Beryl Grey, Acclaimed British Ballerina, Is Dead at 95
LONDON — Beryl Grey, a British ballerina known for her theatrical glamour, exceptional technical ability and international appeal, died on Dec. 10. She was 95.
The English National Ballet confirmed the death in an announcement. It did not say where she died.
On Oct. 9, 1949, Ms. Grey, dancing the role of the Lilac Fairy in the Sadler’s Wells Ballet production of “The Sleeping Beauty” at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, helped make history. The occasion was the first night of the company’s appearance in America. It became especially famous for Margot Fonteyn’s performance as Princess Aurora. But even before Fonteyn’s entry, the troupe’s triumph had already been assured, above all by Ms. Grey, exhibiting her extraordinary range and warmth as both a dancer and an actress.
The Sadler’s Wells Ballet became a fixture in New York culture, making regular tours of North America but always starting at the Met. It raised the bar for all American ballet. And Ms. Grey captured particular attention, dancing not only as Lilac Fairy but also as the double heroine Odette-Odile in “Swan Lake” as well as in title roles as Giselle, Princess Aurora and others.
In 1957, Ms. Grey became the first European ballerina in the Soviet era to dance with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Performing as Odette-Odile, she won the admiration of Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi’s prima, and other leading Russian dancers. She went on to dance, to great acclaim, in Kyiv and Leningrad (St Petersburg). And in 1964, she was the first Western ballerina to dance in Communist China, in both Peking (as Beijing was then known in the West) and Shanghai.
In 1978, no longer dancing but as artistic director of the London Festival Ballet (today’s English National Ballet), Ms. Grey was part of another triumphant opening night in New York at the Met. This was when her company presented Rudolf Nureyev’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” with Nureyev as Romeo. She had commissioned the production in 1977, and it is still performed by companies today.
Beryl Elizabeth Groom was born on June 11, 1927, in Highgate, North London, to Arthur and Annie (Marshall) Groom. A child prodigy, she joined the Sadler’s Wells Ballet at 14, gave her first performance of Odette-Odile on her 15th birthday, and danced Giselle at 16. In a company where women tended to be petite, she, at just over 5-foot-6, was considered tall. More important, she danced tall, with a tremendous breadth of gesture and motion.
When the company moved to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in 1946, it reopened the old theater with a new staging of “Sleeping Beauty,” which, with gorgeously architectural designs by Oliver Messel, soon became a classic. Ms. Grey, still only 18, was the production’s original Lilac Fairy. More immediately than any other dancer in the company, she achieved opera-house scale with the sweep of her dancing and mime gestures. The radiant warmth of her personality made her a darling of those seated in “the gods,” the more remote top-circle seats.
When “Sleeping Beauty” opened at the Met, Ms. Grey made an immense impression on New York dance connoisseurs, not least for her double pirouettes with arms en couronne (held as a halo above and around the head). She embraced the New York dance world with enthusiasm, taking classes at the School of American Ballet with both Felia Doubrovska and George Balanchine.
When Balanchine went to Covent Garden in 1950 to stage his “Ballet Imperial” at Sadler’s Wells, he cast Ms. Grey in the work’s taxing soloist role. She achieved a more unequivocal success than Fonteyn in that part and later graduated to the lead, one of the most arduous but exhilarating in the Balanchine repertory.
In the course of her 20s Ms. Grey grew increasingly frustrated at receiving too few performances of the prima roles. In 1957, responding to international demand for guest appearances by her, she left Sadler’s Wells — the company had recently been renamed the Royal Ballet — a few months before her 30th birthday, though she would often returned as a guest until 1963.
The most prestigious of her guest appearances came in December 1957, when she danced in Moscow with the Bolshoi, then the world’s most sensational troupe, fresh from its own first Western appearances. Her Bolshoi partner, Yuri Kondratov, gave her new degrees of confidence. For the rest of her life Ms. Grey looked back on this engagement as the absolute peak of her stage career. Her Bolshoi Odette-Odile (it can be seen on YouTube) with its majestic sweep, bold freedom and audacious use of her entire torso, remains thrilling today.
Ms. Grey’s Russian appearances were in a land that had reason to be regarded as ballet’s home, but when she traveled to China in 1964, her performances involved a missionary element: She not only danced but also taught and staged the ballet “Les Sylphides.” She wrote books about her Russian and Chinese debuts: “Red Curtain Up” (1958) and “Behind the Bamboo Curtain” (1965).
During the 1960s, teaching became an increasingly important part of her work, remaining so for decades. Ms. Grey served as artistic director of the London Festival Ballet from 1968 to 1979, consolidating and developing the troupe, commissioning new ballets from international choreographers and important new productions of the 19th- and early 20th-century repertory, and hiring a broad selection of leading European principals.
In particular, she made Rudolf Nureyev, at once an inspiring and exasperating star dancer-choreographer, a frequent Festival Ballet guest. Often touring with the company and appearing with it in extended London seasons, Nureyev displayed behavior that could veer from the monstrous — he kicked one ballerina in the backside and destroyed a sculpture of himself in front of its creator — to the exhilarating.
In 1977, Nureyev created an entirely new, visually picturesque, dramatically clever and choreographically dense “Romeo and Juliet” for the company. The next year, he and the production brought Festival Ballet considerable acclaim when it made its debut in New York at the Met.
The following year, to his fury, the company toured China successfully without him. In her 2017 autobiography, “For the Love of Dance,” Ms. Grey, baffled by Nureyev’s mercurial nature, revealed how he had plotted (to no avail) to direct the company in her place and secretly machinated against her until she was ousted in a dancers’ referendum.
Her work in British ballet continued in other ways, as a teacher and an adviser, and she retained widespread affection and admiration. Mary Clarke, the longtime editor of the British magazine Dancing Times, once hailed her as “truly the people’s ballerina.”
Ms. Grey became a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1988 and a Commander of Honour in 2017.
She is survived by her son, Ingvar Svenson; and two grandchildren. Sven Svenson, her husband of 58 years, died in 2008.