Feature: An Afternoon with Dame Antoinette Sibley
Renowned English ballerina Dame Antoinette Sibley trained at the Royal Ballet School before joining the Royal Ballet in 1956. She was celebrated for the lyricism and musicality of her dancing and was especially praised for her partnership with Anthony Dowell. From 1991 Sibley became President of the Royal Academy of Dance until she retired in 2012.
The London Jewish Cultural Centre’s tribute to Dame Antoinette Sibley (Sunday 2 February) began with a montage of photos from her extraordinary career, which left both her and interviewer Clement Crisp in tears before they came onstage reports Laura Dodge….
The Financial Times dance critic Clement Crisp remembered Antoinette Sibley’s first major performance, when she danced Swanhilda in Coppélia for a Royal Ballet School (RBS) performance. She had just joined the company and was working her very hard rehearsing all day and performing every night, but Ninette de Valois insisted she learn the role in her spare time. When Sibley said she didn’t have any spare time, de Valois told her to come in at 8am every day, so that’s what she did.
“We were always thrown in the deep end in those days!” At 18 or 19, Sibley similarly had only ten days to learn Odette/Odile from Swan Lake. She performed in Golders Green and “it seemed to go all right”, but then she got a phone call on Saturday morning to say she would have to do that night’s Covent Garden performance.
“The press were saying lots of ‘a star is born’ nonsense – all very theatrical. My parents had a restaurant where I used to work on Sundays so that’s where I was when they came to find me the next day!”
Sibley described her generation of dancers as “spoilt” in terms of teachers. At the Royal Ballet School, she was taught by the “most wonderful” Winifred Edwards who was “strict, firm, pure and classical”. Sibley continued to take private lessons with her after graduating. Pamela May was another a teacher at the RBS, and was very glamorous and feminine with long red fingernails. “She taught me how to use shoulders and to move.”
Sibley also worked with Tamara Karsavina to demonstrate ballet technique in a series of articles for Dancing Times. “It was unbelievable that she chose me. I worked with her for months and think a little bit of her genius rubbed off.” Karsarvina taught Sibley the mad scene from Giselle, which she performed for the rest of her career in a variety of different productions of the ballet.
Crisp described Sibley as the epitome of classical English ballet style and highlighted several roles in which she excelled. As Dorabella in Enigma Variations, he described a “clarity of performance and interpretation that described everything about her as an artist”. Sibley explained that the role was one of Frederick Ashton’s favourites: “He always used to call me Dorabella!”
Sibley created several ballets with Ashton. She remembered when she was first cast in The Dream alongside Anthony Dowell. “We thought we were the lovers and then we started the pas de deux and it was clearly not human. But no one ever told us we were Titania and Oberon.”
Dowell hadn’t done much pas de deux before, but Sibley had worked with several partners. “With Anthony, it was totally natural. I didn’t have to ask anything. Everyone hears music differently but we heard it the same way. His height was also exactly right for when I was on pointe. It was extraordinary. Anthony hadn’t really worked with anyone else so he thought this was normal.”
Sibley described creating the title character in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. At the end of the 1973 season, she was dancing performing The Sleeping Beauty and went to the stage to watch some of the Prologue. When she came back to her dressing room, there was a book awaiting her.
Inside, MacMillan had written: “Darling Antoinette, some holiday reading which will come in handy for 7 March 1974.” The book was of both Carmen and Manon Lescaut, so whilst Sibley performed the Rose Adage, Dowell went running around backstage to find out which story MacMillan would be transforming into ballet.
They started rehearsing Manon in September and created four of the ballet’s five pas de deux in two weeks before she and Dowell flew to Australia to guest. “Kenneth was so inspired… and it was lucky; I got very ill after that. The pas de deux are exquisite. They’re breath-taking.”
Crisp then moved on to discuss the “sublime, untouchable and beautiful artistry” of Sibley’s performance in Meditation from Thaïs.
Sibley and Dowell had just three rehearsals to put the pas de deux together and were so relieved that nothing went wrong in performance. The audience loved it and were applauding madly, so when Ashton took a curtain call, he asked if they wanted to see it performed again. They did of course, and Crisp described that it worked just as well a second time.
Sibley feels privileged she could work with such amazing choreographers. “Both Fred and Kenneth had a deep love and understanding for dancers. They could draw out of everyone their best qualities. Both were unbelievable to work with. And there was Cranko too, who was amazing. We were surrounded by geniuses.
“Fred corrected me a lot. However much I was using my shoulders or leaning my body, it was never enough. He was poking me all the time trying to get me to be more like Anna Pavlova!”
Crisp finished the afternoon by thanking Sibley for her “absolutely stunning” performances and she expressed gratitude to have adulation from the greatest critic. “It’s reasons like this” he explained, “that keep me going”.
Laura Dodge writes for Dancing Times, Dance Today, Londonist, Bachtrack, amongst other publications. She is also Communications and Membership Officer at Dance UK and a freelance dance teacher.
Photo F.A., courtsey Royal Academy of Dance
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