. This book is now out of print but is considered to be a Classic and as such has been reproduced to preserve its contents.

Lydia’s third and last marriage was to Ronald Mahon in 1934 and they eventually settled in Sevenoaks where they lived for the last 20 years of her life. She travelled to London as often as possible to keep up with the latest aspects of her art.

She died at home in Riverhead, Sevenoaks on 5th February 1974, aged 77. Her private funeral was held on Monday 11th February at the Kent and Sussex Crematorium where her ashes were laid to rest.

Lydia’s achievements as a dancer were outstanding. Although she was born in England, to English parents, she was a true Russian ballerina, with a Russian temperament and style to her dancing that belied her mother country.

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