G LEANED FROM contemporary reviews, the story of a ballet company tends to confine itself to descriptions of the brilliance of ballerinas and the splendours of the spectacle; but this is only one aspect and the tale is not complete until a glimpse can be caught of the little world that exists beyond the stage-door. Sometimes, as in the case of the Paris Opéra and the Imperial Theatres of Russia, ballet-girls acquire a glamour through playing some sort of part in the social life of their time, but this was not so with the Empire Theatre, which was a music hall lacking the palatial aspect and the fashionable public of an opera house. So the lives of its ballet-girls have gone unsung by writers of memoirs, and it is only from Compton Mackenzie's novels Carnival and Figure of Eight that one is able to capture some idea of what these dancers of a now vanished age were like.
Though Compton Mackenzie's Orient Palace of Varieties was modelled on the Alhambra rather than the Empire, the atmosphere was the same, and had fundamentally changed very little in the three decades that separated the opening of the Empire from the period of the novel, when on the eve of the First World War ballet was about to be abandoned in favour of the new medium of revue.
Back-stage, it was a lively world, where the girls lived for the present with little thought for the past, or even for the future. Yet there was nevertheless a dimly sensed tradition, as Compton Mackenzie reveals in Figure of Eight, when describing how the dancers of the Orient, a theatre with a somewhat longer tradition than the Empire, receive the news that the ballet company is to be disbanded.
For nearly sixty years ballet had succeeded ballet without a break except when the theatre had been closed for cleaning and decorating, and even then the girls had been paid half salary. The place on the deal form at which Lucy Arnold sat to make herself up had been sat on before her by Jenny Pearl. The place of Jenny Pearl before she came to the Orient