Dame Beryl Grey, ballerina who was a teenage prodigy at Sadler’s Wells and became an international star – obituary

Beryl Gray in 1950 – Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty

Dame Beryl Grey, the ballerina, who died aged 95, was one of the great stars of Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the 1940s and 1950s. A tall, elegant brunette with exceptional technical talent and charisma, she had no only 14 when she was hired as the British answer to the “baby ballerinas” of the Ballets Russes era. Invited to interpret the great double role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake on the occasion of her 15th anniversary, she rushes around the oldest dancers of the company asking them “how to be mean”.

Beryl Gray was said to be the only rival for whom Margot Fonteyn was less than generous, and despite having a superior technical arsenal and a freer, more athletic attack in her style, she was only able to escape her shadow by leaving Sadler’s Wells in his thirties. embark on an international career.

Known for her wit and brilliance, she was greatly admired around the world and was the first British ballerina to be invited to dance in the Soviet Union, performing with the Bolshoi and Kirov companies. Her style, her personality and her physical audacity have been praised by the greatest choreographers Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine, and even by the fiery prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. Later, she was also the successful artistic director of the London Festival Ballet, inviting Rudolf Nureyev to create his magnificent version of Romeo and Juliet there.

Beryl Elizabeth Groom was born in Highgate, London on June 11, 1927; his father Arthur ran a furniture factory. Her dance lessons began at the age of four, with Madeleine Sharp. She gained a scholarship aged 10 to Sadler’s Wells Ballet School, while also attending Dame Alicia Owens Girls’ School, Islington, of which years later she became governor.

Ninette de Valois, founder of Sadler’s Wells Ballet, took her into the war company in 1941 when she was just 14 years old. She danced every night for £4 a week and Ninette de Valois changed her stage name to Grey. Prodigiously talented with long, fast legs, she was groomed by two prominent Russian teachers, Nikolai Sergeyev, former ballet master of the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet, and Vera Volkova, both of whom had left the USSR after the revolution. and were key influences on the style of Sadler’s Wells Ballet.

During the war years of traveling ballet, the teenager was a major attraction; for a period she was the only leading ballerina in the classical roles except for the eldest Margot Fonteyn – who was well aware that the youngster was a stronger technician than her, able to perform tirelessly Swan Lake’s famous whipped 32 on each leg.

Rehearsal for Swan Lake at Covent Garden with Bryan Ashbridge in 1962 - Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rehearsal for Swan Lake at Covent Garden with Bryan Ashbridge in 1962 – Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After having danced her first Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, with Robert Helpmann, Beryl Gray confirmed her exceptional talent by interpreting the main roles of Sleeping Beauty and Giselle at only 16 years old. However the preference appeared after the war for Margot Fonteyn by Ninette de Valois. left Beryl Gray on the sidelines, along with other striking ballerinas such as Moira Shearer.

She took private lessons with Audrey de Vos, an unconventional teacher who instilled in her a freer movement that helped her relax and gain confidence. In the legendary production of Sleeping Beauty which reopened the Royal Opera House in February 1946 and secured international fame for Sadler’s Wells Ballet on its New York tour in October 1949, Beryl Gray danced the Lilac Fairy about Princess Aurora by Margot Fonteyn, but gained her own strength following for her performances in the lead role on other nights.

One reviewer wrote, “She enchanted everyone with her personal beauty, her brilliance and the dynamic intensity of her dancing.” She was also the star dancer in Covent Garden’s first post-war opera production, Carmen in 1947, attended by the then Queen.

On stage at the Royal Opera House with her husband Sven Svenson after her farewell performance with the Royal Ballet in 1957, although she would return as a guest star several times

On stage at the Royal Opera House with her husband Sven Svenson after her farewell performance with the Royal Ballet in 1957, although she would return as a guest star several times

Beryl Grey’s height somewhat limited her opportunities – she was considered “too tall” for lead roles by the company’s lead choreographer, Frederick Ashton, although he created several eye-catching roles for her, including the frosty winter fairy in Cinderella, the queen of Fire in Homage to the Queen, and one of seven magnificent ballerinas in his lavish display of female brilliance at the Royal Ballet, Birthday Offer (1956). He added a beautiful solo in the Sleeping Beauty vision scene that exploited his expressive long legs and tall scale.

But her individual glamor and seductive athletic attack became more strongly immortalized in the role of the deadly Black Queen in Ninette de Valois’ Checkmate chess ballet, captured in a 1963 BBC television film. She starred in the first 1952 three-dimensional ballet film Black Swan, based on the character of Odile, and when American ballet choreographer George Balanchine came to London to stage his Ballet Imperial, he found Beryl Gray light and bold much more to her liking than Margot Fonteyn, who confessed that she realized she was inferior in ballet.

While Beryl Grey’s 16-year career with Sadler’s Wells Ballet was bright, her chances were widely thought to have suffered from the greenhouse favoritism shown by Ninette de Valois to Margot Fonteyn, and in 1957 she left the new Royal Ballet to to become an international entertainer, although she returned to the Covent Garden stage several times as a guest star.

Rehearsal at Covent Garden in 1962 - Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rehearsal at Covent Garden in 1962 – Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the meantime, she had married a Swedish osteopath, Dr. Sven Gustav Svenson, 20 years her senior, who saw her dancing Swan Lake in Chicago in 1949 and sent her two dozen red roses. He followed her to London, where he counted Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Hope and Lester Piggott among his clients. Their marriage lasted 58 years until his death in 2008 at the age of 100.

In 1958, Beryl Gray performed in Moscow at the Bolshoi Ballet, where she was treated with great kindness and courtesy by her dancers, then at the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad (where the young Rudolf Nureyev watched her from the Kirov stalls); the Russians admired its purity of form and the beauty of its lines. In 1964, she danced in China with the Beijing and Shanghai ballet companies. She wrote books about both experiences, Red Curtain Up in 1958 and Through the Bamboo Curtain in 1965.

Upon her retirement from the stage, Beryl Gray became artistic director of the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) for 11 years, from 1968 to 1979; she reinforced the classical repertoire there and invited Nureyev to present two flagship productions, La Belle au bois dormant (1975) and her epic version of Romeo and Juliet (1977), which remains a cornerstone of the company. Equally significant was his invitation to renowned Ballets Russes choreographer Léonide Massine (of Red Shoes fame) to stage four of his ballets at the Festival Ballet.

At a gala in Sadler's Wells to celebrate his 75th birthday - Dave Benett/Getty Images

At a gala in Sadler’s Wells to celebrate his 75th birthday – Dave Benett/Getty Images

His policy was to carefully select most short ballets from proven international works, believing that audiences were wary of new works, but also to produce a number of new ones, and to rely on the power of attraction great famous ballets in new productions. She also imposed stricter discipline on the company, which caused some discontent among the dancers.

She launched the company’s first Australian and Far Eastern tours and increased the company’s London prestige with the first seasons at the Coliseum and the acquisition of their headquarters in Kensington, the first time the Festival Ballet had its own permanent studios and offices.

In 1984 she became president of Festival Ballet, and her many other positions included chief executive of the Arts Educational Trust ballet school, Tring, vice-president of the Royal Academy of Dancing and life president of the Imperial Society. of Teachers of Dancing. . She was director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet and also of the Royal Opera House. She was appointed CBE in 1973 and DBE in 1988.

Beryl Gray maintained her slender dancer figure well into her eighties, taking a 30-minute dance class every morning before breakfast. She had a son with her husband.

Dame Beryl Grey, born June 11, 1927, died December 10, 2022

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