Celebrating Dame Beryl’s 90th birthday , this fascinating book was recently released by Oberon Books. It blends the story of twentieth century English ballet told from the point of view of one of its leaders and person memoir. Dame Beryl uses her extensive diaries as a base and also acknowledges the assistance of archivist Jane Pritchard .
Dame Beryl’s life is defined by her love of dance. Both as a ballerina and an Artistic Director she helped make British ballet the world renowned force it is today. Knowing and working with virtually everyone in the dance world, she reveals fascinating insights into the people, characters, and institutions that made up world dance in the 20th century.
Dame Beryl records vividly her relationship with Dame Ninette de Valois, (Madam’s mood changes and temper), and what it was like to work with Wilfred Stiff, John Gilpin and others.
We learn how she managed to navigate the tricky change from ballerina to administrator and leader of a major ballet company.
Dame Beryl began her dancing career with what was then called the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) in 1943 at the remarkably early age of 14. Her natural virtuosity and war time saw her quickly promoted, dancing her first Giselle at 17, and Princess Aurora at 19. Dame Beryl was the first English ballerina to dance at the Bolshoi and the Kirov (Marinsky) as well as the Peking Ballet.
Dame Beryl’s approach is mostly strictly chronological, starting with her birth into a happy and loving family, which a strong work ethic, religious faith (she now follows Sant Mat) and the utmost respect for authority and British institutions.
Part One describes in detail her dancing life, as she quickly worked her way up through the ranks of the Sadler’s Wells company, becoming a principal of the Royal Ballet, before going freelance and independent career, which led to her becoming the first Western ballerina to guest with the Bolshoi Ballet among other things, plus performances in China.
Dramatically ,among other things, we read of how she managed to complete a series of double pirouettes in a wartime theatre just as a bomb exploded, missed a revolution in Guatamala by just one day and avoided an earthquake in Mexico by only two hours.
Part Two examines in detail her time as Director of Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet) from 1968-1979, the backstage dramas and machinations: the venomous backstabbing and chaos behind the scenes is described in in detail. The book mostly goes up to roughly the mid 1980’s.
Dame Beryl has been President of English National Ballet since 2005. She is also Life President of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD), President of the British Ballet Organisation, Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Dance, Music Therapy Charity and British and International Federation of Festivals. She is Chairman of the Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund, Patron of the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards, and has five honorary degrees. In February this year Dame Beryl received the De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards.
In her book we see the particular difficulties faced by dancers in blending family life with a performing career: Dame Beryl had to miss her grandmother’s funeral because she was on tour, and she was unable to visit her mother in hospital the night before she unexpectedly died, following an operation from which she appeared to be recovering.
The dilemmas she faces balancing her career and her (very happy) marriage are a constant theme, her love of dance shining through.
Dame Beryl comments about rivalries with other dancers, billing, competing for roles, the creation of roles and working with various choreographers and dance partners. She also describes the hazards of touring with a big ballet company and in small concerts after she left the Royal Ballet. Also mentioned is the lost opportunity to play Princess Katherine in Laurence Olivier’s movie version of Henry VI as de Valois refused permission for her to do so.
Dame Beryl also however mentions how rewarding it had been to dance the second ballerina role in George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial .
Particularly in the second half of the book there is much mention of the temperamental, volcanic superstar Rudolf Nureyev and the problems and dramas she had with him. She describes his “black moods”, “tantrums” and “truculent, offensive behaviour”.
“As a great artist and a fantastic producer, he was an inspiration for our dancers, but I detested his foul language, rudeness and unpredictable bad moods.”
In Part Two, writes about her time as Artistic Director of Festival Ballet, events at times sound more like a TV show rather than real life as we learn the men that are after her job conspire behind her back. Luckily at that that time Dame Beryl was not ousted, and she remained to bring her company productions including Mary Skeaping’s Giselle, Leonid Massine’s Le Beau Danube and Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty, along with new works by choreographers such as Ronald Hynd.
Dame Beryl points out successes and failures, gruelling international tours (including Australia) and, emphasising conflicts and naming names, giving readers an insight into the internal structure and the organisational and power relationships and bitter hidden struggles within the Company at that time.
We learn of her disappointments (she regrets growing too tall to be partnered regularly by Robert Helpmann, and at the Royal Ballet she constantly had to struggle for recognition – she does not hide her bitterness at always being in the ‘second eleven’ and Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer getting more opportunities than she did), but she discusses a varied , distinguished and most remarkable glittering career, which has also included writing (Dame Beryl is the author of two other books) and broadcasting – both radio and TV.
The book concludes with her memories of being created a Dame.
For Australians there are lots of fascinating references to Sir Robert Helpmann, Dame Peggy van Praagh and Maina Gielgud (all three became Artistic Directors of the Australian Ballet at various times) , Kelvin Coe and Barry Moreland .New Zealand links are also mentioned with Philip Chatfield and Rowena Jackson .
There are 30 pages of photos (both black and white and colour) and a well tabulated, extensive index. The book itself is of medium size but quite thick. Dame Beryl writes at times rather tersely and the chapters are mostly divided into short sections of a few pages.
This was a vibrant and absorbing memoir.
Publisher : Oberon Books
Page extent: 400