Dame Beryl Grey, dancer 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 dancer, who died aged 95, was one of the big stars of Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the 1940s and 1950s. A tall, elegant brunette with exceptional technical talent and charisma, she was just 14 when she was hired as Britain’s answer to the ‘baby ballerinas’ of the Ballets Russes era. Invited to perform the grand double role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake on her 15th birthday, she rushed to the older dancers in the company asking them “how to be wicked”.

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

Known for her wit and brilliance, she was much 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 troupes. Her style, personality and physical daring have been acclaimed by leading choreographers Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine, and even by fiery Soviet prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. Later she was also a successful artistic director of the London Festival Ballet, inviting Rudolf Nureyev to create her magnificent version of Romeo and Juliet there.

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

Ninette de Valois, founder of Sadler’s Wells Ballet, brought her into the wartime 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, quick legs, she was mentored by two prominent Russian teachers, Nikolai Sergeyev, former ballet master of the Imperial St Petersburg Ballet, and Vera Volkova, both of whom had left the USSR after the revolution and who had a key influence on the Sadler’s Wells Ballet style.

During the war years of the traveling ballet, the teenager was a major attraction; for a time she was the only prima ballerina in classical roles apart from the elder Margot Fonteyn – who knew full well that the young woman was a stronger technique than her, capable of tirelessly performing the famous 32 Swan Lake fouettés on both legs .

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

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

After dancing 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 the age of 16. she left Beryl Gray on the sidelines, along with other outstanding dancers like Moira Shearer.

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

One critic wrote, “She charmed everyone with her personal beauty, her sparkle and the dynamic intensity of her dancing.” She was also the lead dancer in Covent Garden’s first opera production after the war, Carmen in 1947, attended by the then Queen.

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

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

Beryl Gray’s height somewhat limited her opportunities: she was deemed “too big” for leading roles by the company’s principal choreographer, Frederick Ashton, although he created several endearing roles for her, including the icy winter in Cinderella, the Queen of Fire in Homage to the Queen, and one of the seven magnificent dancers in the Royal Ballet’s lavish display of feminine luster, Birthday Offering (1956). She added a beautiful solo in The Sleeping Beauty’s Vision Scene that capitalized on her long, expressive legs and large size.

But her individual charm and alluring, athletic attack were most powerfully immortalized in her role as the mortal Black Queen in Ninette de Valois’s chess ballet Checkmate, captured in a 1963 BBC television film. three-dimensional ballet in 1952, Black Swan, based on the character Odile, and when American ballet choreographer George Balanchine came to London to stage his Ballet Imperial, he found the breezy and daring Beryl Gray much more suited to him. of her her taste of her compared to Margot Fonteyn, who she confessed she realized she was inferior in ballet.

While Beryl Gray’s 16-year career with Sadler’s Wells Ballet was a bright one, it was widely believed that her chances were suffering from the favoritism shown by Ninette de Valois to Margot Fonteyn, and in 1957 she left the new Royal Ballet to become a ballet dancer. international. she is an artist, even if she has returned several times to the Covent Garden stage as a guest star.

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

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

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

In 1958 Beryl Gray performed at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, where she was treated with great kindness and courtesy by her dancers, and then at the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad (where the young Rudolf Nureyev watched from the Kirov stalls); the Russians admired the purity of the forms and the beauty of the 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.

After retiring from the stage, Beryl Gray became artistic director of the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) for 11 years, from 1968 to 1979; there, she strengthened the classical repertoire and invited Nureyev to present two seminal productions, Sleeping Beauty (1975) and her own epic version of Romeo and Juliet (1977), which remains a cornerstone of the company. Equally significant was her invitation to world-renowned Ballets Russes choreographer Léonide Massine (of Red Shoes) to stage four of her ballets at Festival Ballet.

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

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

His policy has been to choose most of the short ballets judiciously from proven international works, believing that the public is wary of new works, but also to produce a number of new ones, and to rely on the attractiveness of famous great ballets in new productions. He also imposed a stricter discipline on the company, which caused some discontent among the dancers.

He instigated the company’s first tours of Australia and the Far East and enhanced the company’s London prestige with the first seasons at the Coliseum and the acquisition of the Kensington venue, the first time Festival Ballet had its own permanent studios and offices .

In 1984 she became president of Festival Ballet and her many other positions included director general 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 lithe dancer’s figure well into her eighties, taking a 30-minute dance class every morning before breakfast. She had one child with her husband.

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

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