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The Royal Ballet at 75

About 500 members gather to reflect on its glorious past and its uncertain future.

April 25, 2006|Daniel Gesmer | Special to The Times

LONDON — Franklin White joined England's Ballet Rambert in 1939, at age 15, and in 1941 moved to the Sadler's Wells Ballet, which Ninette de Valois had founded in 1931 as the Vic-Wells Ballet. During World War II, he rehearsed by day, performed by evening, and by night -- against his director's wishes, and having lied about his age -- served as an air raid warden and dispatch rider, watching for incoming German bombs and sprinting around London on a bicycle to dig out bodies both living and dead, human and animal.

The Sadler's Wells became the Royal Ballet in 1956, and White eventually danced major roles alongside Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. But he continued taking the road less traveled. Instead of riding the company train during tours of the U.S., he drove a rented car to explore the countryside.

Since 1966, White has been a full-time resident of America -- performing, restaging old works, and teaching classical mime and stage combat. But over the weekend, he returned to London for the 75th anniversary reunion of the company he spent nearly three decades with.

He was one of about 500 past and present members who converged from around the world for the gathering Sunday in the Royal Opera House's Floral Hall. They included not just dancers and choreographers but composers, designers and administrative staff.

The event underscored a challenge that faces most large ballet companies today and for which White's life serves as a metaphor: balancing tradition and innovation, respect and risk, custom and daring. It was also a poignant opportunity for reflection on bygone days.

"This is probably the last time I'll see an awful lot of these people," said White, who now lives in Morgantown, W.Va., and had reached his mid-30s by the time the Royal came into being.

"After the death of [Ballets Russes impresario Sergei] Diaghilev [in 1929], Dame Ninette decided that ballet on the whim of voluntary money is not the way a civilized country should treat one of its essential elements," he recalled. "There was only one guarantee: to get the 'Royal' seal on the company, which made it a part of England."

Former ballerina Beryl Grey, who made her stage debut in 1941, remembered that the group had "started with only six dancers, just helping out in the Opera initially, then dancing every other night in Sadler's Wells."

John Tooley, director of the Royal Opera House from 1970 to 1988, reflected on how quickly things evolved: "Already in 1949, the company was receiving world acclaim for its performance of 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. But that did not prejudice the development of a unique English style of dancing and choreography."

Sunday's party was a paradoxically youthful gathering -- most attendees had slim, trim bodies and unusually good posture that suggested far fewer than their years. Many old colleagues had trouble recalling one another's names. But "lots of laughter, fond memories and a great deal of love is circulating," said David Wall, a principal dancer from 1968 to 1984.

One of De Valois' maxims was "Respect the past, look to the future, and mine the present." In this spirit, current artistic director Monica Mason, a former principal dancer who called Sunday "the best party I've ever been to," chose the company's youngest member, 18-year-old Demelza Parish, to cut the cake.

All seemed to agree that innovation is the lifeblood of a ballet company and that the Royal's success was built on an early and sustained period of daring creativity. As Wall observed, "When De Valois started, the company had no repertory to draw on apart from 'Swan Lake,' 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'Giselle.' Everything else was a new creation."

These days, controversy brews, albeit quietly and politely, over whether the Royal is striking the proper balance between creativity and conservation. Said Bruce Sansom, a principal dancer from 1987 to 2000 and now director of London's Central School of Ballet: "The company continued to be an innovator for many decades. But a tipping point came when it had to start reproducing the rep it had created to such a degree that new creations became the subsidiary element. With every decade, it becomes harder to cater to everybody. Can the company be a significant player again in evolutionary terms?"

Wall recalled that Kenneth MacMillan, artistic director from 1970 to 1977 and then principal choreographer until his death in 1992, worked on such ballets as "Manon" (1974) and "Mayerling" (1978) over the course of a year. But according to first soloist Deirdre Chapman, a 32-year-old from Minneapolis in her fourth year with the Royal, it "has funding but actually not a lot of time. It puts on 12 programs per year. There aren't many weeks left where the dancers have enough energy and creativity to help inspire a choreographer to make something amazing."

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