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The dreaming ballerina

Posted on July 12, 2018

Zoë Anderson talked to Dame Beryl Grey about her life and career

Beryl Grey still dreams about dancing. The roles she danced as a ballerina, with The Royal Ballet and internationally, return in her sleep. “They’re all built in: Sylphides, Swan Lake… Or I’ve lost my shoes, and the music’s playing. Sometimes they’re nice, and sometimes I’m late!”

Grey first danced in Les Sylphides and Swan Lake in 1941, when she was 14 years old. She joined the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, as The Royal Ballet was then called, straight from the company school, replacing a dancer who was ill. “I don’t think Madam [Ninette de Valois, founder of the company] meant me to stay,” Grey remembers now. “I was supposed to go back to school after three months. Once in the company, I never left. Thank goodness!”

Characteristically, De Valois soon decided that her new dancer’s original name, Beryl Groom, wouldn’t do. “The first week, I was doing class, and she walked in and said ‘Groom! I’m changing your name to Grey, unless you can think of a better name. Right, it’s Grey.’ You can imagine, little me, with all these older dancers, going puce. I didn’t dare say anything. Later, she had this bee in her bonnet, she wanted me to be called Iris. I hate the name Iris! Fortunately Evelyn Leith, the press officer, didn’t like it either. I said, ‘Miss Leith, please, I don’t want to be called Iris Grey!’ So she battled it out, and I remained Beryl Grey.”

Within months of joining the company, the newly-renamed Grey was dancing solos, then leads. In a single week, still aged 14, she danced Odette in Act II of Swan Lake, the Lady in Robert Helpmann’s Comus and the Polka in Frederick Ashton’s Façade. On her 15th birthday, she danced the full length Swan Lake for the first time.

Beryl Grey aged 15, as Odette in Swan Lake. Photograph: Tunbridge-Sedwick.

“That was in the war,” Grey says now. “Things were very different then. How Madam managed, I don’t know. At one point we had about seven boys, if that. Now, when you do the Garland Dance in The Sleeping Beauty, you have men. Well, Ninette had no men to put in, it was all girls.” As the men of the company were called up to fi ght, Grey’s partners were either very young or from overseas: the Australian Helpmann, the Polish Alexis Rassine and the Swiss David Paltenghi.

There were more women, but they were still under pressure. “We did everything. Lilac Fairy attendant, Garland Dance, hunting lady, nymphs – everything, you did everything, with a quick change in the wings. It was lovely, really, I enjoyed every minute.” There were shortages: the corps de ballet had just one pair of shoes for two weeks, with eight or nine performances a week. “We used to put straw hat dye in the toes, to keep them hard, but that made them noisy. So we had to soften them down, we used to darn them. Now there are so many more choices. I read the Dancingtimes, there are all these adverts for different shoes!”

Roles came quickly, and had to be learned quickly. “At the De Valois conference the other day, Julia Farron was asked how she was rehearsed, how she was trained for the dramatic side of the Betrayed Girl in The Rake’s Progress. She said, ‘I was fl ung on at half an hour’s notice.’” After Grey’s successful debut as Odette, “Madam was pleased with that, so she taught me Act III and Act IV. No one had taught me Act II, I just looked at it.”

Over the course of our conversation, Grey returns to the war several times. This was a formative time in her life: the hard work, the company’s sense of identity, roles that she would return to throughout her career. “There was a lovely feeling in the war. People were working together, everyone felt that they were contributing something. That’s so important. We were like a family.”

Ballet was in increasing demand, offering a world of ordered fantasy compared to the chaos outside. “One saw audiences getting fuller and fuller, more and more members of the forces coming.” In London, there were long queues for tickets, despite the bombing. “People just went on,” Grey recalls. “One evening at the Princes Theatre, one of those horrible V2 bombs went off – they just went off with no warning, they just went bang.” Grey was dancing Swan Lake: “It was the sequence in Act III, when you go single piqué, double single double single, then a double and arms and back. As I went back, the theatre shook. And do you know, not a single member of the audience moved. It was incredible. People were wonderful.”

Grey has many Swan Lake memories. It was one of her best-known roles, and one with which she gave breakthrough performances. She danced it in Russia, as the first Western guest artist to appear with the Bolshoi Ballet, in 1957. The stage of the Bolshoi Theatre is huge; the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya came to Grey’s help in dealing with it. “On my fi rst night, Plisetskaya was in the wings, telling me which wing to go on, she would be there to take me off.” Grey was also the fi rst Western ballerina to dance in China, appearing with the Peking Ballet and Shanghai Company in 1964.

Beryl Grey as Odile in Swan Lake, 1958. Photograph: Mike Davis.

She was dancing Swan Lake in Pretoria when news broke of the assassination of President Kennedy. “We had the whole of the diplomatic corps in front. After Act II the manager came round and said, ‘Miss Grey, I’m going to have to make an announcement. Kennedy’s been shot.’ I said, ‘Oh, my god. But they’ll all leave! Can you please postpone it until after Act III?’ He did, he postponed the announcement. I said, ‘They’re not going to be able to bring him back.’ After Act III, half the audience left – they were all diplomatic.”

Grey still coaches Swan Lake, recently working with young English National Ballet dancers in a masterclass at Ivy House, the former home of Anna Pavlova and now the London Jewish Cutural Centre. What does she focus on in teaching this ballet? “Purity of line, if you’re thinking of the technical side,” Grey explains. “On the emotional side, it’s all there in the music. I think when you coach people, you have to feel and see their response to the music, and try to make them respond in their way. Everyone is so different, that’s what makes it interesting for an audience.

“What’s nice about Swan Lake is that, especially in Act II, it hasn’t really been changed. The same in Beauty, very little has been changed. When you do the classics, it’s very interesting how the choreography fits perfectly to the music. It’s structured in such a wonderful way, so that the music leads you on. The solo in Act II – it’s all there.”

Grey grew up with productions by Nicholas Sergeyev, who had been régisseur at the Maryinsky Theatre until 1918. When he fl ed the Russian revolution, he brought his precious notations of the 19th-century classics, staging productions for the Ballets Russes and for the young Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Grey remembers his 1939 staging of The Sleeping Beauty, his last production for the company. “I was just too young to be a page, I was broken-hearted. I’ve always tried to restage his version. It’s very like Kenneth MacMillan’s, they’re practically the same.”

Sergeyev also taught Grey as a child: “He used to call me Barrel Grey, I would get so cross! I had him twice a week from the age of ten, for two years, until the war came. He was terribly strict. He’d have his little cane, and if your knee wasn’t straight – it wouldn’t be allowed now, health and safety.”

Dame Beryl Grey coaching Daria Klimentova in Giselle in 2011. Photograph: Patrick Baldwin.

The world of ballet has changed a great deal in Grey’s lifetime. “Dancers are well looked-after now. They have good, sprung stages, they don’t have to dance in unheated theatres, they have masseurs and physios there. Dancers deserve it. You train so many years to get into a company. If the company can look after you, that’s right. Then it does its best to nurture you and bring you on. It’s much better.

“Make-up’s changed, too. They wear much less – too little, really. We used to have these great sticks of make-up. You melted hot black over a candle, in a spoon, and put little drops on the end of your eyelashes. They wouldn’t allow that now, would they?

“The first time I saw the company with make-up was when Queen Elizabeth, as she then was, came in 1937 to Madam’s first night of Checkmate. I was chosen, as the youngest girl in the school, to give a bouquet. I was taken backstage, and there were all these people made up for Checkmate. Not only was the normal make-up much heavier anyway, the Checkmate make-up was really exaggerated. Terrific, absolutely wonderful. It made a great impact on me.”

The Black Queen in Checkmate was to become one of Grey’s great roles, showing off her strength and long line. “I helped Darcey [Bussell] with Checkmate, though I must say, when she did it on stage, she didn’t do everything I’d given her. When people have done something in one way, it’s very difficult if you come in and say ‘That step isn’t quite right.’ Ninette was so precise about her work, in all her ballets. She had everything worked out – where your eyes went, your hands, your fingers. You didn’t feel you were contributing at all. Very, very controlled – which was really a hallmark of her life. When I became director [of London Festival Ballet, from1968–79], I understood her much more.

“Ninette used to be very funny. I remember the first Giselle we [the Sadler’s Wells Ballet] ever did at Covent Garden, we were all standing there in our second-act costumes, and she came with scissors and clipped them all. Joyce, the wardrobe mistress – her face! But she was right – in the end, Ninette was nearly always right. And again, you know, she wanted to do everything herself. Every costume.”

George Balanchine was another perfectionist. In 1950, Grey had a great success in his Ballet Imperial. “Exhausting ballets, we used to say that Balanchine dancers would die young! He was lovely. Very demanding. His teaching was different to ours, so that was a bit off-putting, trying to do the right thing for him. For instance, in grand jété, we were always told to land in a fondu on a flat foot. He wanted you to land on half-pointe. That threw you. And nothing less than perfection, as near perfection as you could go. That’s why they’re great people, great artists. If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it well. You can’t just play at things.” Grey also remembers telling Balanchine when she got engaged. “It was in the wings at Covent Garden. He said, ‘Silly girl! Silly girl! Career first.’” She laughs: “I was very depressed! And how many times did he marry?” Grey’s own marriage to the osteopath Sven Gustav Svenson lasted for almost 60 years, until her husband’s death in 2008. Grey is still closely involved with the world of dance, with leading companies, teaching organisations – including the British Ballet Organization, for whom she is patron. She speaks warmly of young dancers, from professionals to the students she teaches. “When I dream I’m dancing, everything’s so easy, it’s wonderful. In reality, it’s much, much harder. When children say they want to be ballet dancers, the parents don’t know what dedication the child is going to have. You’ve really got to want to do it, more than anything else in the world. I do think the dancers today are much more aware of moving. In the olden days, you went to festivals, and they were so stuck. Now they do seem to move. It’s so nice. Dance is about movement.”

This interview first appeared in the June 2011 issue of Dancing Times

Main image: Dame Beryl Grey coaching Daria Klimentova in Giselle in 2011. Photograph: Patrick Baldwin.

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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