Dame Beryl Grey’s autobiography is both a personal memoir and the story of twentieth century English ballet told from the point of view of one of its leaders. It is fascinating to compare Peter Wright’s Wrights & Wrongs, which covers a similar ground, yet is utterly different; both writers have outlived most of their contemporaries, but Grey seems much the more discreet of the two.

Grey’s approach is chronological, starting with her birth into a happy and loving family, which instilled religious faith, a strong work ethic and respect for authority and British institutions (she is an unabashed royalist). Part One describes in detail her dancing life, as she quickly worked her way up through the ranks of the Sadler’s Wells company, becoming a principal of the Royal Ballet, before launching herself on an independent career, which included becoming the first Western ballerina to guest with the Bolshoi Ballet. Part Two covers her time as Director of Festival Ballet.

Grey draws heavily on her diaries (although she also acknowledges the assistance of archivist Jane Pritchard), which gives an immediacy to her account, the narrative unfolding just as she experienced it. And what experiences they were! They range from the terrible disappointment of missing the RAD scholarship audition because she had mumps, or completing a series of double pirouettes in a wartime theatre just as a bomb exploded, to avoiding a revolution in Guatamala by just one day and an earthquake in Mexico by only two hours.

Thoughout the book, we see the particular difficulties faced by dancers in combining family life with a performing career: Grey missed her dearly loved grandmother’s burial because she was on tour, and even more tragically she was unable to visit her mother in hospital the night before she unexpectedly died, following an operation from which she appeared to be recovering. The dilemmas she faces balancing her career and her (very happy) marriage are a constant theme, but her commitment to offering an audience the best possible performance shines through on every page, whether she herself is dancing, or whether she is overseeing its technical and artistic aspects. Grey knew or worked with many of the major figures in the dance world during the twentieth century, and fully understands all aspects of ballet production, making comments such as, ‘It is rarely understood that only the best musicians conduct ballet well’.

Grey’s way of recording events as she saw them happen reveals the pettiness and duplicity of some of her colleagues without the need for her to comment on their characters. In Part Two, about her time as Artistic Director of Festival Ballet, the tale sometimes seems like a soap opera, as the men that are after her job conspire behind her back. When her administrator gives her a bouquet of flowers and invites her to dinner, you want to scream, ‘Don’t trust him!’. Fortunately (that time) Grey was not ousted, and she stayed on to bring the company ballets such as Mary Skeaping’s Giselle, Leonid Massine’s Le Beau Danube and Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty, along with new works by choreographers such as Ronald Hynd.

There were certainly disappointments (she regrets growing too tall to be partnered regularly by Robert Helpmann, and at the Royal Ballet she had to struggle for recognition), but this was a remarkable and distinguished career, which also embraced writing and broadcasting. The book is filled with surprising anecdotes, such as listening to a gramophone by night in the sulphurous smelling Spa at Harrogate when there were no digs to be had in the town, or Moira Shearer massaging her legs with a rubber roller to get into shape for The Red Shoes. The volume includes 30 pages of photographs and an index, and is attractively bound in purple with gold lettering and illustrated endpapers; thinking ahead to December, it will make a lovely Christmas present for anyone interested in the history of English ballet.

Maggie Watson

17 September 2017

For the Love of Dance: my autobiography, by Dame Beryl Grey, Oberon Books, 2017

You can buy this book here