Dame Beryl Grey

Born 11 June 1927
Died 10 December 2022

ONLINE Dame Beryl Grey

Beryl Grey in Swan Lake c.1941

MIKE DIXON remembers the English ballerina and director with affection

The career of Dame Beryl Grey CH DBE, who died in the early hours of 10 December 2022 aged 95, was characterised by monumental international achievements. Born Beryl Elizabeth Groom in Highgate, London, on 11 June 1927 to devoted parents who supported the progress of their child prodigy,  she commenced dancing lessons at the age of four and won every possible award for her dancing during the next few years. Aged 10, she successfully auditioned for Ninette de Valois to attain a four-year scholarship at the Vic- Wells School. She joined the Sadler’s Wells Ballet at the age of 14, now called Beryl Grey on de Valois’ advice, and danced Odette/Odile in the full-length Swan Lake on her 15th birthday. Swan Lake was to prove a touchstone for Grey, the 32 fouettés in Act III always performed on the spot and with impeccable precision and musicality. Her performance is preserved in the 3D film Black Swan (1952), partnered by John Field. It captures her physical allure and personal authority as well as her adamantine technique.

Her teenage years with the Sadler’s Wells company included dancing throughout the Blitz in London and experiencing the very real privations of regional touring. As the bombs rained down, she developed the steely resolve she relied on in later years to get her through difficult situations. She was appalled at the sheer devastation she witnessed when the company toured Germany after the cessation of hostilities in 1945, and thrilled to play the Lilac Fairy the following year as the company reopened the rather battered Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with a new production of The Sleeping Beauty with designs by Oliver Messel. Fonteyn was, naturally, cast as Aurora, but Grey’s height and classical purity made her a commanding figure and perfect for the role. She once explained that all the good magic emanates from the Lilac Fairy, and she must represent all the moral power of the universe in her generous ports de bras. Her performance was the one against which all others were measured. When she married Swedish osteopath Sven Svenson in 1950, she walked down the aisle to the magical Panorama music from Act II. She played the Lilac Fairy again on the legendary opening night of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1949, and on the subsequent gruelling tour of the United States.

Her numerous roles included Aurora, Giselle (commencing when she was 16) and Myrtha. Ashton also created memorable roles for her: the Winter Fairy in Cinderella (1947), Fire in Homage to the Queen (1953) and a spectacular solo in Birthday Offering (1956). She was unrivalled as the ruthless Black Queen in de Valois’ Checkmate, although ruthlessness was never really part of Grey’s nature offstage. When Balanchine staged Ballet Imperial in London in 1950 (a work he never set on his own New York City Ballet), he chose Fonteyn and Grey as his ballerinas, but Grey was much more his kind of dancer with her long legs and athletic physique. Her fan base was huge, and included the future choreographer Sir Robert Cohan who, as a GI stationed in Britain during the War, would travel to London from his military base simply to see her dance. However, frustration at Covent Garden due to limited opportunities led to her to resign from the recently re-named Royal Ballet in 1957 and become a freelance artist, taking in lengthy tours of South America and South Africa.

When Dame Beryl asked me to collaborate on her autobiography, For the Love of Dance (2018), I found her diaries of these relentless tours utterly exhausting to read, let alone being fully able to empathise how harrowing the actual experiences had been for her. Travelling by every means of transport available, often performing in sports arenas, cinemas and local theatres which had never seen live ballet, she was a determined and resilient ambassadress for classical dancing. The only comparison one could make was with the worldwide tours of Anna Pavlova. She guested in every part of the world, but constantly returned to perform with the Royal Swedish Ballet.

In 1957 she was invited to guest with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, as a consequence of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev seeing her dance the role of La Capricciosa in Cranko’s The Lady and the Fool on his visit to London. 

She was the first Western ballerina to be accorded the honour of performing in the USSR during the Cold War. Her performances, partnered by Yuri Kondratov led to a further invitation to dance with the Kirov in Leningrad. These visits were big news in Russia and the press lauded her authority, speed and attack. In 1964 she was the first Western ballerina to dance with the National Ballet of China, partnered by Wang Shao Pen in Beijing and Shanghai. In all cases she danced Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. She wrote extensively about these experiences in Red Curtain Up (1958) and Behind the Bamboo Curtain (1964). The photographs for both books were taken by her husband, Sven Svenson. She confessed that she had, in a reverse of tradition, proposed to him in 1949, as he was reluctant to do so because of the 20-year age difference. Their marriage proved blissfully happy and their son, Ingvar, was born in 1954.

She still performed occasionally as a guest artist with the Royal Ballet until 1963; in 1965 she hung up her pointe shoes and became Director General of the Arts Educational Trust, but resigned to take up her biggest challenge in 1968, when she was appointed Artistic Director of London Festival Ballet. The company at this point in its history was in a desiccated condition, with tawdry productions, a generally low technical standard and a fading future. The transformation over the first few years of her directorship was miraculous. She fired dancers, she refused to hire a single dancer at one audition because no one came up to the standard she expected, she implacably drilled the corps de ballet, and hired strong guest stars. Through sheer force of personality, she pulled the entire organisation up to a higher level. She invited Massine to stage Le Tricorne, Le Beau Danube and Gaîté Parisienne. She brought in Rudolf Nureyev to stage his own productions of The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, in which he also starred. Peter Schaufuss made his award-winning La Sylphide for LFB and danced James on the opening night with Eva Evdokimova. Both dancers featured on her regular roster of dancers, along with Elisabetta Terabust and Patrice Bart. Mary Skeaping staged her definitive Giselle, and Barry Moreland his Prodigal Son in Ragtime, a huge popular hit, with Paul Clarke in the title role, which dropped from the repertoire only after Clarke’s sudden and untimely death. London Festival Ballet toured to many countries, including France, China, Australia and the USA, often featuring Nureyev as a guest artist. Nureyev’s behaviour was often volatile, but she was unafraid to confront him, politely but firmly, and the chapters in her autobiography dealing with this period are only amusing in retrospect. She secured LFB’s first permanent home (part of the Royal College of Organists) in Jay Mews, next to the Royal Albert Hall. She also wished to create a school. However, there were members of the Board who hoped to replace Grey with the high-profile Nureyev, and political machinations took place which undermined her position with the dancers. Despite turning LFB into a world-class company in the space of a decade, she reluctantly stepped down in 1979. Her company subsequently became English National Ballet.

She was awarded the CBE in 1973, and in 1988 received her Dame-hood. Amends were made when Dame Beryl became President of English National Ballet. She was Vice President of the Royal Academy of Dance, served as a director of the Royal Opera House (1999-2003), was Honorary Life President of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, a recipient of the RAD’s Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award, Patron of the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards, and was awarded the accolade of Companion of Honour in 2017, in addition to many other awards and five honorary doctorates.

In person, Dame Beryl was a commanding figure: tall, gracious and elegant, always generous with her help to young dancers and an inspiration to her colleagues. Her public speeches were always models of concision and common sense, crisply expressed in immaculately enunciated English. She effortlessly matured into the doyenne of British ballet. Her former dancers reunited annually to shower this great lady with loving admiration. She is survived by her son, Ingvar, and three grandchildren.