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A tribute to Derek Rencher

Posted on January 22, 2015

Derek Rencher, the dancer and character artist who dedicated his 45-year career entirely to The Royal Ballet, died at the age of 82 on December 20, 2014.

Here, David Drew, a colleague for many years at The Royal Ballet, pays tribute to the man:

“Derek and I were career-long friends yet great rivals for certain roles. I recall first seeing him in August 1955 during my early days with the company. I was impressed by his carriage, straight back, fine physique and bearing. He always rehearsed his roles full-out so you could learn from him easily. I made the huge mistake of choosing to be his understudy – he never missed a performance! It was hard to take over from Derek. He was so good I tended to copy him too slavishly.

“Derek specialised in power roles: kings, rich men and the like. He had magnificent presence and could command the stage, but he danced very little. He had trained originally as an artist at which he excelled. The walls of his cottage on the South Downs were exquisitely decorated with his work in the style of the Bloomsbury group. His character make-ups were also skilled and imaginative. But due to starting ballet late he had no jump or pirouettes, and only reasonable adage. He was principally a very fine actor who could convey complex character through original movement. Both Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton discerned this quality early in his career, and frequently created roles on him. As a result he has left an indelible mark on the central, essential repertory of The Royal Ballet.

“He was excellent as Monsieur GM, the role he created in MacMillan’s Manon. The way he sauntered, wealthy and disdainful, epitomised the strengths of the company’s acting tradition. In another MacMillan created role, as Paris Singer in Isadora he was genuinely moving. In the mourning duet he really stretched Merle Park in the title role because of his total commitment. His silent scream was fabulous, a gem.

“With his Elgar in Ashton’s Enigma Variations you could see him reflecting on his friends as, hands in pockets, he walked among them. Performing opposite him as Jaeger was one of my best experiences on stage. There were other times when we did not speak to each other for quite some considerable time. Fred [Ashton] observed this and parodied us in The Dream. He created Lysander and Demetrius on us, rivals in love, who fight each other with wooden staves.

“Totally convincing as Rothbart in Swan Lake and as Kostchei in The Firebird, Derek was never afraid to commit himself in a role. Antony Tudor, who could read people psychologically, saw this when he created Shadowplay. Derek as the Terrestrial represented male-to-male impulses at a very grounded level. He didn’t mimsy around the edge of it. He used his bulk and controlling presence to brilliant effect – and Tudor casting him with Anthony Dowell gave it an extra dimension.

“Derek had a baroque sense of humour that could translate English phrases into literal but unidiomatic French such as “Il a des idées en haut de son gare.” He was a brilliant satirical artist and could hide intimate human anatomy in beautifully detailed pen and ink drawings of flora and fauna.

“I believe Derek helped establish that sense of character in choreography that gives The Royal Ballet its identity. You see it in now in successive generations of dancers who blend character and movement to create theatrical intent and power, in such performances as Edward Watson’s in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale. Derek helped to build that tradition.”

A shortened version of this tribute appears in the February 2015 issue of Dancing Times.

Photograph: © Royal Opera House Collections/Donald Southern.

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