Feature: Jonathan Ollivier Obituary (1977-2015)

Tuesday 18 August 2015 by Graham Watts

Jonathan Ollivier (1977-2015)

One Saturday evening, during the mid-1990s, several million people had their first sight of Jonathan Ollivier dancing. Together with Theo Clinkard, Lydia Wharf and Emma Campbell, he performed a brief and gentle pas de quatre on The Generation Game, the Saturday evening game show that had people trying to copy an expert activity, usually with hilarious – and often messy – consequences. It fell to Ollivier to have the honour of speaking to the show’s host, Jim Davidson (who – true to form – made much innuendo out of The Nutcracker, the music to which they danced). “What tip do you have for our contestants?” asked Davidson; “…just smile when it all goes wrong”, responded the fresh-faced, pony-tailed Ollivier, with a cheeky grin.

At the time, Ollivier was a student at the Rambert School and also in his year was Tanja Liedtke, a dancer and choreographer who went on to perform to great acclaim with DV8 before being appointed as artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company. Tragically, Liedtke never got to take up the role, being killed when struck by a truck while out for an early morning walk, along the Pacific Highway, in Sydney, on 17 August 2007.

Just a week short of eight years’ later (on Sunday, 9 August), Ollivier was also killed on the road; the victim of a collision between his motorcycle and a car at a road junction in Clerkenwell, not far from Sadler’s Wells. He was on his way to the theatre, to prepare for his role as Luca, the handsome, sinister drifter at the centre of Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, which was about to end a hugely successful four-week summer season. In the grip of these tragic events, his fellow cast members were unable to perform and the final sell-out show was cancelled. News reports on the day of the accident stated that the driver of a black Mercedes car had been arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving.

Jonathan Ollivier was born in Northampton, on 26 April 1977, the youngest of four children and the only boy. After a failed attempt at Irish dancing, he took up ballet lessons when his sisters’ dance teacher offered to have him in her class so that his mother could go about the weekly shopping. He dealt with the ritual bullying of the “boy who does ballet” at school and on the housing estate where he lived with his parallel training in karate, where he progressed to black belt standard. Before long, he had decided upon a professional dance career and although unsuccessful in his audition for The Royal Ballet School, he achieved a place at the Rambert School in Twickenham, thus opening up a more diverse range of training.

Ollivier left full-time dance school to go straight into a job at Cape Town City Ballet, in 1996 (just a few months after that Generation Game appearance), where he worked for three years, before returning to the UK to join Northern Ballet Theatre (now Northern Ballet). His dance partner in Cape Town, Desiré Samaai, was also now his wife (they married in 1999) and she joined him at the Leeds-based company. I first saw Ollivier performing in David Nixon’s Wuthering Heights – in 2002 – where he gave a scintillating portrayal of the dark, rugged charisma of Heathcliff (alongside Charlotte Talbot’s Cathy).

Ollivier brought his commanding stage presence to bear upon a host of narrative ballets in the NBT repertoire, such as Lysander in Nixon’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and in creating the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (by Didy Veldman and Patricia Doyle). Other ballets in his repertoire at the time were Dracula (in versions by both David Nixon and Michael Pink); Massimo Moricone’s Romeo and Juliet (in which he danced both Romeo and Tybalt); Jekyll and Hyde (playing the evil alter-ego, Hyde); the Prince in Swan Lake; and (together with his wife) as the leads in Veronica Paeper’s La Traviata. During his seven year stint with NBT, Ollivier was twice nominated for a National Dance Award, in successive years: in 2002 for Outstanding Young Male Artist; and, again in 2003, for Best Male Dancer, losing out to Carlos Acosta. In 2006, Ollivier was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the University of Northampton, alongside the composer, Sir Malcolm Arnold and the fashion designer, Ben de Lisi.

After a brief spell with Alberta Ballet in Canada, Ollivier returned to the UK to embark on a successful freelance career, which included a season dancing with Michael Clark (New Work 2012) and in the UK tour of Dirty Dancing. Matthew Bourne cast him in the iconic role of Speight for his Play Without Words and he then took on the iconic dual role of the Swan and the Stranger for the New Adventures’ tour of Bourne’s Swan Lake, a performance which drew strong critical acclaim, notably in the USA.

Tributes flowed across social media in the hours and days following his death. Matthew Bourne wrote that Ollivier was “..one of the most charismatic and powerful dancers of his generation…An intensely masculine presence tempered with tenderness and vulnerability….”. His director at Northern Ballet Theatre, David Nixon, said that “Jon’s legacy will live on through the memories of his performances and through the roles which he created”. And, Marcello Gomes – principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, with whom Ollivier and Chris Trenfield were sharing the role of Luca in The Car Man – wrote: “Majestic, powerful and charismatic….You have inspired and taught me beyond words”. Trenfield wrote: “Such an amazing performer and top bloke! It was an honour to learn from you and to work alongside you”.

Bourne summed up the sentiment of all who knew Ollivier in the dance world and beyond when he wrote:

“A man of great warmth and charm, Jonny was a true gent, loved and respected by his colleagues and adored by audiences who were mesmerised by his memorable performances on stage as well as his friendly and genuine personality at the stage door. He was also an inspiration and role model to several generations of young dancers who strived to emulate his enviable technique and majestic stage presence”.

Speaking of her memories about filming The Generation Game all those years ago, while posting a clip of the sequence on social media, Lydia Wharf said: “…a precious memory of Jon being all the things I knew him to be – charming, sweet and twinkly-eyed…even faced with Jim Davidson”. His male counterpart on that occasion, Theo Clinkard (now working with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch) simply described Ollivier as a “…gentle hero…taken too soon”.

Ollivier was father to two sons. Lucas (now 6) with his former wife, Desireé (they divorced in 2011); and – with his new partner, Caroline – Isaac, who was just nine months’ old at the time of his father’s death.

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