Beryl Grey, who has died at the age of 95, was a ballerina, director, administrator, and patron of many dance organisations, who had a distinguished international career but was quintessentially a product of and then epitome of the English style and school of classical ballet.
Born in London, she entered the Sadler’s Wells School of Ballet at the age of nine. Famously, a teacher at the school immediately telephoned the director, Ninette de Valois, and said “Miss de Valois I think you had better come and look at this child”. After watching her in class, de Valois demanded “Well, what’s wrong with her?” The teacher replied, ‘What’s wrong? She can do everything, that’s what wrong!” Five years later she became a member of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, the youngest member of the corps de ballet, and by 1941 was a soloist.
In 1942, on her fifteenth birthday, she danced the double role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake at the then New Theatre (now Nöel Coward) London, partnered by Robert Helpmann and, with absolutely no trace of nerves, sailed through its very considerable technical and emotional demands. Her success at once demonstrated the qualities which were to inform her subsequent career: technical perfection and a generous warmth of personality which shone across the footlights and endeared her to generations of ballet lovers, first here at the New Theatre and subsequently at Covent Garden when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet took up residence at the Royal Opera House in 1946. It took some members of the company, among them Margot Fonteyn, time and experience fully to reach out to the top and back of the big house, but Beryl Grey did so immediately and her first and most famous role there, the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, won the hearts of new admirers even to the back of the old gallery. Warmth and friendliness, coupled with a complete lack of pretension, endeared her totally to the fans who waited for her at the stage door: she was indeed “the people’s ballerina”.
To Swan Lake, she soon added Giselle to her repertory and towards the end of the 1946 season danced her first Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. At Covent Garden, in addition to her incomparable Lilac Fairy (few other dancers ever mastered the sweeping Prologue solo, so well suited to her, then exceptional, height). It was in this role that she captured the New York ballet audience in 1949. She created the beautiful, mysterious Winter Fairy solo in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella and had a personal triumph as the “second” ballerina in George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, radiant and relaxed she was joyous in the richness of his choreography. She was also magnificent as the Black Queen in de Valois’ Checkmate.
Although she was entrusted with many new solo roles, the only ballet created on her at Covent Garden was Donald of the Burthens, 1951, choreographed by Léonide Massine to music by Ian Whyte in settings and costumes by MacBryde and Colquhoun, no less. The ballet had a Scottish theme, about a man (Alexander Grant) who made a pact with Death, and Massine sought to introduce some Scottish traditional dance steps. Beryl Grey, in scarlet body tights, represented the figure of Death but, alas, the ballet failed to impress and was short lived.
In 1952 Grey, partnered by John Field, starred in the first stereoscopic ballet film, Black Swan, directed by Peter Brinson, and in the 1950s began making guest appearances abroad, in Stockholm and Helsinki. In 1957 she resigned from The Royal Ballet (as SWB had now become) to make further guest appearances overseas. In 1957-8 she danced in Leningrad, Moscow and Tbilisi, the first British ballerina to do so, and wrote a book, Red Curtain Up, 1958, about her experiences. She continued to make guest appearances with the Royal and Festival ballet companies here and in 1959-60 danced world wide, in South Africa, New Zealand, and Peking, the first Britsh ballerina to appear with the Chinese Ballet – which inspired another book, Through the Bamboo Curtain, 1965. In 1968 after a brief sojourn as director of the Arts Educational School, she accepted the role of artistic director of London Festival Ballet, a position she was to hold for nine years, broadening its repertory, encouraging young dancers from within the company, and commissioning new productions, notably a fine Sleeping Beauty from Rudolf Nureyev, in designs by Nicholas Georgiadis, which triumphantly toured Australia.
After leaving London Festival Ballet, Beryl Grey was greatly in demand as a producer of the classic ballets, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, for companies throughout the world. In addition to professional work, she found time to serve on the boards of The Royal Academy of Dancing, The Benesh Institute, The Dancers’ Resettlement Fund, The Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund, the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, the Language of Dance Centre, and to become an active patron of other bodies such as The British Federation of Music Festivals, The Dance Division of the Critics’ Circle, and innumerable smaller bodies, especially those concerned with the training and welfare of young people.
Persuaded by her friend, the lexicographer the late GBL Wilson, to address a gathering of ballet clubs in the 1940s, she discovered a natural, and totally relaxed gift for public speaking. This, by no means common, ease of communication cemented her close relationships with all the bodies to whom she lent her support. Warm in appreciation and encouragement, she was nevertheless equally outspoken when it came to critical appraisal of work in hand with especial concern, in recent years, about standards of dance teacher training.
In 1950 Beryl Grey married the Swedish osteopath Dr Sven Svenson, with whom she had one son who gave them three grandchildren. By the time he reached his 100th birthday, Dr Svenson was blind and physically frail but devotedly cared for, at their Sussex home, by his wife – despite all her professional commitments. In her private, as in her dance life, Dame Beryl equated love and duty. He died in 2008.
Beryl Grey was awarded the CBE in 1973, DBE in 1988. In 1980 she received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award of the Royal Academy of Dancing, its highest accolade. She received honorary degrees, in music and in literature, from the Universities of Leicester, City of London, CNAA, Buckingham, and London.
Dame Elizabeth (Beryl) Grey, born 11 June 1927; died 10 December 2022
NOTE: This obituary was written by Mary Clarke, former editor of Dancing Times, before her death in 2015. It is reproduced here by permission of Dancing Times.
Curtain call photos, Arena Pal, courtesy of Royal Academy of Dance