Michael Somes is the unsung hero of the Royal Ballet – the dynamo driving performances as dancer and partner to Margot Fonteyn and as overseer of performances in the company's greatest years.
Somes was born in 1917, starting out when ballet belonged to the exotic foreigner and an Englishman becoming a ballet dancer was unthinkable. He challenged existing prejudices to become a star and a maker of stars, serving The Royal Ballet longer and contributing more to its development than anyone except its founder, Ninette de Valois. The Royal Ballet was his life.
The Royal Ballet was founded in 1931 as the Vic-Wells Ballet and in 1934 Somes won the first scholarship to its school; only three years later ballets were being created for him, but four years of wartime service, culminating in serious injury, threatened to put an end to his career.
In 1946 he was integral to the company's move to Covent Garden, acclaimed tours in war-scarred Europe, a sensational New York debut in 1949 and triumphant coast-to-coast tours of North America.
His masterly partnering skills underlay Fonteyn's transformation into an international star. In the 1950s they were the great ballet partnership, glamour incarnate, feted throughout the world and cultural ambassadors for Britain. Under Somes' stern editorial eye, Ashton created masterpieces for them.
As Assistant Director in the 1960s, Somes nurtured a wealth of talent at all levels, notably Antoinette Sibley (who became his second wife) and Anthony Dowell, and developed a corps de ballet of unsurpassed perfection. He described himself as a “‘sponge' & ‘telephone wire'” through which to pass the treasury of knowledge he learnt from the legendary names of 20th-century ballet – Karsavina, Massine, Markova, Dolin, Balanchine, de Valois, Ashton, Fonteyn, MacMillan, Nureyev, musicians like Constant Lambert and Adrian Boult, and artists like John Piper and Edward Burra. He saw passing on that knowledge as a duty and a privilege.
Now the legend of Somes the ruthless upholder of standards, of iron discipline and unpredictable rages was born, overshadowing his endless patience, kindness, and deep concern for every member of the company. Somes was The Royal Ballet's soul and moral centre.
Sarah Woodcock's painstakingly researched book has drawn on Somes' hitherto unseen letters and diaries augmented by interviews with contemporaries and those he mentored. Dynamo is a first-hand account of successes and failures, day-to-day struggles, grumbles and disagreements as British ballet grew from a few dancers in an unfashionable fringe theatre to a company that was among the greatest in the world.
Dynamo – Michael Somes, A Life in The Royal Ballet
by Sarah Woodcock
ISBN is 978185273187
publication date September 28 2023
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.