Dame Beryl Grey, British dancer with ‘all the gifts’, dies aged 95

Renowned ballerina Dame Beryl Grey, one of the great pioneering forces in British ballet, has died aged 95. The Royal Ballet announced the news on Twitter on Saturday and said she’s been an “imposing figure” since her debut in Swan Lake at 15. English National Ballet she tweeted that she would be “remembered for her significant legacy and immeasurable contribution to the art form.” The bbodance organization said that Grey, who was their president, was a “truly wonderful dancer who will all be dearly missed by us.”

Related: Beryl Grey: A Life in Pictures

A teenage prodigy, Gray rose to prominence with the Royal Ballet, which she left in 1957 to pursue an international career as a freelance dancer. Gray was not only the first British ballerina to dance in Russia (with the Bolshoi in 1957, during the Cold War) but also the first Western ballerina to perform in Beijing (with the Peking Ballet in 1964). She was later appointed artistic director of the London Festival Ballet (1968-79), transforming the fortunes of the company which became English National Ballet.

She joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) at the age of 14, played Odette and Odile in Swan Lake on her 15th birthday and took on other challenging roles such as the eponymous heroine in Giselle when she was 16 years. she and she directed versions of both ballets – Swan Lake for the London Festival Ballet and Giselle for the Western Australian Ballet – as well as Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Swedish Ballet.

Beryl Gray in costume for Checkmate. Photography: Baron/Getty Images

Swan Lake remained her favourite, but she won acclaim for her many other roles in the Royal Ballet’s Covent Garden house and beyond. She was the Lilac Fairy opposite Margot Fonteyn’s Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and later she also danced Aurora; she played the Black Queen in Ninette de Valois’ one-act ballet Checkmate; the nightingale in The Birds by Robert Helpmann, set in Ottorino Respighi’s suite; Ophelia alongside Helpmann’s Hamlet; the seductive Duessa in Frederick Ashton’s The Quest and the protagonist in Ashton’s Les Rendezvous; as well as the protagonist of Mikhail Fokine’s Les Sylphides.

Taller than most of her female colleagues, Gray stood 6 feet taller when standing en pointe. Her late friend Gillian Lynne, a dancer and choreographer, summed up her dancing qualities: “Superb line, long legs, very musical and strong as an ox.” Ninette de Valois, who directed the Royal Ballet and oversaw Gray’s rise, once claimed that Gray had “all the gifts” of hers.

An only child, Gray was born in London on 11 June 1927. She attended dancing classes with her two cousins ​​at Sherborne Preparatory School where her tutor was Madeleine Sharp. In Grey’s autobiography, For the Love of Dance, published in 2017, she acknowledged Sharp’s enormous role in developing her talent and thanked him for “her keen eye and financial support from she”.

Gray gave his first performance at the age of three at the local pub, dancing during the New Year’s celebrations. Her father set up a barre and mirror for her in the family home and she took a scholarship to the Vic-Wells ballet school where De Valois changed her birth name of Groom to Grey. In 1941 she made her professional debut with Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the corps of Giselle. During the Second World War she toured Britain with the company, rising to prominence and replacing her superstar Margot Fonteyn. After the war, she toured the United States with the company and finally gave her last performance with the Royals in 1957, again playing Odette and Odile.

She kicked off her freelance career with a tour of South America and had new work choreographed for her by John Cranko and Audrey De Vos. Over the next few years she performed extensively with various companies including the London Festival Ballet. There was tremendous interest in her major first performance with the Bolshoi in Swan Lake, which was televised. In her memoir she recalled: “The exhilaration of performing with a 120-person orchestra… took and lifted me into a magical world. Every time I hear that heartbreaking music from Tchaikovsky now, it instantly takes me back to Russia and my incredible time with those wonderful artists.

Taking over the artistic direction of London Festival Ballet was, he said, an unexpected change of direction. He helped bring about a change in the fortunes of the company which had been experiencing mounting debts. Under Gray’s management it established regular seasons at the London Coliseum and moved to new premises in South Kensington. He has also attracted great talents such as Rudolf Nureyev, Léonide Massine and Eva Evdokimova. Nureyev’s new version of Romeo and Juliet, created for the company in 1977, was among the valuable additions to his repertoire. In 1978, Nureyev and Gray visited the White House during the company’s tour of the United States.

Related: Ballet legend Beryl Grey: ‘It’s amazing what the human body can handle’

Honored with a CBE in 1973, Gray became a dame in 1988. She was appointed president of English National Ballet in 2005 and has remained committed to dance education and sharing her extensive knowledge of the art form with others. She was awarded the De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement at the 2016 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards. The following year she underwent an operation for bowel cancer.

Gray was married to osteopath Sven Svenson, who died in 2008. Together they had one son, Ingvar.

“I’ve been very lucky,” she said in a 2019 Guardian interview. “It’s been a good life. Dance meant everything to me. Dancing is a very personal expression of happiness.

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