a brilliant British ballet star with spark, poise and passion

A few years ago, when I asked Beryl Gray what makes a good dancer, she said it was a real pleasure to move. Technique not excellent, but personality. “We all had this wonderful joy of dance,” she said, speaking of her contemporaries in Sadler’s Wells Ballet – then the Royal Ballet – of the 1940s and ’50s. It was a quality that shone through Grey’s dance. If Margot Fonteyn was an adored icon of elegant and graceful understatement, Gray was the glittery girl next door, bright, radiant and quick on her feet.

Related: Beryl Grey: A Life in Pictures

Gray was tall for a dancer of the time (about 5 feet 7 inches), but strong and quick. He watches the Pathé newsreel of her famous Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theater in 1958, the first western dancer to perform there, and she rips Odile’s famous 32 fouettés to the beat. His Black Swan isn’t the hard-faced antiheroine we see so often now; she can’t hide that pleasure in the performance, the warmth and the wide smile. He has character, panache and class, gliding to the music. He was about the music for Grey, the story all there to be found in the soundtrack.

Contemporary reviews noted her ease and confidence onstage, she was “graceful and commanding” as the Lilac Fairy from Sleeping Beauty; in Les Sylphides, she has been described as a “drifting dream of warmth and softness”. Critic Arnold Haskell raves about her “sheer lyrical beauty”. Nothing about her seemed to put her down, not even her most diabolical technicalities. This was the woman who danced her first Swan Lake on her 15th birthday, having joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet at 14 – to cover for a dancer who was ill – and she never left.

Whatever makes a great dancer, Gray has had it from the start. As a North London student, she completed all her ballet exams by the age of nine and joined Vic-Wells Ballet School aged 10, in 1937. Amidst the devastation of the Second World War, there they were opportunities for young dancers as Sadler’s Wells Ballet toured the country and audiences flocked to their shows for a few hours of escapism. When a V2 bomb went off while Gray was dancing Swan Lake in a London theater, she carried on anyway.

Intelligence on and off the stage… Gray is teaching in 1968. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Gray had a mind of his own. He took classes outside the company with teacher Audrey de Vos, who incorporated ideas from modern dance then emerging in the United States. At the age of 30, he left what had just become the Royal Ballet and toured South Africa, South and Central America, Russia and later China. She had intelligence on and off the stage: as a child she had considered abandoning ballet to become a doctor, but applied her brains instead to running a company, taking up artistic directorship of Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet) in 1968, raising the standards of the dancers and repertoire and bringing in megastar Rudolf Nureyev to create work for her.

Reading Grey’s 2017 autobiography, For the Love of Dance, you are blown away by how busy she was. Beyond the logistics of touring or running a business, there were the lectures, the TV appearances, the radio shows, the articles. She also raised a son and insisted on cleaning her London home from top to bottom; the work ethic was phenomenal. In later life, Gray remained deeply involved in ballet, on boards and committees and coaching studio dancers, and was still seen in Covent Garden audiences. When that got tougher, following surgery for bowel cancer in 2017, he watched the shows at his local cinema in Uckfield.

When I met her at 92 she remained slim and poised, bright-eyed and ready to laugh, a woman who became a formative part of British ballet history simply by pursuing her sheer pleasure in movement.

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