From Stage to Page

Lucy Ashe

The debut novelist describes the ballets that inspired her.
Coppélia, performed in 1933
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When planning Clara & Olivia, I knew I wanted the setting of the novel to be a 1933 production of Coppélia performed by the Vic-Wells Ballet at Sadler’s Wells theatre. However, by the time I had finished writing the novel, many more ballets had found their way into the narrative. While Clara & Olivia is a fictional story, I like to think the novel pays tribute to the remarkable work of Dame Ninette de Valois and others who made the early years of the Vic-Wells Ballet a success.

In 1933, the company was two years old. It needed to prove itself at a time when ballet was identified with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes or a revue in a music-hall. And it certainly succeeded: the Vic-Wells Ballet went on to become what we know as the Royal Ballet today.

Here is a small selection of the ballets that inspired my novel, Clara & Olivia:


Coppélia performed in 1933

In the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the régisseur of the Imperial/Mariinsky Ballet, Nicolas Sergeyev, fled Russia and took with him trunks containing the notation books of many classical ballets, including Coppélia. Many years later, Ninette de Valois travelled to Paris and found him, bringing him back to London where he helped her to stage some of the great classical ballets. Coppélia was the first major production of a classical ballet by the Vic-Wells.

In March 1933, the company performed the first two acts, with the famous Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova as Swanilda for the first two performances, before Ninette de Valois took over the role. The company struggled to fill all the parts in the ballet and dancers cut their ribbons in the wings to make the speedy transition from pointe shoes to character shoes in Act One. In 1933, the Vic-Wells Ballet was still small, but it wouldn’t be long before it started to capture the hearts of a gradually growing audience.

Le Lac des Cygnes (Act Two)

It wasn’t until 1934 that the Vic-Wells Ballet produced a full-length version of Swan Lake. However, in 1933 when my novel is set, they did put on Act Two, the ‘ballet blanc’ scenes. The production relied on the popularity of Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, two dancers who were already famous and helped give the Vic-Wells Ballet the star quality the audiences craved. It also allowed the dancers to test their corps de ballet work. Le Lac des Cygnes, now known as Swan Lake, requires perfect lines of identical swans in white tutus – it is mesmerizing for the audience but requires utter focus and discipline from the dancers.

The Birthday of Oberon

Dame Ninette de Valois

Ninette de Valois knew that she must regularly add new works to the company’s repertoire, and she worked tirelessly to teach ballet class, run the company, and choregraph and rehearse new ballets. The Birthday of Oberon was just one of such ballets.

First performed in February 1933, the production had mixed success, combining many features such as a choral element and a large cast of singers and dancers. The music was arranged by Constant Lambert and based on Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen. It was not easy to source the materials for over forty chorus dresses, a challenge enjoyed by Lilian Baylis who, according to the dance writer Mary Clarke, loved a bargain. However, the scale of the production was popular, the company finally selling more of the stalls tickets they had been struggling to fill.

The Dying Swan

Choregraphed by Mikhail Fokine, The Dying Swan was created for Anna Pavlova in 1907, at her request. With music by Saint-Saëns, this short solo will forever be associated with Anna Pavlova. Pavlova died in 1931 and my characters, Clara and Olivia, are fascinated by her, remembering back to their childhood when they had crept around the borders of her home, Ivy House, near Hampstead Heath. Pavlova was known for her strange choice of pets and there are stunning photographs of her wrapping her arms around a swan.

Her tutu for The Dying Swan was designed by the Russian costumier Madame Manya. It is an iconic white tutu decorated with white and cream goose feathers. According to Madame Manya, Pavlova would only wear the tutu twice before the skirts of the tutu were renewed. Olivia, in my novel, visits Madame Manya in Maida Vale, desperate for a tutu of her own: unfortunately, she leaves empty handed.

Lucy Ashe is the author of Clara & Olivia. This is her debut novel, published by Oneworld Publications in February 2023. The novel will be published in the US by Union Square & Co in September 2023. Lucy trained at the Royal Ballet School. She gained a diploma in dance teaching with the British Ballet Organisation before going on to study English Literature at Oxford University.

Further reading

  • Mary Clarke: The Sadler’s Wells Ballet – A History and Appreciation (published 1955 by A & C Black)
  • Kathrine Sorley Walker – The Festival and the Abbey: Ninette de Valois’ Early Choreography, 1925 – 1934, (published 1985 in Dance Chronicle)
  • Mary Clarke & Clement Crisp – Ballet: An Illustrated History (first published in 1973 by A & C Black)
  • Dame Ninette de Valois – Come Dance With Me (first published in 1957 by Lilliput Press)