A few years ago, when I asked Beryl Gray what makes a good dancer, she told me it was the pure pleasure of movement. Not fine technique, but personality. “We all had this wonderful joy of dancing,” she said, speaking of her contemporaries at Sadler’s Wells Ballet – later the Royal Ballet – of the 1940s and 50s. It was a quality that shone through in her own Grey’s dance. If Margot Fonteyn was a beloved icon of elegant and graceful restraint, Gray was the bubbly girl next door, bright, beaming and quick on her feet.
Related: Beryl Gray – a life in pictures
Gray was tall for a dancer at the time (around 5ft 7in), but strong and fast. Watch Pathé newsreels of her famous Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theater in 1958, the first Western ballerina to perform there, and she rips Odile’s famous 32 whipped to the beat. Her Black Swan isn’t the hard-faced anti-heroine we see so often now; she can’t hide this pleasure of playing, the warmth and the broad smile. She has character, panache and class, gliding over the music. It was Grey’s music, the story in the score.
Contemporary reviews noted her poise and confidence on stage, she was “graceful and imposing” as the lilac fairy in Sleeping Beauty; in Les Sylphides, it is described as a “drift dream of warmth and softness”. Critic Arnold Haskell extolled its “sheer lyrical beauty”. Nothing seemed to bring her down, not even the most diabolical technical details. She was the woman who danced her first Swan Lake on her 15th birthday, having joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet at 14 – to replace a dancer who was ill – and never left.
Whatever makes a great dancer, Gray had it right from the start. As a North London schoolgirl, she completed all available ballet exams at the age of nine and joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School aged 10, in 1937. Amid the devastation of World War II, there were opportunities for young dancers as Sadler’s Wells Ballet toured the country and audiences flocked to their shows for a few hours of escape. When a V2 bomb went off while Gray was dancing Swan Lake in a London theater, she continued regardless.
Gray had his own mind. She took classes outside the company with teacher Audrey de Vos, who integrated the ideas of modern dance, then emerging in the United States. At 30, she left what had just become the Royal Ballet and toured South Africa, South and Central America, Russia and later China. She was smart on and off stage – as a child she had considered giving up ballet to become a doctor, but instead applied her brains to running a company, taking on the artistic direction of Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) in 1968, raising the standards of dancers and repertoire, and bringing in megastar Rudolf Nureyev to create work for her.
Reading Grey’s 2017 autobiography, For the Love of Dancing, you’re left in awe of how busy she was. In addition to the logistics of touring or running a business, there were conferences, television appearances, radio shows, articles. She also raised a son and insisted on cleaning her London townhouse from top to bottom; the work ethic was phenomenal. Later in life Gray remained deeply involved in ballet, on boards and committees and in training dancers in the studio, and was still seen in audiences in Covent Garden. When it got harder, after surgery for bowel cancer in 2017, she watched shows at her local cinema in Uckfield.
When I met her at 92, she remained slim and poised, bright-eyed and quick to laugh, a woman who became a formative part of British ballet history simply by pursuing her pure enjoyment of movement.