THE BABY BALLERINA
Born Beryl Groom in Highgate, North London, to Annie and Arthur (‘Bob’) Groom. She was an only child. Bob was the front of house manager for Gosletts, a furniture firm based on Old Street, London.
She started dance classes at the age of just 4 whilst she was at Sherborne Preparatory School. She showed immense talent in ballet but also became accomplished in other forms of dancing – tap, Greek, ballroom, musical comedy and Spanish. She also learned to play the castanets (which is why she enjoyed playing Carmen in later years).
By the age of 8 she was being taught by Phyllis Bedells (a former British ballerina and a teacher).
At 9 she was the star of the school and was presented with a silver medal by Tamara Karsavina (a leading Russian dancer).
Her parents supported her totally in her dancing career.
She then went to the Royal Academy of Dancing and passed all of their exams with top marks – to the point where the Academy had no more exams to give her.
She was offered 10 scholarships by leading dancers, including Ninette de Valois, whom she accepted. It was a 4-year contract. De Valois insisted she change her stage name to Beryl Grey. “Oh Groom, I don’t like that name. From now on you’ll be Grey.”
As part of her training, she joined the Sadlers Wells Ballet School where her tutors were De Valois and Vera Volkova. (Sadlers Wells would eventually become the Royal Ballet).
All the dancers were terrified of Ninette who they all called ‘Madame’.
Her first performance was on a provincial tour, appearing in ‘Le Lac des Cygnes’ (Swan Lake) in Burnley. From here she rose rapidly through the company.
Her first solo was as one of the Blue Skaters in ‘Les Patineurs’, directed by Frederick Ashton. She went on to work many times with Ashton, saying he was her favourite choreographer.
Her first lead was as a serving maid in ‘The Gods Go-A-Begging’. She was still just fourteen and a half.
For her 15th birthday Ninette De Valois gave her an inscribed copy of Gordon Anthony’s book on Dame Margot Fonteyn and then told her she was playing the major role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake that very evening. She had one hour to rehearse.
Ninette said of her, “She has all the gifts it is possible to bestow on a dancer. Her behaviour is beyond reproach and she is remarkably unspoilt.”
It was then that her fan club, ‘The Grey Brigade’ began. She remembered that in wartime they would leave rationed goods (e.g. food) backstage for her. Part of her appeal was her humility (unlike many other dancing prima donnas) and her ability to get on with everyone.
Robert Helpmann wrote the role of ‘The Nightingale’ especially for her in his second ballet, ‘The Birds’.
Her most important role in her early years was Giselle. She initially danced it in Derby but then came to perform it on the London stage. Her debut was on her 17th birthday. It is regarded as the toughest of leading roles for a ballerina. Nobody could believe a 17-year old was leading.
Margot Fonteyn was part of the company. She too had been a teenage star, but not in lead roles quite as young as Beryl. The press always tried to build up rivalry between the two but there was none. Beryl adored Fonteyn, who had immense respect for her young companion.
But there was rivalry with young dancer Moira Shearer, who was 18 months older than Beryl. They hated each other. They used to stand next to each other on the training bar so they could kick each other.
By now Beryl had earned the nickname ‘The British Baby Ballerina’. And yet she was very tall (and elegant) for a dancer. She always said this helped her.
She was also introduced to Sir Laurence Olivier by Helpmann. Olivier invited her to play a French Princess in his upcoming film ‘Henry 5th’, but De Valois forbade it.
Instead, she played Princess Aurora in ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden – and caused a sensation.
She married Sven Gustav Svenson, a Swedish osteopath and they had one son, Ingvar. She lived in Sweden for a couple of years.
By the mid-50s Beryl had danced all around the world. But Margot Fonteyn was still getting most of the major roles so she decided to leave the Royal Ballet and go freelance.
But her biggest moment came in 1957 when she joined the Kirov Ballet, based in Leningrad, as their first ever western ‘guest’ dancer.
Not to be outdone she was then invited to be guest dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. The first night she performed Swan Lake opposite a Russian male lead, Yuri Kondratov. She later called it the peak of her professional career. She could not believe the kindness and artistic ability of the Russians.
Then, in 1964, she became the first western ballet star to perform in Communist China, dancing with the Peking Ballet and the Shanghai Ballet – the latter with the male Chinese dancer Wang Shao Pen as her partner – all very ground-breaking.
Her final dancing performance was in ‘Les Sylphides’ in 1965, in front of Princess Margaret in a Royal Performance Gala.
In 1968 Beryl became the Artistic Director for the London Festival Ballet (later renamed the English National Ballet). She did this for 11 years and totally restructured the company, saving it from bankruptcy and making it successful once again.
On April 10th 1974 she was the guest star on the TV show ‘This Is Your Life’, introduced by Eamonn Andrews. She was surprised by him whilst rehearsing at the London Festival Ballet’s studios in Covent Garden. She said, Oh Eamonn. Goodness gracious. Thank you very much! I’m overwhelmed.”
Many ballet stars appeared on the show including Alicia Markova and her former teacher, Ninette de Valois. Rudolf Nureyev appeared with a filmed tribute (ironically).
She was also known for her malapropisms, which greatly amused those around her.
But her time with the English National Ballet did not end well. In 1977 they commissioned Rudolf Nureyev to provide some choreography and to perform in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It was exceptionally successful and went to the Metropolitan in New York, where he was feted.
But then she took the company to China without Nureyev. He was apoplectic. He started stirring trouble behind the scenes and bit by bit turned the dancers against her.
By 1979 the dancers had a vote of no confidence in Beryl and she resigned. She was deeply hurt, but in her autobiography merely said, “That’s show business.”
Later on she became President of the Royal Academy of Dancing and Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
She appeared on Desert Island Discs in March 2002, interviewed by Sue Lawley.
Sven died in 2008.
Beryl was made a CBE and MBE and won the Queen Elizabeth Coronation Award as well as many other honours. She was made a Dame in 2008 and a Companion of Honour in 2017.
That same year her autobiography came out, entitled ‘For the Love of Dance’. She had written two books previously, ‘Red Curtain Up (1957 – about her time in Russia) and ‘Through the Bamboo Curtain’ (1965-about her time in China).
Her fan club, ‘The Grey Brigade’ were still going strong after 80 years.
RIP – Russia’s Invited Performer