The renowned dancer Dame Beryl Grey, one of the great pioneering forces in British ballet, has died at the age of 95. The Royal Ballet announced the news on Twitter on Saturday and said she had been a “commanding figure” since her Swan Lake debut aged 15. English National Ballet tweeted that she would be “remembered for her significant legacy and immeasurable contribution to the artform”. The organisation bbodance said that Grey, who was their president, was a “truly wonderful ballerina who will be sorely missed by us all”.
A teenage prodigy, Grey rose to fame at the Royal Ballet which she left in 1957 to pursue an international career as a freelance ballerina. Grey 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 Peking Ballet in 1964). Later she was appointed artistic director of London Festival Ballet (1968-79), transforming the fortunes of the company which became English National Ballet.
She joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) at the age of 14, famously performed Odette and Odile in Swan Lake on her 15th birthday and took on other demanding roles such as the eponymous heroine in Giselle when she was 16. She later produced and directed versions of both those ballets – Swan Lake for London Festival Ballet and Giselle for Western Australian Ballet – as well as The Sleeping Beauty for Royal Swedish Ballet.
Swan Lake remained her personal favourite but she won acclaim for her many other roles at the Royal Ballet’s home of Covent Garden and beyond. She was the Lilac Fairy opposite Margot Fonteyn’s Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and later danced Aurora too; she played the Black Queen in Ninette de Valois’s one-act ballet Checkmate; the Nightingale in Robert Helpmann’s The Birds, set to the suite by Ottorino Respighi; Ophelia opposite Helpmann’s Hamlet; the seductive Duessa in Frederick Ashton’s The Quest and the lead in Ashton’s Les Rendezvous; as well as the lead in Mikhail Fokine’s Les Sylphides.
Taller than most of her female colleagues, Grey was over 6ft 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 ran the Royal Ballet and oversaw Grey’s rise through the ranks, once declared that Grey had “all the gifts”.
An only child, Grey was born in London on 11 June 1927. She went to dance classes with her two cousins at Sherborne Preparatory School where her tutor was Madeleine Sharp. In Grey’s autobiography, For the Love of Dance, published in 2017, she credited Sharp’s huge role in developing her talent and thanked her for “her keen eye and financial support”.
Grey gave her first performance aged three at the local pub, dancing in the celebrations on New Year’s Eve. Her father set up a barre and a mirror for her in the family home and she took up a scholarship at the Vic-Wells ballet school where De Valois changed her birth name of Groom to Grey. In 1941 she made her professional debut with Sadler’s Wells Ballet in the corps of Giselle. During the second world war she toured Britain with the company, gaining greater prominence and understudying its superstar Margot Fonteyn. After the war, she toured the US with the company and eventually gave her last performance with the Royal in 1957, playing Odette and Odile again.
She kickstarted her freelance career with a tour of South America and she had new works choreographed for her by John Cranko and Audrey De Vos. Over the next years she performed far and wide with various companies including London Festival Ballet. There was huge interest in her momentous first performance with the Bolshoi in Swan Lake which was shown on television. In her memoir she remembered: “The exhilaration of performing with a 120-strong orchestra … carried and uplifted me into a magical world. Whenever I hear that soul-rending Tchaikovsky music now it takes me instantly back to Russia and my incredible time with those wonderful artists.”
Taking over as artistic director of London Festival Ballet was, she said, an unexpected change of direction. She helped bring about a change in the fortunes of the company which had suffered mounting debts. Under Grey’s direction it established regular seasons at the London Coliseum and moved to new headquarters in South Kensington. It also attracted major talents such as Rudolf Nureyev, Léonide Massine and Eva Evdokimova. Nureyev’s new version of Romeo and Juliet, created for the company in 1977, was among the valuable additions to its repertoire. In 1978, Nureyev and Grey visited the White House on the company’s US tour.
Honoured with a CBE in 1973, Grey became a dame in 1988. She was named president of English National Ballet in 2005 and remained committed to dance education and sharing her vast knowledge of the artform with others. She received the De Valois award for outstanding achievement at the 2016 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards. The following year she underwent an operation for bowel cancer.
Grey was married to the osteopath Sven Svenson, who died in 2008. Together they had a son, Ingvar.
“I’ve been very lucky,” she said in 2019. “It’s been a lovely life. Dance meant everything to me. Dancing is a very personal expression of happiness.”