Ballerina assoluta

"Beryl Grey in The Sleeping Beauty gives one of the greatest displays of pure lyrical beauty I have seen."
The words were those of the famous ballet critic and author, Arnold Haskell, and the ballerina who inspired this resounding tribute gave early promise of her future fame.

The famous story goes that in 1937, when the ten year old Beryl Grey was auditioning for the Vic-Wells Ballet School (now the Royal Ballet School), the ballet teacher examining her called the Principal of the School, Ninette de Valois, saying "I think you had better come and look at this child, Miss de Valois." To Dame Ninette’s query "What’s wrong with the child?", the agitated teacher replied "She can do everything, that’s what’s wrong!"

Within four years Beryl Grey was a member of The Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company, touring Britain extensively during World War II, rapidly taking over solo roles and later leading the company during a ten week absence of Margot Fonteyn.

In 1942, at the age of only 14, Beryl Grey danced, at a few hours notice, the leading role in Act II of Swan Lake, that of Odette, the lyrical Swan Queen. Such was her success that, three months later, on her fifteenth birthday, she was entrusted with her very first full-length ballet – Swan Lake – adding the evil, dramatic Odile of Act III to her romantic Odette. Beryl Grey is the youngest dancer ever to have achieved this distinction in a record which remains unequalled to this day.

Even the notoriously difficult 32 fouettes in the third act – repeated turns on point on one leg which demand a high technical proficiency, physical endurance and accurate co-ordination of movements – failed to daunt her. (She had, after all, been seen to perform over 50 in rehearsal!)

In the years that followed, as a prima ballerina in the company familiar to us today as the Royal Ballet, she triumphed in the major classical roles. While still only 16, she was displaying outstanding acting ability in the dramatic title role in Giselle and giving a definitive performance as The Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty. In Les Sylphides she was described as a ‘drifting dream of warmth and softness’.

It was during the first season at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, after the war, that Beryl Grey gave her first radiant performances in the role with which she is so much associated – that of the Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. She had already made the Lilac Fairy from the same ballet her own ("Surely there has never been a more gracious and commanding Lilac Fairy" – Dame Ninette de Valois) – now she brought her purity of line, great musicality and technical mastery to that of the enchanted Princess Aurora.

Of the many roles created for her by such eminent choreographers as Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Robert Helpmann, it was the role of Death which Massine created for her that saw a very different Beryl Grey in his ballet Donald of the Burthens. The ballet premiered to a packed house on 12 December 1951. The role of Death involved terrific leaps, turns and twists in quick succession. Dressed daringly for the time, from head to foot in flame coloured body tights, Beryl Grey flashed across the stage like a beam of angry light receiving a tremendous and deserved ovation.

There were also notable revivals in which her brilliant interpretations have left an enduring memory – her formidable Black Queen (Death in Ninette de Valois’ timeless ballet Checkmate and the compassionate romantic Lady in John Cranko’s The Lady and the Fool.

Beryl Grey left the Royal Ballet in 1957, following a magnificent farewell performance in Swan Lake (one of her greatest roles) to pursue an independent career. That same year she undertook extensive tours of both South Africa and South and Central America with her partner, Oleg Briansky and conductor, David Tidboald
Ballet history was made at the close of 1957 by her appearance at the famous Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow and the Kirov Theatre, St Petersburg – the first western guest artist ever to have been invited to appear in Russia. The visit was a triumphant success. She was partnered in both Swan Lake and Giselle by the famous Soviet lead, Yuri Kondratov, to whom she referred as ‘the best partner I have ever had’. She evoked a heartfelt, written tribute from the Bolshoi’s own reigning Swan Queen, Maya Plisetskaya which, coming from a prima ballerina, was praise indeed: "One is attracted by a purity of form and a beauty of line, her sincerity and her excellent technique. Her dancing is easy and free from constraint: her performance makes what is most difficult seem easy."

But perhaps the most touching tribute came from the ballet mistress (a former ballerina) at the Kirov: "I can’t speak English but we have a common language." In her own words, Beryl Grey was "very proud to go to Russia and speak that language in my English accent…" and, as she might have added, to represent her country.

When she returned to London in 1958, it was as guest prima ballerina with the London Festival Ballet, the company which, ten years on, she herself was to direct. It was founded in 1950 by dancers Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin with impresario Julian Braunsweg.

The ‘Grey Brigade’, as her legion of fans were know, gave this most beloved of ballerinas a rapturous welcome back, showering the stage with over 20 bouquets. The following year she returned to the Royal Ballet – her first appearance at Covent Garden for over two years – and subsequently toured South Africa with them as guest prima ballerina.

Six years after her Russian visit, Beryl Grey achieved another historic first when she travelled to China to help instruct and dance with the Peking Ballet Company in Swan Lake and Les Sylphides, partnered by their leading Chinese dancer, Wang Shiao-pen. She helped with some productions and undertook lectures and classes before leaving to dance in Shanghai with the newly formed company there.

It was in 1966 that Beryl Grey stepped into the world of education for aspiring young artists by accepting the post of Director General of the two Arts Educational Schools and their Teacher Training College, one of the foremost educational centres of dance and drama in Britain. At that time she also accepted an invitation from the Arts Council to sit on the newly-formed Governing Board of the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet). In 1968 she was appointed the company’s artistic director, a challenging post which she held for almost 12 years.

Her international career continues with a busy schedule of committees, lectures, broadcasts, master classes and staging productions which included Giselle for the West Australian Ballet (1983 and 1989) and The Sleeping Beauty for 250 year old Royal Swedish Ballet, Stockholm (1986).

The training, education and welfare of dancers remain an abiding passion. Beryl Grey is Chairman of the Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund, Vice Chairman of The Governors of The Royal Ballet, Vice Chairman of the Dance Teachers’ Benevolent Fund and Patron of The Dancers’ Resettlement Trust.

She holds numerous honorary doctorates and was awarded the CBE for her services to dance in 1973 and created a Dame of the British Empire in 1988. She has been Vice President of the Royal Academy of Dancing since 1980, is President of the Imperial Society of Dancing and a Director of The Birmingham Royal Ballet.
In September 1997 she was presented with the Queen Elizabeth Coronation Award by Dame Antoinette Sibley. The Award is given by the Royal Academy of Dancing to individuals in recognition of great contribution to the world of ballet. Previous holders include Dame Ninette de Valois and Rudolf Nureyev.

Debra Boraston, Henry Moore Studio. 11a Parkhill Road, London NW3 2YH
T: 020 7483 1950 F: 020 7586 3790 E: debra@henrymoorestudio.co.uk