Famous dancer Dame Beryl Grey, one of the great pioneering forces of British ballet, has died aged 95. The Royal Ballet announced the news on Twitter Saturday and said she has been a “dominant figure” since her Swan Lake debut at the age of 15. English National Ballet tweeted that she would be “remembered for her significant legacy and immeasurable contribution to the art form”. The bbodance organization said Grey, who was their president, was a “truly wonderful ballerina who will be sorely missed by all of us”.
A teenage prodigy, Gray rose to fame at the Royal Ballet which she left in 1957 to pursue an international career as a freelance ballerina. Gray was not only the first British ballerina to dance in Russia (with the Bolshoi in 1957, during the Cold War) but also the first Western ballerina to perform in Beijing (with the Peking Ballet in 1964). Later she was appointed artistic director of the London Festival Ballet (1968-79), transforming the fortunes of the company into what became the English National Ballet.
She joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now The Royal Ballet) at the age of 14, performed Odette and Odile in Swan Lake on her 15th birthday and took on other demanding roles such as heroine eponymous in Giselle at the age of 16. and has conducted versions of these two ballets – Swan Lake for the London Festival Ballet and Giselle for the Western Australian Ballet – as well as The Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Swedish Ballet.
Swan Lake remained her personal favourite, but she won acclaim for her many other roles at the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden and beyond. She was the Lilac Fairy opposite Margot Fonteyn’s Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and later also danced Aurora; she played the Black Queen in the one-act ballet Checkmate by Ninette de Valois; the Nightingale in Les Oiseaux by Robert Helpmann, set to music by Ottorino Respighi; Ophelia opposite Helpmann’s Hamlet; the seductive Duessa in Frederick Ashton’s The Quest and the lead role in Les Rendezvous d’Ashton; as well as the main role in Les Sylphides by Mikhail Fokine.
Taller than most of her female colleagues, Gray was over 6 feet tall when standing on pointe. Her late friend Gillian Lynne, the dancer and choreographer, summed up her qualities as a dancer: “Superb line, long legs, very musical and strong as an ox. Ninette de Valois, who led the Royal Ballet and oversaw Gray’s rise through the ranks, once said that Gray had “all the gifts”.
An only child, Gray was born in London on June 11, 1927. She took dance lessons with her two cousins at Sherborne Preparatory School where her tutor was Madeleine Sharp. In Grey’s 2017 autobiography For the Love of Dance, she credited Sharp’s huge role in developing her talent and thanked her for “her keen eye and financial support.”
Gray gave her first performance at the age of three at the local pub, dancing at New Year’s Eve celebrations. Her father set up a bar and mirror for her in the family home and she won a scholarship to the school of Vic-Wells ballet where De Valois changed his birth name from Groom to Grey. In 1941, she made her professional debut with Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the body of Giselle. During World War II, she toured Britain with the company, gaining notoriety and dubbing its superstar Margot Fonteyn. After the war she toured the United States with the company and eventually gave her final performance with the Royal in 1957, again playing Odette and Odile.
She launched her independent career with a tour of South America and had new works choreographed for her by John Cranko and Audrey De Vos. Over the next few years, she performed around the world with various companies, including the London Festival Ballet. There was huge interest in her momentous debut performance with the Bolshoi at Swan Lake which was shown on television. In her memoirs, she recalls: “The joy of playing with an orchestra of 120 musicians… transported me and raised me to a magical world. Every time I hear this heartbreaking music by Tchaikovsky now, it instantly brings me back to Russia and my amazing time with these wonderful artists.
Taking on the artistic direction of the London Festival Ballet was, she says, an unexpected change of direction. She helped change the fortunes of the company which had suffered from mounting debts. Under Grey’s guidance, it established regular seasons at the London Coliseum and moved to a new headquarters in South Kensington. It has also attracted great talents such as Rudolf Nureyev, Léonide Massine and Eva Evdokimova. Nureyev’s new version of Romeo and Juliet, created for the company in 1977, is among the valuable additions to its repertoire. In 1978, Nureyev and Gray visited the White House during the company’s American tour.
Honored with a CBE in 1973, Gray became a Dame in 1988. She was appointed President of the English National Ballet in 2005 and has remained committed to teaching dance and sharing her vast knowledge of ballet form. art with others. She received the De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards 2016. The following year, she underwent surgery for bowel cancer.
Gray was married to osteopath Sven Svenson, who died in 2008. Together they had one son, Ingvar.
“I was very lucky,” she said in 2019. “It was a great life. Dancing meant everything to me. Dancing is a very personal expression of happiness.