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Modern dancers overworked? We just don't buy it, say grandes dames of British ballet: Gillian Lynne and Beryl Grey recall long days with Fonteyn in Covent Garden

February 13, 2014

Dalya Alberge

Two grandes dames of classical ballet have ridiculed repeated claims that today's dancers are driven to exhaustion and starvation and say pushing them to the limit is the nature of the art.

Gillian Lynne and Beryl Grey, both now in their 80s, danced alongside Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer in Covent Garden almost 70 years ago. In an interview before an appearance at the Ealing Music and Film Valentine Festival in London, the two - who have been friends since beginning dance classes aged four - also criticised contemporary performances that focus on technical acrobatics at the expense of emotion and acting on stage.

There is concern in the industry about gruelling schedules, eating disorders and pressure on dancers to stay unnaturally thin. But Lynne, 87, a leading soloist who became one of the UK's foremost choreographers, said: "Dancers should be pushed. That way you find out the brilliant ones, you strengthen their techniques and their stamina."

Emphasising that ballet is not a "soft touch", Lynne said: "I don't buy this new thing that everybody says they're overworked. Dance is a hard world. You can't be pushed enough. I've always had to watch my food. There's nothing wrong with it. Most dancers want to be slim. Quite honestly, dancers have to diet. You have to be underweight."

Grey, 86, one of the UK's greatest prima ballerinas, said: "The more you perform, work and rehearse, the stronger you get." She added that it was much more comfortable now for dancers, as companies have health departments, masseurs and physiotherapists. She said: "For the man in the street, a ballet dancer is worked very hard. But we didn't have any of that in the war. We just danced and enjoyed every minute."

Dancers can almost be too cosseted, she feels: "Dance is all about energy. The more you dance, the more you build up that strength and resilience to accidents. You have to be careful not just to roll up to a masseur the moment you've got a tight calf or something."

Grey, below right, acknowledged the technical abilities of today's dancers, but added: "There doesn't seem to be as much depth of spirit and soul. It's much more acrobatic. People want to see millions of pirouettes and legs going remarkably high. It's a bit more like a circus, and the depth of feeling that one tried to express [previously] isn't always there. You find it in one or two dancers. I think it reflects society. We're a much more superficial society . . . Even though art does reflect its age, I would love to see less accent perhaps on technique and more feeling. I often come away impressed [with] what I've seen, but it hasn't moved me."

Lynne ridiculed health and safety restrictions on dance: "There's an awful lot of holding back now which I don't agree with. The theatre is about danger, risk and excitement." She recalled dancing 14 hours a day: "In our day, we rehearsed all day at Hammersmith town hall. We didn't have rehearsal rooms like [today]. Then we leapt on the tube, staggered to Covent Garden and collapsed for a bit."

She told her father that they never got a rest, and he bought her a good mattress. "We were allowed 10 minutes on it each," she said. "We had this wonderful cockney dresser. 'Right, Ms Lynne, you've had your 10.' They've got green rooms now, darling. They've got lovely places and cafes. I'm only saying that it was possible to do without [facilities]."

Lynne, pictured below left, a leading soloist with Sadler's Wells Ballet, subsequently the Royal Ballet, and the star dancer at the London Palladium, later achieved worldwide fame as a choreographer, with hit shows including Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

Grey had a glittering career as a ballerina. After the Royal Ballet, she became the first English dancer to guest with the Kirov and Bolshoi ballet companies. She went on to hold important posts, including artistic director of London Festival Ballet, now the English National Ballet, and vice chairwoman of the governors of the Royal Ballet.

They will appear in Ealing today and on Saturday respectively and will be interviewed on stage by Tony Palmer, artistic director of the festival, which pays tribute to Fonteyn, an Ealing girl. The programme recalls the 1946 staging of Sleeping Beauty that reopened Covent Garden after the war, precisely 68 years ago this week. The dancers included Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann and Shearer, as well as Lynne and Grey, who recalled that staging - and idolising Fonteyn.

Despite their supreme skill, they earned a pittance compared with today. Grey said: "We started on pounds 14.50 a week. When I left I was only earning pounds 18 [about 2.5 times the UK average wage in 1946]. We were just so thrilled to be doing what we wanted."


Beryl Grey with John Field in a 1950 production of Sleeping Beauty. Grey became the first English dancer to guest for the Bolshoi Photograph: Raymond Kleboe/Getty Images

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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