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The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek

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13 Prominent Ballet Dancers and Choreographers Born in Southern Africa
13 Prominent Ballet Dancers and Choreographers Born in Southern Africa

Ross Dix-Peek

Most people would not dare to proffer southern Africa as an example of a prolific breeding ground of ballet dancers and choreographers, but, that she is. South Africa, and what was then Rhodesia, has for many decades now been a veritable nursery for ballet dancers, and her progeny have, after receiving expert local tutelage , often ventured abroad, performing for the Royal Ballet and other stellar ballet companies, some accruing universal acclaim. Listed below are thirteen southern African-born men and women who have distinguished themselves in the ballet fraternity, most notably abroad.

1. Gary Burne

Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Gary Burne joined the Royal Ballet and performed at Covent Garden, appearing in “The Prince of the Pagodas” (August 1958); “Ondine” (November 1958); and “Antigone, Symphonic Variations, Daphnis and Chloe” (December 1959) . He then returned to southern Africa and danced with the Capab Company (now the Cape Town City Ballet Company) in Cape Town, South Africa, at one time partnering Phyllis Spira (qv). Gary Burne was a flamboyant character and a gifted dancer but, rather sadly, developed a drug habit and committed suicide in 1976, aged just 44. This really was a premature end to a talented dancer!

2. John Cranko (1927-1973)

Born in Rustenburg, South Africa, Cranko wrote a piece for the Cape Town Ballet Club at the age of 16, and moved to Britain in 1946 in order to study, joining Sadler’s Wells Theatre Company, of which company he became the Resident Choreographer in 1950. He made over 30 dances, including “Pineapple Poll” (1951), as well as his first full-length ballet, “Prince of the Pagodas” with the music of Benjamin Britten (1957). Cranko moved to Germany in 1961 to become artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet, which he forged into a company of international renown. He choreographed additional ballets, including “Romeo and Juliet” (1958); “Onegin” (1969); and “Carmen” (1971).

3. Mary-Jane Duckworth

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Duckworth trained in Cecchetti Method at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Ballet School with Dulcie Howes. She then attended the Royal Ballet School and danced professionally with the Royal Ballet, The Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet and the Ballet Russe. Duckworth started her own ballet school in Northamptonshire in 1966 and was appointed an examiner for the Cecchetti Society Classical Ballet Faculty of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing in 1978. Now a Senior Examiner, Duckworth carries out extensive overseas examining and teaching tours and has also served as a trustee of various boards and enterprises pertaining to the world of ballet and dance.

4. Dulcie Howes

Dulcie Howes was born in Mossel Bay, South Africa, in 1908. She received her initial education in South Africa before journeying to England to receive ballet training, touring Europe with Anna Pavlova’s Company. She returned to South Africa in 1930 and opened a ballet school in Rondebosch, Cape Town, which later led to the founding of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Ballet School in 1932, which in turn evolved into Capab (The Cape Performing Arts Board), all under the expert guidance of Dulcie Howes, who was in essence “The Mother of Southern African Ballet”. This amazing woman was responsible for training and grooming many-a-South African ballet dancer and her influence permeated all aspects of ballet in southern Africa, and it may not be remiss to say, that without Dulcie Howes, ballet in southern Africa may very well have been stillborn.

5. Desmond Kelly

Born in Penhalonga, Southern Rhodesia, Desmond Kelly won a scholarship to study in England and initially studied with Ruth French in London, whereupon he was first contracted to the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet) at the age of 17, earning ten pounds a week! Promoted principal Dancer in 1963, his first partner was Jeanette Minty. Kelly later toured Israel and South America with the Festival Ballet, whereupon he spent a season as principal dancer with the Zurich Opera Ballet, and also served as Principal and Ballet Master of the Royal New Zealand Ballet (New Zealand being the birthplace of his wife) until 1969. Kelly and his wife then spent 18-months at the National Ballet of Washington DC in the United States of America (USA), before joining the Royal Ballet companies in 1970. He was to partner ahost of famous ballet dancers, most notably Margot Fonteyn; Antoinette Sibley; Merle Park (a fellow Rhodesian); Natalia Makarova; Monica Mason (South African); Margaret Barbieri and Marion Tate. Kelly was appointed Artistic Director at the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1990 and was awarded the Order of the British Empire ( OBE) in 2005.

6. Maryon Lane (1931-2009)

Born Patricia Mills in Zululand, South Africa, she studied ballet in Johannesburg. Lane was one of a sizeable group of talented dancers that journeyed to Britain following the second world war, and aged just 16, joined the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet and was cast in Frederick Ashton’s ballroom ballet “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales”. It was not long before she was promoted principal dancer and danced her first full-length leading role in “Coppelia” in 1951. She later appeared in ballets choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, including “Somnambulism” (1953); “Laiderette”; “Danses Concertantes”; “Madame Chrysantheme” (1955); “Noctambules”; “House of Birds”; “Agon” (1958), and “Diversions” (1961). She thereafter performed at Covent Garden with the famous Margot Fonteyn and remained with the Royal Ballet until 1968. Lane then retired from dancing, whereupon she became a sought-after teacher at the Royal Ballet School; London Ballet Centre and the Urdang Academy, and also opened “The Maryon Lane Ballet Company” in Cyprus.

7. Maude Lloyd (1908-2004)

Maude Lloyd was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and initially studied under Helen Webb in Cape Town, before venturing abroad to further training as a ballerina. She journeyed to London in 1926 and helped found the Ballet Rambert. Many lead roles were created specifically with her in mind, including ballets by Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor and Andre Howard. She retired in 1940 and later became a dance critic and author of several books on the history of ballet.

8. Monica Margaret Mason (1941-)

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mason moved to Britain at the age of 14 to join the Royal Ballet, and was at the time the company’s youngest member. She became a principal dancer in 1968 and worked in alliance with the choreographer, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, who created specific roles for her, including Lescaut’s Mistress in “Manon”; Calliope Rag in “Elite Syncopations”; Summer in the “The Four Seasons” and as the Midwife in “Rituals”. She retired as a dancer in 1981 but continued to work for the Royal Ballet Company and she was appointed Director of the Royal Ballet in 2002, receiving the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2002 and was also appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in 2008, the third Southern African-born ballerina to be thus honoured, the first being Dame Merle Park (qv).

9. Nadia Nerina (1927-2008)

Born Nadine Judd in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa, she suffered from weak feet in her youth, and upon medical advice, took up dancing. Having moved with her family to Durban in Natal, she then continued her ballet training with Eileen Keegan and Dorothea McNair. She then journeyed overseas and initially began her tutorship under Marie Rambert at the Ballet Rambert, before joining the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School, and later the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. A Prima Ballerina by 1952, she appeared as a guest artist with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Kiev ballet in Leningrad. She appeared in “Mardi Gras” (1946); “Cinderella” (1948); “Homage to the Queen” (1953); “La Fille Mal Gardee” (1960); “Noctambules” (1956); and “Elektra” (1963), and ended her illustrious career at the age of forty in 1969. This wonderful performer died at her home in France in October 2008.

10. Merle Park (1937-)

Born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), Park began her ballet training with Betty lamb in Rhodesia, before joining the Royal Ballet in 1954 and by 1958 was performing as a soloist. It was her performance as a milkmaid in “Façade” that caught the ballet world’s attention, and she was duly chosen as one of three soloists to appear in the 1959 Premiere, “La Bayadere”, an Ashton and Nureyev production. Park’s first full-length roles were that of Swanhilda in “Coppelia” and Lise in “La Fille Mal Gardee”. And then came her big break in 1963, when she was partnered by none other than Rudolf Nureyev in the “Nutcracker”. Park’s. additional performances include appearances in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swan Lake”, and during her career was to be partnered by Rudolf Nureyev, Anthony Dowell, Mikhail Barysnikhov and David Wall. Merle was park was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974 and 1983 became the Director of the Royal Ballet School, and was thereafter honoured with the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1986.

11. David Poole (1925-1991)

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, David Poole initially received his ballet training under the tutelage of Dulcie Howes at the University of Cape Town (UCT), before joining Sadler’s Wells Ballet School. Poole joined Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet in 1947 , and it was not long before he became the Principal Dancer. He appeared in performances choreographed by his fellow countryman, John Cranko, most notably, “Sea Change” (1949); “Beauty and the Beast” (1949); “Pineapple Poll” (1951) and “The Lady and the Fool” (1954). Poole then joined the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company in 1955 before spending a period of time with both the Ballet Rambert and the Edinburgh International Ballet. However, the call of South Africa was far too strong and he returned to the land of his birth in 1959. He was appointed Ballet Master of Capab in 1963, and Artistic Director in 1967. David Poole retired in 1990 and passed away in Cape Town in August 1991.

12. Margaret Scott (1922-)

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Scott initially danced with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, becoming the Principal dancer in 1941,before joining the Rambert Ballet company, of which company she performed as the Principal Dancer from 1943-1948. Scott toured Australia with the Rambert Ballet and decided to remain in Australia. She danced with the National Ballet Theatre Company in Australia as a Principal Dancer and participated in the negotiations with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust that led to the formation of the Australian Ballet in 1962, and was appointed Director of the Australian Ballet School in 1964, and held that position until 1990. Scott represented Australia on the Council of the World Dance Alliance, and appeared in Graeme Murphy’s version of the “Nutcracker” in 1992, 1994 and 2000 and was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1976, and was made a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1981.

13. Phyllis Spira (1943-2008)

Spira was born in Orange Grove in Johannesburg, South Africa, and commenced her ballet training at the tender age of four! She was spotted by the Sadler’s Wells Company when on a tour of South Africa, and thence journeyed to England to join the Royal Ballet School in London, aged 15.A mere 1.5 Metres tall, Spira was one of the smallest students at the School. It did not take long, however, before the London ballet elite were hailing her as the next sensation. Spira made her debut at Covent Garden in 1960, appearing in “Swan Lake”. She was then invited to join the Royal Ballet and was to perform in “Swan Lake”; “Giselle”; “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker”, while also accompanying the company on a tour of the Far East. Incredibly, on the brink of an illustrious career, she decided, however, to return to her country of birth and joined Capab in Cape Town. She later received South Africa’s highest civilian award, The Meritorious Service in Gold, and died in Cape Town in 2008, aged 64.

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Ballet Dancers Born in Rhodesia

Merle Park and Gary Burne both lived in Bulawayo in the forties. Gary was at the same junior school as me but about two years ahead; his actual name was Algenon Hayze-Hill. The school was named Milton.
Merle was Margaret Kneusen and is just under two years younger than me. She must have been about four when, at my birthday party she fell into what we called our swimming pool; this was a large corrugated steel tank about 3 foot deep and 16 foot in diameter.
I only remember her being taken home dressed in my white shirt and shorts. I wonder if she remembers this.
My familly were Pilcher and My mother's maiden name was Downing.

Re: Ballet Dancers Born in Rhodesia

Hi Christopher,

Thanks so much for the info, and I'm sorry I've only just replied...as I don't always see the comments. Wow, so you knew both of them. I thoroughly enjoyed the story about Merle (very funny). I, myself, was born in Rhodesia, in Salisbury, and have always had a soft spot for the country, and its people...and always will have. Thanks again.


talent from the african colonies

Ross I often enjoy looking at artists work from ZA and Zim. I also enjoy ballet - especially when it achieves something transcendental (which I once experienced with the Stuttgart ballet in London in the 70's). I live in Cork (my stepson lives in Dubs)where my family and I have been for the last 8 years. Keep up the poetry.

Re: talent from the african colonies

Thank you so very much for your comment, and I'm sorry for the late reply but I've only just seen the message now. Thanks again.


Dancers from the Royal Ballet

Your journal brought back so many memories for me and I don't want to monopolise the page but thought I would just share some thoughts. Firstly, I was so sad to read of Gary Burne's death in such a tragic way. He was a very special favourite dancer when I at the tender age of perhaps 9 or 10 used to go regularly to Covent Garden and on one occasion after talking to him at the stage door, he disappeared back into the dressing rooms and came out holding a pair of purple ballet shoes, which he then signed and gave me. Some 50 years on I still have them.

Merle Park was also an inspiration while I was at ballet school, she often danced with Gary and they often used to come and chat to the fans after the shows. Merle very kindly invited me to go on a backstage tour with her (just me!!!) and it was as an aspiring ballet dancer, enthralling. What a lovely person.

Around that time, we got to talk to many of the dancers and several of the names you have mentioned were familiar. Nadia Nerina was also very special - she gave me a pair of her pointe shoes and said if they fitted, I could go the Frederick Freed (who made the shoes) to use her shoe last for my own pointe shoes.

I didn't become a dancer - I grew outwards rather than up but eventually became a theatrical agent, which I am to this day. I also now do talks about my life and in one particular talk mention my childhood times with references to some of these wonderfully talented dancers

Thank you for sharing those bits of information. It has been lovely (although sad) to read. Eve

Re: Dancers from the Royal Ballet

Thank you so very much Eve for sharing your memories; it was absolutely fascinating to read. You gave it that personal touch that just brought it all to life for me. But yes, although they were wonderful performers they are/were just people, with flaws like the rest of us. But unlike us, their lives are akin to living under a giant microscope, which has got be very difficult indeed, where every failing is magnified a 1000 times, and then broadcast to the world. Wow, it's got to take its toll. Thanks again Eve. very much appreciated.

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