Jann Parry reviews Sarah Woodcock's lovingly written biography of The Royal Ballet's “almost legendary figure”, Michael Somes
For Royal Ballet aficionados of a certain age, Michael Somes was an almost legendary figure as a danseur noble, glamorous partner of Margot Fonteyn, and in later life, a ballet master about whose ferocious temper anecdotes abounded. Although he was regarded by admirers as the moral soul of the Royal Ballet, his contribution to its evolution as a world-class company has been all too easily overlooked since his death in 1994 at the age of 77.
Sarah Woodcock has taken the title of her biography from Somes's description of his role as that of a dynamo, ‘the energetic force translating basic movement into theatrical energy'. He was famously effacing as a partner, giving prominence to his ballerina. He became a power behind the scenes as a rehearsal director, committed to delivering the best possible performances of every ballet. Woodcock has done him justice by extensive research, interviewing colleagues who knew him well – many of them, alas, no longer with us. Woodcock is an experienced dance specialist, working on publications and exhibitions over the years. She's been able to draw on Somes's personal papers, including youthful diaries and copious letters to his mother, who demanded constant contact. There are drafts and copies of other correspondence, though Somes destroyed Frederick Ashton's letters to him.
So, what was the nature of Somes's relationship with Ashton? Woodcock is discreet, though there evidently was an early affair, much gossiped about by company members. Somes joined the young Vic-Wells Ballet in 1935, after winning a scholarship to Ninette de Valois's school when he was 17. Talented, well trained and handsome, he soon caught Ashton's eye and was welcomed into his circle of friends. Although there was a 13-year difference between them, Somes was to become a counsellor to Ashton, consoling and supporting him during difficult times and advising him on musical choices. Their friendship endured long after Somes rejected Ashton's sexual overtures; the younger man grew into a valued collaborator, understanding Ashton's strengths and foibles and championing his creations.
Teenage Somes had a brief affair with Margot Fonteyn, two years younger, while she was involved with the company's musical director, Constant Lambert. She was cast with Somes as her partner (his first prominent role) in Ashton's Horoscope, 1938. After their success, no one else danced their roles. Her regular partner for the next decade was Robert Helpmann, with whom she danced throughout the Second World War years and the company's first American tours.
‘Waiting' is the apt title of Woodcock's fourth chapter, as Somes waited for his chance to become a leading man – and to find out how his career would be disrupted by conscription into the British armed forces during WWII. De Valois decreed that her male dancers should not be exempt from war service. (Helpmann was, as an Australian national.) By 1941, Ashton, Somes and many others were called up, returning to the beleaguered company when they were on leave. Somes, who was sent to train as an army PT instructor in the UK, was badly injured in 1944. He fell from the back of a truck, damaging his spleen (but not his feet). He convalesced in Wales, sending ‘bolstering' letters to Ashton, who was miserable and pessimistic. Woodcock's research reveals how unsure about the future both Ashton and De Valois were, even when the company was offered the opportunity to take over the Royal Opera House in 1946. It would expose their post-war weakness and might lead to ‘ossification' as a national institution. Somes urged them to seize the chance to ‘put British Ballet on a firm foundation' and was jubilant when they went ahead.
He was anxious about re-establishing himself at 27 against newcomers from the Dominions and dancers in visiting foreign companies. He missed the re-opening of the Opera House because of a knee injury. Yet he was the lynchpin in Ashton's Symphonic Variations, postponed because of his cartilage operation. Watching later revivals, one marvels at the frequent double tours en l'air (a Somes speciality) and the stamina required to remain in action for 18 minutes. How could Ashton have made such demands of a recovering dancer? Woodcock's information is that the lifts were kept low and the choreography amplified as Somes regained strength. Ashton's first night message thanked ‘Dearest Mishky. This ballet for what it is worth is due to you. You suggested it and you bullied it out of me and if it has any merits it is due to you.'
How good a dancer was Michael Somes? Accounts vary from enthusiastic to dismissive (early on): ‘He was more of a liability than an asset to his ballerina' (PW Manchester in 1938). He had admirable elevation and endurance, boosted by training with former members of the Ballets Russes in Paris as well as in London. Critics tried to pin down a quality of purity as well as innate musicality. Above all, he was a very masculine presence, offsetting the femininity of his ballerina. He learnt how to maximise his stage presence, making the most of danseur noble roles. When other dancers performed them, the Financial Times critic Andrew Porter commented: ‘We tend to think either how little there is in these parts, or alternatively how good Somes was in them.' Tamara Karsavina told Fonteyn: ‘You have the finest partner in the world. I only had Nijinsky'.
Somes came into his prime in the 1950s, partnering Fonteyn around the world as well as at home in the Royal Opera House. Woodcock devotes a chapter to their partnership, with illuminating comments and advice from dancers and coaches – essential reading for anyone interested in the technique of pas de deux work. The Fonteyn-Somes partnership defined the Royal Ballet in the Fifties, both in performances of the classics and in the ballets Ashton created for them. Yet Somes's participation was often overlooked by ill-informed critics and dance historians, who opined that Somes ‘played a minor role in the Fonteyn legend.'
He was also assumed to have been usurped by Rudolf Nureyev, who defected from the Kirov Ballet in 1961 while the Royal Ballet was on tour in the Soviet Union. But at 44, exhausted by touring with Fonteyn, Somes had already semi-retired, relinquishing her to David Blair without a farewell performance. He had been appointed Assistant Director to De Valois (along with John Hart), responsible for directing performances and coaching soloists and principals. When Ashton replaced De Valois in 1963, Somes's assistance was needed more than ever. While he admired Nureyev's dancing and his productions of Raymonda (Act III), Kingdom of the Shades (Act III of La Bayadère) and The Nutcracker, he objected to his unprofessional behaviour. Tellingly, Ashton cast Somes as Armand's disapproving father in Marguerite and Armand, the ballet created as a vehicle for Fonteyn and Nureyev.
Woodcock insists that Somes's contribution to the Royal Ballet's development has consistently been underappreciated. It was he who dealt with Bronislava Nijinska when Ashton invited her to mount her Diaghilev ballets, Les Biches and Les Noces, for the company. She and the dancers found his patience invaluable. He nurtured the partnership between Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell as the new generation of Royal Ballet stars. Somes married Sibley in 1964, when she was 24 and he 48. He had previously been married in 1956 to another young dancer, Deirdre Dixon, who died three years later of meningitis. Somes continued to be a loyal supporter of Ashton's directorship, spending all his time with the company in rehearsals and on tour in Europe and the United States. The marriage with Sibley failed.
Then, to Somes's distress, came the badly mishandled changeover of directors from Ashton to Kenneth MacMillan. Ashton was required to retire at 65, which he resented, with the unspecific hope that his assistants, Somes and Hart, might continue under MacMillan and John Field. Rumours of sackings undermined the morale of company staff and dancers. Ashton was given a tribute gala at the Opera House, with extracts from his ballets, many of them no longer performed, reconstructed by Somes and his contemporaries. It was an unforgettable evening (Woodcock was there, as was I), culminating in Fonteyn and Somes leading the finale to Daphnis and Chloe.
The early years of MacMillan's directorship (1970-77) were trying for everyone concerned. Somes stayed on out of loyalty to the company, no longer Assistant Director but Principal Répetiteur, responsible for the Ashton repertory, the classics and certain MacMillan ballets. Woodcock is judiciously fair in describing the muddled policies that ensued before the touring section split away, becoming the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and then Birmingham Royal Ballet under Peter Wright. Somes did his best to maintain standards, becoming the company's eminence grise, a link between management and dancers. He was living with Wendy Ellis, a member of the company, and still performing some of his ‘character' roles.
He became more and more unhappy with the changes in dancers' and audience's attitudes as the years went by. His draconian methods of instilling discipline were dreaded by those who didn't regard them as a challenge. The final chapter of the book is given over to an assessment of his teaching and coaching, with contributions from performers who did (and didn't) appreciate his demanding standards and his detailed knowledge of the repertoire. It's a good read. Candid accounts of chairs being thrown and dancers walking out in tears are contrasted with the care he took to bring out the best in people with potential. He was the archetypal driven perfectionist, familiar enough in old-school ballet masters, conductors, theatre and film directors. He'd never get away with it now.
He was asked to leave in 1984 after an altercation with MacMillan. MacMillan felt physically threatened and Somes was told to make his exit after 50 years with the company. There was no official farewell. Once again, the company was thrown into disarray. Standards fell before a gradual recovery under the directorship of Anthony Dowell. Somes retired, married Ellis and kept busy mounting Ashton's ballets abroad and for Birmingham Royal Ballet. When he died unexpectedly in 1994 of a brain tumour, obituaries claimed that his dance career had been obliterated by Nureyev's partnership with Fonteyn. Many were unaware of his backstage work with the Royal Ballet, to which he had given most of his life.
Sarah Woodcock and her publisher, David Leonard, have ensured that a comprehensive record of his achievements is now, at last, available.
For anyone who wants to see film of Michael Somes in action, Woodcock recommends Paul Czinner's 1960 film The Royal Ballet, which preserves his performances in Swan Lake Act II, Ondine and The Firebird.
Publisher: David Leonard / Dance Books
Number of pages: 358
Weight: 667 g (1.47 pounds)
Dimensions: 234 x 156 x 29 mm (6.14 x 1.13 x 9.21 inches)
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).