by John Percival
copyright 2007 by John Percival
What a year 1927 was for ballet. It began with the birth of Maurice Bejart, immediately followed (less auspiciously one might think) with that of Yuri Grigorovich; a little later came the arrival of the late John Cranko — and we may well wonder how different the history of the Royal Ballet might have been but for his premature demise before he could be offered its directorship. Do you recall, by the way, that it was Bejart who named the 20th century the century of ballet? He, I hear, is still making new choreography as I write, even though he is feeling none too well.
There may be other choreographers who are eighty this year; Glen Tetley would have been 81 but was a late starter. For certain there are at least four dance critics still active today at age 80: Clive Barnes, Noel Goodwin, Horst Koegler and yours truly. And we were beaten to it by the ladies, Kathrine Sorley Walker and Mary Clarke in London, Elizabeth Souritz in Moscow, not to mention the esteemed historian Ivor Guest.
Obviously there aren't many dancers still performing in mature age, although Martha Graham kept at it until she was 74, and continued to make further works and to oversee her company far beyond that, even when she was so frail that she had to be carried on stage for her curtain calls. Among other directors, although both retired, Marie Rambert lived to be 94 and Ninette de Valois reached nearly 103, and I remember NYCB founder Lincoln Kirstein sounding pretty lively on the phone at almost 89.
And here is Beryl Grey being given a party by English National Ballet to celebrate her 80th birthday. She began her career with Sadler's Wells (now Royal) Ballet and some American readers may remember her dancing the Lilac Fairy on the opening night of their first American season, just as she had done at the Covent Garden premiere — it was a role she danced better than anyone else. A tall woman, she is still as elegant and upright today as she was long ago, dancing the classics as a child (her first complete “Swan Lake” was on her fifteenth birthday!) and creating roles in ballets by Ashton, de Valois, Massine and Cranko. Her career includes guesting in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tbilisi, Peking and Shanghai and writing books about those experiences. She became director of London Festival (now English National) Ballet, 1968-79, and has lately succeeded Alicia Markova as its president. She has also served as chairman and president of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing.
Dame Beryl (she was appointed Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1988) has a husband a hundred years old, and far from well, to look after. Yet she still manages to go to performances all the time. She seemed surprised, all the same, at how many admirers and former colleagues had turned out for her. I was happy to be able to tell her that my very first visit to the ballet began with “Les Sylphides” with her, aged just 16, in the cast; and you can form an idea of her memory if I say that when I mentioned where it happened she immediately replied that “Bobby [Helpmann] partnered me that week”. What a woman.