George Balanchine

  • From Paper to Stage—The Triumph of Neptune and a very particular collaboration

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    Enter the magical world of Pollock’s Toyshop and Museum and the miniature paper theatres that inspired the creation of a new ballet by the legendary Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. JUDY LEECH investigates...

    The year is 1926, the setting is London and Benjamin Pollock’s Old Toyshop in Hoxton. The cast includes, ultimately, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, Russian founder and director of Les Ballets Russes, Sacheverell Sitwell, Lord Berners, Prince Aleksandr Schervashidze, Pedro Pruna, and George Balanchine—among many, many others.

    A new generation of ‘avant-garde aesthetes’, including the Sitwells and Lord Berners, had been inspired by Diaghilev’s return to London in 1918. Sacheverell Sitwell, then serving in the Grenadier Guards had, quite simply, fallen in love with ballet.

    With the friendship and financial backing of Viscount Rothermere, an eminent newspaper proprietor, Diaghilev’s wish was to produce a ballet to music by the diplomat-turned-composer Lord Berners (Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 1883–1950), for which Sitwell was to provide the scenario. This interest of Diaghilev’s in English themes had also led earlier that year to a commission for Constant Lambert (1905–1951) to compose a score for Romeo and Juliet and which premiered in May. Sacheverell took Sergei to view paintings by various English artists—but the ’great man’ /impresario was not satisfied. Finally, after explaining what was meant by the terms ‘penny-plain and twopenny-coloured Juvenile Drama prints’, Diaghilev was taken to visit Mr. Benjamin Pollock at his Hoxton toyshop and then to its rival shop, H.J. Webb’s in Old Street, London.

    He was astonished, if not more than a little puzzled—but what could be more English than a traditional pantomime? Diaghilev was presented with an enormous selection of costume designs and backdrops, created for toy theatres and collected by Pollock: prints by George and Robert Cruikshank, Tofts, Honigold and Webb. He was delighted by the brightly coloured sheets of scenes and characters—sometimes likened to the popular prints of the Frenchman, Jean-Charles Pellerin and his ‘Imagerie d’Epinal’. When Diaghilev was taken ‘behind the scenes’ to a room where artists were hand-colouring the penny-plain prints, he declared it was “unprecedented!” although, of course, in French.

    Thus, came about the ballet The Triumph of Neptune, with sets inspired by, most notably, Pollock’s Juvenile Drama The Silver Palace; or, The Golden Poppy. The Toyshop, originally a theatrical warehouse, was situated at 73 Hoxton Street, and had been opened by one John Redington (1819–1876) in 1851. (His shop is portrayed within the toy theatre image featuring Harlequin, Columbine, et al.  More anon...) After his death his daughter Eliza ran the business, and the following year, in 1877, she married Benjamin Pollock (1856–1937) and together they managed the shop. The stock consisted of toy theatre sheets of Redington’s and those of the original publisher, John Kilby Green. Mr. Pollock became a maker of toy theatres, known also as Juvenile Drama, creating miniature backdrops and characters from dramas of the day for a penny or for twopence... He used existing plates but altered the characters’ names to suit his productions.

    Eliza and Benjamin had eight children, four girls and four boys, and the eldest, William, assisted in the business until his untimely death during World War One. Following their father’s death in 1937, daughter Louise stepped in and later, another sibling, Selina. In 1944 Louise and Selina sold the shop’s stock to Alan Keen, a bookseller who then operated the business under the name of Benjamin Pollock Limited, moving it to John Adam Street, in the Adelphi Building, just off the Strand. Shortly after this move, towards the end of the Second World War, the original Hoxton shop suffered badly from bomb damage.

    The Welshman George Speaight (1914–2005), a theatre historian, author and performer, had linked up with Pollocks when a toy theatre performance had been held in celebration of Benjamín’s 80th birthday in 1936. (Speaight, twenty years later, lent a set of twopence-coloured prints for The Observer’s Diaghilev Exhibition, held first in Edinburgh and then in London. These original prints for The Silver Palace and other plays—The Corsican Brothers, The Miller and His Men, etc. —had been the inspiration for the décor and costumes of The Triumph of Neptune ballet in 1926.)

    In 1946 Speaight was appointed manager (he remained with the shop, and later the museum that grew from it, until his death in 2005) but despite the support of many famous and influential individuals, the business failed to be a financial success and in 1950 it was moved to smaller premises in Little Russell Street—the following year Benjamin Pollock Ltd. went into receivership.

    However, four years later the shop and the entire bankrupt stock was purchased by Marguerite Fawdry, a BBC journalist. The business was then moved to a rented shop in Monmouth Street and after a year it was also operating as Pollock’s Toy Museum, which was then run by Fawdry’s grandson, Eddy. The Museum and Toyshop moved again in the late 1960s and became a charitable trust entitled Pollock’s Toy Theatre Ltd. In 1980 Pollock’s opened in the newly-renovated Covent Garden Piazza, one of the Piazza’s very first shops. Ownership had passed from the Fawdrys to Christopher and Peter Baldwin. Since the latter’s death in 2015 the shop has been run by Louise Heard, someone who had, ever since the 80s, helped ‘keep the show on the road’, including opening a second shop nearby, back in 2010.

    Sadly, the Toy Museum is currently looking for another venue as a new lease has not been secured, although it is temporarily situated outside London, with much of its stock in safe storage. The Toyshop dwells still within the Piazza, 44 The Market, Covent Garden, and Pollocks continues to produce its own range of toy theatres, with displays at Liberty, Fortnum and Mason, the Royal Opera House and the Chelsea Arts Club. The work of contemporary artists is represented, including that of Australian Viola Ann Seddon, whose Ballet Theatres and Opera Tableaux bring such joy to so many—her doll-making skills were developed under the tutelage of the late, beloved and legendary Mirka Mora.

    paper benjamin eliza pollock speaight 01Benjamin Pollock and his wife Eliza (nee Redington) with the Neptune Theatre. openhouseminiatures; and George Speaight (right). Courtesy of Anthony Speaight.

    But let us rewind our clock and return to 1926 and our ballet The Triumph of Neptune, which was to be presented at London’s Lyceum Theatre, a theatre Serge Grigoriev, Diaghilev’s manager (regisseur/stage-director/dancer), apparently did not greatly care for. The ballet required much time to prepare—it would appear a great deal of this year, 1926, was taken up with its creation—but finally it opened, although rather late in the company’s season—on December 3rd. The young George Balanchine (1904–1983) was responsible for the choreography, having joined the company the previous year.

    Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze, Georgian-born—Diaghilev abridged and Russianized his name immediately—and young as George was, the preceding year at 21, he had created the choreography for two ballets Le Chant du Rossignol and Barabau, and collaborated with Bronislava Nijinska, Vaslav’s sister, on Romeo and Juliet. And then during Neptune’s year, he choreographed La Pastorale and Jack-in-the-Box. Clearly, the flavour of the year, so to speak! He was to be responsible for a further five ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. I very much doubt that any record of the Neptune ballet’s choreography has survived—what system or notation method did Balanchine employ? In the 1978 book he co-authored with Francis Mason—Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet: scene-by-scene stories of 404 Classical and Contemporary Ballets—the ballet does not rate a single mention.

    (This year, 2023, has seen performances, in both Melbourne and Sydney, of his 1967 three-act ballet Jewels.In August the Australian Ballet Company headed to London with this same production. Jewelswas originally choreographed for the New York City Ballet—how very tempting it is to attempt a total count of his balletic output!)

    The sets for Neptune were adapted from the Victorian coloured prints chosen by Diaghilev and beautifully painted by another Georgian, Prince Aleksandr Konstantinovich Schervashidze (1867–1968), a very highly-regarded scenic artist. Early in the century the Prince had penned a report on the 1906 Paris Salon for Diaghilev’s journal ‘The World of Art’. The costumes, inspired of course by the twopence-coloureds, were by the Spaniard Pedro Pruna. But some of the costumes to be worn had been discovered at the London theatrical costumier C.W. May, left over from a production of an early Victorian pantomime—costumes encrusted with faux jewels. Jane Pritchard, writing in Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes tells us the Fairy Queen’s costume was inspired by that of Mme. Auriol, a 19th century Columbine, and that of the character Cupid, a 1927 addition to the ballet, suggested by the simple tunic worn by John Reeve, an early 1800s dancer, perched on a large and totally unbending sunflower. Pedro Pruna had also designed costumes, and sets, for Les Matelots in 1925 and Balanchine’s La Pastorale, in the same year as that of Neptune.

    As stated, the music was by Lord Berners, and although this was the only ballet score he composed for Diaghilev, in the 1930s he produced music for four of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre ballets—Luna Park (1930), ‘a fantastic ballet in one act’, choreographed by Balanchine with designs by the ill-fated English artist Christopher Wood; Foyer de Danse (1932); Wedding Bouquet (1937); Cupid and Psyche (1939) and Les Sirenes(1946).

    Neptune’s scenario was the work of the English poet Sacherevell Sitwell, brother to Edith and Osbert. Two years before, he had published Southern Baroque Art, a Study of Painting, Architecture and Music in Italy and Spain of 17th and 18th centuries, but The Triumph of Neptune was a world away—a mix of pantomime, science fiction and satire … totally nonsensical.

    paper aleksandr shervashidze topsPrince Aleksandr Shervashidze, 1913. Painting by V.I. Rossinsky. Wikipedia; and (right) ‘Top drops and foot pieces’. Author’s collection.

    Apart from the three principal tableaux—Cloudland, The Frozen Forest and the Triumph at the conclusion of the ballet, London Bridge was also depicted, a Shipwreck, Fleet Street, a Giant Hand, an Evil Grotto and an Ogre’s Castle. In the Forest scene not only did it contain the best variations for the ballerinas—namely Alexandra Danilova, Lydia Sokolova, Lubov Tchernicheva and Vera Petrova—but they were brought on via wires, in the manner of the period. (J. Kirby’s ‘Flying Effects’ are still in use in theatres to this day.) Diaghilev was highly entertained by this Victorian contrivance.

    Balanchine was not just the ballet’s choreographer, he also danced the role of the negro Snowball, and that of a beggar. The cast included a Fairy Queen, the sailor hero Tom Tug, a journalist called Mr. Brown, a Sea Goddess, a Dandy, eighteen assorted fairies, ogres—both male and female—sylphs and street-hawkers—to mention only a few! Diaghilev had been most taken by the Harlequins represented in the Hoxton prints and ordered that there be eight dancing within the ballet—eventually it was decided upon four. Sacherevell is reported as being similarly taken with the paper portrayals of policemen and their red and white striped footwear!  Conferences between these two took place in a huge room called the Sala di Santa Catarina, in a hotel on the left bank of the Arno in Florence, where Diaghilev was staying. Most of the dancers were also in Florence, enjoying a well-earned break and visiting the many palaces and galleries.

    The Triumph of Neptune finally opened at the Lyceum in London on the 3rd of December, 1926, with Diaghilev, right up to noon on the day of the premier, helping Prince Schervashidze, and he himself painting spangles—applying tinsel perhaps?—on the transformation scene. It transpired the ballet was pretty much to the taste of the British public.  The orchestra was conducted by Henri Defosse, a particularly talented conductor of ballet (and with whom, most exceptionally, Diaghilev never quarreled over the matter of tempi) and Serge Grigoriev was the Stage Director. When Benjamin Pollock was taken to the ballet, he was delighted to see the scenes he was so familiar with come to life on an actual stage. Lynn Garafola in her admirable Diaghilev’s Ballets Russeswrites in great detail of the reception to the ballet—the attitudes of the times, including that of the Bloomsbury group, of writers, artists and musicians and what was regarded as the ‘dandy fold’. The ballet was certainly not without criticism—The Queen magazine gave it a very mixed review, Cyril Beaumont praised, whilst The Nation panned. But the general public highly approved.

    In 1928 The Triumph of Neptune was performed at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels and there were difficulties due to the fact that the flies were crammed with scenery belonging to the resident opera company—how could nine quick scene changes be possible without a due amount of flying-space?! The theatre’s stage manager refused to move a thing and all the backcloths duly stuck in the flies. As a consequence, the ballet went on and on and was far from the success of its English season, when it had earned great popularity as the most elaborate production since The Sleeping Princess in 1921, an incredibly lavish presentation that had cost a fortune, only for the scenery and costumes to be seized by Oswald Stoll, a theatre manager who had built the Coliseum and controlled many other theatres in London. This debt, however, was eventually discharged by further seasons of the Ballets Russes a few years later—in fact by 1926, the year of the Neptuneballet: another triumph indeed.

    The Triumph of Neptune

    A Pantomimic Ballet in Twelve Tableaux

    Act l: Searching for Fairyland are two British adventurers, Mr. W. Brown, a journalist, and Tom Tug, a sailor. A crowd is gathering on LONDON BRIDGE to look through a magic telescope trained on the Fairy Kingdom—CLOUDLAND.  Sprites can be glimpsed, dancing among the clouds. There is a FAREWELL scene before Mr. B. and Tom Tug set off on a bus, but predictably, it is not long before the sailor’s wife, left at home, succumbs to the advances of the Dandy.

    Meanwhile, the two adventurers, now at sea, are SHIPWRECKED, only to be rescued by a Sea Goddess (clad incongruously in a Glengarry—a Scottish Highlander’s cap—and a sequin tunic). In FLEET STREET two rival newspapers are trying in vain to receive news of the two men, who have now found themselves in an enchanted snow-filled forest. A ‘flying ballet’ takes place within this FROZEN WOOD.

    Act ll: Back home the sailor’s wife is spending a lot of time with the Dandy—they dance a polka and when the two enter her dwelling their figures are outlined against the drawn blinds. Suddenly, Tom Tug’s spirit returns, knife in a GIANT HAND, and he prepares to defend the honour of his house. Two constables rush in but can only lay hold of a shadow—the sailor has returned to Fairyland.

    Tom is reunited with Mr. Brown and they join forces, only to now find themselves in an EVIL GROTTO through which they manage to fight their way to the OGRE’S CASTLE. Here our unfortunate journalist is caught and sawn in half (one cannot help but wonder how this was achieved on stage—an old-time magician’s trick?) but Tom manages to escape. However, all his hopes to return home to England are dashed when a drunken negro, Snowball, upsets—on a SUNDAY MORNING IN LONDON—the magic telescope. Totally disillusioned by his wife’s behavior, Tom decides to renounce humanity and is transformed into a sprite, enabling him to wed Neptune’s daughter, the Fairy Queen, who then joins him in a ‘conjugal hornpipe’, culminating in THE TRIUMPH OF NEPTUNE. An APOTHEOSIS is then enacted, Tom Tug is now a Fairy Prince, and the ballet concludes with elaborate ceremonies that unite the new Prince to his consort, the Fairy Queen.

    paper pollock characters 01Twopence-coloured prints—costume inspirations for Ogres, Harlequins, Fairies, Policemen, Sailors and Dandy. Author’s collection.

    The Dramatis Personae is too long to list, but here are the names of the principal dancers and their roles for the ballet’s premiere that December, almost a century ago. More than eighty characters are involved in the production, including multiple Fairies, Harlequins, Pages and Ogres.

    The Fairy Queen—or Neptune’s daughter—was danced by Alexandra Danilova; Tom Tug, the sailor, by Serge Lifar; Mr. W. Brown, a journalist, Michael Fedorov; The Dandy—Konstantin Tcherkas; the Sailor’s Wife—Ludmilla Barasch and the Sea Goddess was portrayed by Lydia Sokolova, the English dancer Hilda Munnings. As already stated, Snowball was danced by the ballet’s choreographer George Balanchine. The Fairies, of which there were eighteen, included two more English dancers Vera Savina (Vera Clark) and Alicia Markova (Lilian Alicia Marks).

    A few photographs of the original production do exist (held in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum) of the actual costumes. Whatever became of all these costumes? Were they recycled, cannibalized, sold or ‘liberated’, lost or destroyed by fire? Of sets I can find no trace—how unfortunate that we have no images of the backdrops and curtains of those twelve tableaux. Frustratingly, the background—such as it is—in the images shown here is a very little indication of anything or anywhere—but surely it must relate to one of Pollock’s productions? Are we looking at the base of a tree in the Frozen Wood? Or—a wild seascape, and the enormous waves responsible for the wreck of the adventurers’ ship?

    Presumably the ballet’s title, if not the plot, was suggested or inspired by the existence of this particular toy theatre of Pollock’s (1880) where Neptune, Chief of the Water Deities, reigns above the proscenium arch, while on stage below Harlequin and Columbine, her father Pantaloon, Clown and the Good Fairy, cavort. They dance against a backdrop most appropriate: John Redington’s printing, bookbinding and stationery shop. Of the dimensions of the original model, I can find no record, but I imagine may be similar to that of the model, albeit more elaborate, shown in the attached image of Benjamin and his wife Eliza, nee Redington. Those dimensions are: height—63.5 cm, width—68.5 cm and depth—61 cm.

    (Please see below for a description of the Neptune Theatre, its backdrop and wings.)

    Serge Leonidovich Grigoriev in his autobiography writes that it was a great pity that the ballet’s season in London was so short—a mere nine days—as the public was ‘full of praise and enthusiasm’. In the company’s season in June the following year, as already mentioned, another character was added to the production, the role of Cupid and danced by Stanislas Idzikowski (1894–1977), a dancer of Polish origin, who had been with the company from 1914 onwards but had had a spell away at the time of the 1926 production. The Times thought his role “a burlesque, all the funnier for being carried out with the utmost gravity, of the old school of male dancer”. Diaghilev was highly amused by these comments and laughed, according to Sacherevell, until the tears ran down his face.

    The very final performance of The Triumph was on the last day of July in 1928. Almost exactly a year later Diaghilev said farewell to his dancers in London; the performances destined to be the company’s last, under his direction, were given at Vichy in France—Cimarosiana, Le Tricorne and La Boutique Fantasque on the 4th of August. Diaghilev visited Munich on his way to his beloved Venice, which is where he died at the age of 59 on August 19, surrounded by four of his dearest and closest friends and collaborators. He had been suffering from a diabetic condition, later complicated by blood poisoning. Although bedridden for the last week of his life, and nursed devotedly, his death was sudden. Ironically, the summer of 1929 was one of the only times in his life, and that of his Ballets Russes, when worries about finances had ceased to exist—surely due, if only in a minor way, to the success of his ballet The Triumph of Neptune.

    paper neptune 01Cupid, Fairy, Goddess and Lord Berners. Photo by Sasha. Victoria & Albert Museum, London; and Vera Petrova (right) as the Ruby Fairy. Photo by North. Author’s collection.

    The Neptune Theatre

    There is a plethora of the most telling signage on the backdrop, which portrays a Shop Front: Miscellaneous Fancy Articles, Tobacconist & Theatrical Print Warehouse—the Trade supplied with Plays and Characters, and the shop-number 208 is above the window.

    Next-door to the left is J.&J. Vickers (no.209), celebrated Liqueur GIN and Superior Compounds. There is a gas lamp inscribed with Adam & Eve.

    ‘John Redington, licensed to sell stamps’, is over his door and leaning against the entrance a board proclaiming Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre—Baron Munchausen. In the right foreground is a Toyshop, Shettlecock and on the left a Purveyor of York Hams.

    Redington’s window is crammed with all manner of goodies—dolls and games and toy theatres. Tinsel for every sort of picture, Raffle Papers, Gold silver and every colour foil papers, etc. Window Bills, Satin and Jean toys of all kinds.

    RHS—Across the bottom of the window we are informed ‘Every play is to be had within’ and that there is TINSEL FOR EVERY CHARACTER. Beneath this proclamation, RHS—The Whole of Green’s, Park’s, Webb’s and Skelt’s Plays and Characters—Plain and Colored Stages—Lamps   Slides   Stage Fronts   Shaded Boards   Card Boards   Paints   Brushes and every article used in Tinselling Characters. THE TRADE SUPPLIED.

    LHS—Beneath the heading THE CHEAPEST HOUSE IN LONDON we find – For Brooches   Bracelets    Shawl Pins   Slides   Rings   Shirt studs   Buttons   Earrings   Beads and snaps   Purses   Watch keys   Guards   Combs   Brushes   Knives   Scissors & every description of fancy Articles   Violin strings   Pegs & Bridges   Stationery   Window bills   Raffle Papers!


    Listen to the music


    Sources and acknowledgements

    George Balanchine & Francis Mason, Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet, W.H. Allen, London, 1978

    Richard Buckle, The Diaghilev Exhibition Catalogue,  The Observer, 1954

    R. Buckle, Diaghilev, Atheneum New York, 1979

    Rupert Christiansen, Diaghilev’s Empire, Faber, 2022

    Mary Clarke & David Vaughan, Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet, Pitman, 1977

    Francis Gadan & Robert Maillard, A Dictionary of Modern Ballet, Methuen & Co., 1959

    Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Oxford University Press, 1989

    S.L. Grigoriev, The Diaghilev Ballet, Constable, 1953; Penguin, 1960

    Arnold Haskell, Mark Bonham Carter & Michael Wood (editors), Gala Performance, Collins, 1955

    Robert Lawrence, The Victor Book of Ballets and Ballet Music, Simon & Schuster, 1950

    John Percival, The World of Diaghilev, studiovista/Dutton, 1971

    Jane Pritchard (editor), Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, V&A, 2010

    Charles Spencer, The World of Serge Diaghilev, Penguin, 1979

    Sofka Zinovieff, Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me, Vintage, 2014


    Lord Berners—The Triumph of Neptune Ballet Suite—London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1937, and in 1952 he conducted the same work with the Philadelphia Orchestra

    Thanks to Doctor Mimi Colligan for Pollock’s Neptune Theatre, and to Elisabeth Kumm for Diaghilev’s Empire—two wonderful sources of inspiration!