Photography: Raymond Kleboe/Getty Images
In 1941 Beryl Grey, who died aged 95, became known as Britain’s “baby ballerina” when she joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet at age 14, becoming a soloist for the company the following year. She toured Britain as a teenager, dancing nine shows a week, and on her 15th birthday she danced Odette-Odile in the entirety of Swan Lake. At 16 she danced the lead role of Giselle.
She remained with Sadler’s Wells as principal dancer until 1957, by which time it had become the Royal Ballet, and became the first British ballerina to dance with the Moscow Bolshoi when, in 1957, Gray danced Swan Lake with Yuri Kondratov. She was also the first British dancer to perform in Communist China (1964), dancing in Swan Lake and Les Sylphides, paired with Wang Shao Pen, in Beijing (Beijing) and Shanghai.
His heat has reached out to his fans both on and off stage. She was a tall, elegant, musical, leggy dancer who was confident in what she danced and used her height to great advantage. Financial Times dance critic Clement Crisp recalled of her dancing that there was “nothing fuzzy or fuzzy; nothing uncertain; the choreography was understood, the choreographer honored and her fellow artists respected, but that pleasure in her performance was both ours as her audience and hers as a dancer.
At the end of her dancing career, Gray was artistic director of the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) for 11 years from 1968, restoring the company to international status after a bankruptcy. She not only improved the standard of dance and opened up the repertoire, but she invited Rudolf Nureyev to choreograph and dance with her company for him. Both Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet and Peter Schaufuss’ La Sylphide won awards from the Society of West End Theatre.
Born in London, Beryl was the daughter of Annie and ‘Bob’ (Arthur) Groom, a front of house manager for Gosletts’ furniture business in Old Street. They have supported her from the beginning.
As a child she took weekly dance lessons with lead teacher Madeline Sharp. Beryl has received all-round training in dance, including ballet, Greek, national, musical comedy, tap and ballroom dancing. Sharp also arranged for her to have private ballet lessons with former dancer and teacher Phyllis Bedells and to study Spanish dance with Elsa Brunelleschi. Her expertise in this—and ability to play castanets—would come into play in the production of Carmen that brought the opera back to Covent Garden in 1947. Brunelleschi choreographed her solo in the last act, which was the success of the production.
At nine she won a scholarship to Vic-Wells Ballet School, where Ninette de Valois changed Beryl’s surname to Grey. After spending a year in the school, De Valois wrote that she “has all the gifts it is possible to bestow on a dancer. Her behavior is beyond reproach and she is remarkably pristine.
For a while Gray combined her regular education with dancing in the Vic-Wells corps de ballet. In the early years of World War II De Valois had a plan that Gray would dance with the company for three months, then swap with another young dancer and return to Islington for three months of school. Gray eventually joined Sadler’s Wells at Burnley in August 1941 and never returned to school.
Early creations included two lighthearted works created to showcase the younger members of the company: Robert Helpmann’s The Birds (1942), in which he played the nightingale, and De Valois’ lively Promenade (1943). That year she also created the fierce Duessa (in a purple satin gown) in Frederick Ashton’s The Quest, an indication of his ability to take on dramatic roles. Indeed, she was unrivaled in this role, “personification of falsehood”, which led her to portray other mortal figures, including Death in Léonide Massine’s Donald of the Burthens, the Black Queen in de Valois’ Checkmate and, from 1946, the vengeful Myrtha in Giselle.
A particular regret was having 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 invited to audition, but when De Valois heard, she put an end to it – Gray was needed in the ballet troupe.
Gray enjoyed creating ballets with Helpmann and Massine and welcomed the opportunity to work with influential choreographer George Balanchine. Staging the Ballet Imperial in 1950, he selected her for second dancer. Balanchine enjoyed working with tall dancers, and Gray adapted to his precise choreography with ease, enjoying the leaps and challenging rhythms.
Gray famously danced as the Lilac Fairy, a role she imbued with charm, radiance and authority, in Oliver Messel’s production of Sleeping Beauty both when he reopened the Royal Opera House after the war in 1946 and at the company’s debut of Sadler’s Wells at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, the same year.
She has been associated with the virtuous role of the lady who abandons the haute monde for the true love of a clown in John Cranko’s The Lady and the Fool and played a number of roles created for her by Ashton: she was one of the three Echoes in The Fairy Queen (1946) and two years later Winter in Cinderella. Gray brought a freshness and seasonal brilliance to her solo, though she found her Jean Denis Malclès-designed costume, with the prickly icicles hanging from her arms, extremely uncomfortable to wear.
Ashton cast four couples in the lead roles for Sylvia, and Gray was paired with Philip Chatfield. It was the beginning of a memorable collaboration. In 1956 Gray created one of the variants of Birthday Offering, for the 25th anniversary of the company which was to be designated The Royal Ballet.
Gray was one of six dancers 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 way to the top of the company was blocked by the prima ballerina, Fonteyn. Everyone had to find their own way to complete their career as a dancer. For Gray the decision was to go freelance the following year and control his own career.
Gray found an understanding teacher in Audrey de Vos, who boosted his confidence. De Vos took a holistic approach to teaching and her warm-up included natural movements and pioneering floor exercises. De Vos became Gray’s mentor and helped plan her independent tours, choreographing the 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.
Many of Grey’s performances were recorded and Odile danced in the stereoscopic film Black Swan (1952) created for the Festival Gardens, Battersea. Her last performance came in an excerpt from Les Sylphides at a gala attended by Princess Margaret in 1965.
In his books Red Curtain Up (1958) and Through the Bamboo Curtain (1965) Gray recorded his tours of the Soviet Union and China, but had also traveled to South America, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand. After marrying a Swedish osteopath, Sven Gustav Svenson, in 1953 she built a career in Sweden, first dancing and then staging productions.
After retiring from the stage, she became director general of the Arts Educational School (1965-68) and devoted herself to the training of dancers, holding key positions within three educational organizations: she was president of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance, vice-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 a son, Ingvar.
• Beryl Elizabeth Grey, dancer and artistic director, born June 11, 1927; died December 10, 2022