Photography: Raymond Kleboe/Getty Images
In 1941 Beryl Grey, who died aged 95, became Britain’s ‘little ballerina’ when she joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet aged 14, becoming a soloist for the company the following year. As a teenager she toured Britain, dancing nine performances a week and, on her 15th birthday, danced Odette-Odile in the complete Swan Lake. At 16, she danced the title role of Giselle.
She remained with Sadler’s Wells as a principal dancer until 1957 when it had become the Royal Ballet, and she became the first British ballerina to dance with the Bolshoi in Moscow when, in 1957, Gray danced Swan Lake with Yuri. Kondratov. She was also the first British ballerina to perform in Communist China (1964), dancing in Swan Lake and Les Sylphides, with Wang Shao Pen, in Beijing (Beijing) and Shanghai.
Her warmth came across to her fans both on and off stage. She was a tall, elegant musical dancer with long legs, confident in what she was dancing and using her height to her advantage. Financial Times dance critic Clement Crisp recalled of her dancing that there was “nothing fuzzy or fuzzy; nothing uncertain; the choreography understood, the choreographer honored and her fellow artists respected – but this pleasure in her performance was both ours as an audience and hers as a dancer.
At the end of her dancing career, Gray served as Artistic Director of London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) for 11 years from 1968, restoring the company to international status after bankruptcy. She not only improved the level of dancing and opened up the repertoire, but invited Rudolf Nureyev to choreograph and dance with her company. Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet and Peter Schaufuss’ La Sylphide have won awards from the Society of West End Theatre.
Born in London, Beryl was the daughter of Annie and “Bob” (Arthur) Groom, front manager of the Gosletts furniture firm in Old Street. They supported her from the start.
As a child, she took weekly dance lessons with head teacher Madeline Sharp. Beryl was fully trained in dance, including ballet, Greek, national dances, musical, tap and ballroom. Sharp also arranged for her to have private ballet lessons with former ballerina and teacher Phyllis Bedells and to study Spanish dance with Elsa Brunelleschi. His experience – and his ability to play the castanets – would come into play in the production of Carmen which restored the opera to Covent Garden in 1947. Brunelleschi choreographed his solo in the last act, which was the success of the production.
At age nine, she won a scholarship to the Vic-Wells Ballet School, where Ninette de Valois changed the surname from Beryl to Grey. After spending a year at the school, De Valois writes that “she has all the gifts that it is possible to grant to a dancer. Its behavior is irreproachable and it is remarkably preserved.
For a time, Gray combined her regular education with dancing in Vic-Wells’ corps de ballet. In the early years of the Second World War, De Valois planned that Gray would dance with the company for three months, then swap with another young dancer and return to Islington for three months of schooling. As it happened, Gray joined Sadler’s Wells in Burnley in August 1941 and never returned to school.
Early creations included two light works created to show the junior members of the company: Robert Helpmann’s Les Oiseaux (1942), in which she played the Nightingale, and De Valois’ Animated Promenade (1943). That year she also created the vicious Duessa (in purple satin dress) in Frederick Ashton’s The Quest, an indication of her ability to take on dramatic roles. Indeed, she was unrivaled in this role, “personifying the lie”, which led her to play other murderous characters, including Death in Le Donald des Burthens by Léonide Massine, the Black Queen in Échec et mat by de Valois and, from 1946, the vengeful Myrtha in Giselle.
A particular regret is that she had to turn down the opportunity to play the French princess in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film Henry V. Introduced to Olivier by Helpmann, she was asked to do a screen test, but when De Valois heard, she put an end to it. to this – Gray was needed in the ballet company.
Gray enjoyed creating ballets with Helpmann and Massine and welcomed the opportunity to work with the influential choreographer George Balanchine. Directed by the Imperial Ballet in 1950, he chose her as his second ballerina. Balanchine enjoyed working with great dancers and Gray took to his precise choreography with ease, reveling in leaps and difficult rhythms.
The famed Gray danced the role of Lilac Fairy, a role she imbued with charm, brilliance and authority, in Oliver Messel’s production of The Sleeping Beauty both when the Royal Opera reopened House after the war in 1946 and in Sadler’s Wells’ company debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, the same year.
She associated herself with the virtuoso role of the lady who abandons the high-world for a clown’s true love in John Cranko’s The Lady and the Fool and took on a number of roles created for her by Ashton: she was one of three Echoes in The Fairy Queen (1946) and two later Winter in Cinderella. Gray brought a seasonal freshness and sparkle to her solo, although she found the Jean Denis Malclès-designed costume, with spiky icicles hanging from her arms, extremely uncomfortable to move around in.
Ashton cast four couples in lead roles for Sylvia, and Gray was paired with Philip Chatfield. It was the start of a memorable partnership. In 1956, Gray created one of the variants of the anniversary offering, for the 25th anniversary of the company about to be named The Royal Ballet.
Gray was one of six ballerinas supporting Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes, each with a solo in the academic style of French choreographer Marius Petipa, which showcased their individual strengths. But the work also underscored the challenge Gray and the others faced – their path to the top of the company was blocked by the prima ballerina, Fonteyn. All of them had to find their own way to pursue their career as a dancer. For Gray, the decision was to go freelance the following year and control her own career.
Gray found a sympathetic teacher in Audrey de Vos, who boosted his confidence. De Vos took a holistic approach to teaching, and his warm-ups included natural movement and innovative floor exercises. De Vos became Gray’s mentor and helped her plan her independent tours, choreographing dances for the one she undertook in 1957 with Oleg Briansky, including the romantic solo Reverie, which was also sensitively filmed by the BBC in 1963.
Several performances by Gray have been recorded and she danced Odile in the stereoscopic film Black Swan (1952) created for the Festival Gardens, Battersea. Her final performance came in an excerpt from Les Sylphides at a gala attended by Princess Margaret in 1965.
In her books Red Curtain Up (1958) and Through the Bamboo Curtain (1965), Gray recorded her tours of the Soviet Union and China, but she also traveled to South America, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand. Zeeland. After marrying a Swedish osteopath, Sven Gustav Svenson, in 1953, she built a career in Sweden, first in dance and then in directing.
When she retired from the stage, she became general director of the École Pédagogique des Arts (1965-68) and became involved in the training of dancers, occupying key positions in three educational organizations: she was president of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance, Vice President President of the Royal Academy of Dance and President of the British Ballet Organisation. She was also director of the Royal Opera House (1999-2003).
Gray was made a DBE in 1988 and a Companion of Honor in 2017. The same year she published her autobiography, For the Love of Dance, based on the detailed diaries she had kept.
Sven died in 2008. They had one son, Ingvar.
• Beryl Elizabeth Grey, ballet dancer and artistic director, born June 11, 1927; died on December 10, 2022