Dame Marie Rambert

Marie Rambert was born in Warsaw in 1888. Although she showed exceptional aptitude for dance at school, it was not until 1904 when she first saw the work of Isadora Duncan, that she seriously considered becoming a professional dancer. Her parents, however, had other plans and in 1905 Marie Rambert was sent to Paris to study medicine. She was too young to begin medical studies immediately and so continued her dancing while she waited, eventually earning a modest income by giving dance recitals in fashionable Parisian salons. In 1910 she went to Jaques-Dalcroze’s School of Eurhythmics in Geneva, and when Diaghilev needed someone to help Nijinsky teach his cast the complicated rhythms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Dalcroze recommended Marie Rambert. She joined the Ballets Russes in 1912 to teach eurhythmics, assist Nijinsky and dance in those ballets for which she was suitable. She remained with the Company for a year.

At the outbreak of the First World War she moved to Britain and supported herself by teaching dance and eurhythmics in schools and private homes in London. She continued to study and prepared new productions which, when performed, met with considerable public and critical success. In 1918 she married the English playwright, Ashley Dukes, whose support and encouragement for her work proved invaluable throughout the 41 years of their marriage.

In 1920 she opened her own school of dancing in Kensington and six years later, in 1926, she and her students appeared in a short ballet by one of her pupils, Frederick Ashton, at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. A Tragedy of Fashion is important not only because it was Ashton’s first work, but because it marked the earliest beginnings of Ballet Rambert.

In 1928 Ashley Dukes bought a disused church hall in Notting Hill Gate and converted it to accommodate both his wife’s school and later a small theatre, the Mercury Theatre. This provided a permanent home for the Company for the next three decades and during the 1930s was the home of the Ballet Club.

From then on the story of Marie Rambert is inextricably linked with that of her Company, renamed Ballet Rambert in 1935. Mim, as friends knew her, became one of the great pioneers of modern British ballet. She cajoled, bullied and inspired countless dancers, choreographers and designers for over sixty years. These include such eminent dancers as Pearl Argyle, Diana Gould, Maude Lloyd, Harold Turner, Sally Gilmour and Celia Franca. As an discoverer of choreographic talent, Marie Rambert could count Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Andree Howard, Frank Staff, Walter Gore, Norman Morrice and Christopher Bruce amongst those who especially benefited from her enthusiasm and advice.

In 1966, with characteristic insight, she chose Norman Morrice as Associate Director, and under their leadership the Company transformed from a large classical company to a small ensemble of eighteen soloists, concentrating on the creation of contemporary works. Once again, Ballet Rambert gained its place in the forefront of British ballet. In 1926, Marie Rambert had formed Britain’s first ballet company and forty years later was instrumental in the birth of Britain’s first modern dance company. No other director, with the exception of Diaghilev, has had a greater effect on the creative forces in ballet, not only in Britain but all overt he world. Her adopted country honoured her with a CBE in the Coronation Honours of the British Empire in 1954, and she was appointed a Dame in 1962.

Dame Marie retained an active interest in everything the Company did, attending rehearsals and performances and giving carefully heeded and highly respected advice, criticism and encouragement until her death, aged 94, in June 1982.

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