Feature: Scottish Ballet - Forty Years

Tuesday 29 September 2009

!! Scottish Ballet – Forty years by Mary Brennan ***Pulisher:* Saraband. 192pp. Hardback ***RRP: £25.00 – or £21 via Scottish Ballet’s online shop

*There’s still a chance to win a copy in our competition* *

R*eviewed by Graham Watts*

By a strange quirk of fate, I find myself reviewing this excellent new book, published to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Scottish Ballet, on precisely the sixth anniversary of a night in Edinburgh of which I have vivid and very warm recollections. On 25 September 2003, I was fortunate to be amongst the guests at the rebirth of Scottish Ballet under its new artistic director, Ashley Page, firstly in a performance at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre and then at a splendid after-show party in the Assembly Rooms. It was a well-ordered and successful programme of modern dance (works by Richard Alston, Siobhan Davies, Stephen Petronio and Page himself), which set out the new director’s stall for his company as an interpreter of innovative modern work. Scottish Ballet had been in hibernation for nine months, while Page established his strategy and assimilated many new dancers with those he had kept on. On the evidence of that first night, I said, at the time, that Scottish Ballet had a ‘fascinating journey ahead to a bright new future, founded on clearly articulated artistic integrity…. which fully deserves to succeed’.

No-one can possibly doubt that success has followed on from that night and reading Mary Brennan’s loving account of how her national ballet company has survived many significant financial and political pressures to emerge, even in these difficult economic times, as a national ballet company that ‘Scotland could enjoy at home and be proud of abroad’, appropriately admired and supported by its government and the very recent occupiers of a new purpose-built home in Glasgow’s Tramway. But, life has not always been so good for the company that Peter Darrell created in 1969 by moving the residue of the Western Ballet Theatre, lock-stock-and-barrel, from its previous base in Bristol to become Scotland’s first resident classical ballet company.

The subsequent 40 years have brought tragedy, not least in the sudden death of Darrell himself, aged just 58, and ongoing financial uncertainty; Brennan’s account is punctuated by examples of productions which were conceived but not implemented due to a lack of funds (such as Darrell’s aborted Pirates of Penzance for which only some tantalising pre-production publicity shots remain). But they are also characterised by an extraordinary community that was so often enhanced by the genuine affection of great dancers from elsewhere: both Margot Fonteyn (into her late 50s) and Rudolf Nureyev regularly made guest appearances: after one such performance in La Sylphide, Nureyev was presented with a costume of full Highland Dress in Stuart Tartan but this authenticity couldn’t overcome Rudi’s predilection for his own peculiar turquoise tartan when he came to dance the role with the company once again in the following year! The supportive spirit of many other ballet greats is well illustrated amongst the eclectic photographic record where we see Beriosova, Markova and Mukhamedov in teaching and performance roles. At one of the company’s lowest ebbs, in 1997, when dancers were on the streets asking passers-by to sign petitions of support, and funding for the proposed Christmas production of *Aladdin* was withheld, the Birmingham Royal Ballet offered the ‘whole kit and caboodle’ of *La Fille Mal Gardée* to take its place and Wayne Sleep came to perform as the comic character, Alain.

The book also reminds us of the Company’s own talent down the years: we see Darrell’s muse, Elaine McDonald, and the extraordinary Noriko Ohara, who exemplified Scottish Ballet’s earliest years, and then we are reminded of the exceptional, sensual performances of Vincent Hantam in Nijinsky’s Spectre de la Rose. These reminiscences are easily fuelled by Brennan’s sharply-observed and very readable history, lavishly illustrated with almost 200 memorable images, both in production and rehearsal stills. It also includes a concise chronology of every production performed by the company since it all began with Laverne Meyer’s The Trojans in May 1969. Running through this well-ordered compendium brought back many fond memories even for a Sassenach (albeit one with a Scottish name) such as me!

More than anything, Brennan’s account convinces that Scottish Ballet is now in safe hands and the link from Darrell’s vision to Page’s clever custodianship is robust and clear. The book is beautifully produced and the photographs are universally excellent; it has the feel of being an expensive coffee-table book to exhibit, but with the substance of an engrossing account of Scottish Ballet’s development and the significance of being a serious aid to future reference.

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