Obituary: Anne Woolliams
Wednesday 21 July 1999
She was born in Folkestone in 1926. Her first dance teacher had been a pupil of Mary Wigman, the influential shaper of modern dance. Wooliams went on to devote her life to classical ballet and studied with Vera Volkova, the best teacher in London in the 1940s, who had herself studied with the legendary Agrippina Vaganova in St Petersburg.
Her professional debut was with Jay Pomeroy's Russian Opera and Ballet. In 1943 she danced with Lydia Kyasht's Russian Ballet de la Jeunesse Anglaise and then spent several years with the St James's Ballet, a small Arts Council touring group where she was also assistant ballet mistress.
Here she became friends with Peter Wright (now Sir Peter, retired director of Birmingham Royal Ballet) whose wife, the dancer Sonia Hana, she had met in Lydia Kyasht's company. She and Wright danced together in Alan Carter's The Catch, an amusing trio about two brothers on a fishing trip disrupted by one brother's girlfriend. "She had a gift for comedy," says Wright, "and was a good mimic." She also appeared in musicals and films, including The Red Shoes (1948).
She had adopted the stage name Anne de Mohan. However, she became more interested in working off-stage and turned to teaching, first in Chicago and Florence. From 1956 to 1963 she was at the Folkwang School in Essen, Germany, where Kurt Jooss led the dance department. She took charge of the ballet syllabus.
"The school devoted itself to modern dance and although it did include a certain amount of classical ballet, this was never taken seriously," says Wright. "Anne rectified that and ballet became a major part of the curriculum. Her period with Jooss made a great difference to her understanding of movement. It gave her another dimension, which affected the way she taught classical ballet."
In Essen she danced in the Folkwang Tanzstudio ensemble, connected with the school. She performed works by Jooss, Hans Zullig and Antony Tudor, including Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas where she was joined by Pina Bausch, one of her pupils, and Jan Stripling, the dancer and later choreographer, who was to become her husband.
By then, Peter Wright was associate director at the Stuttgart Ballet, but was leaving. The company's director John Cranko had heard of Woolliams's abilities in Essen and invited her to replace him. So in 1963 she became the Stuttgart company's ballet mistress, responsible for classes and rehearsals.
She evolved a close association with Cranko which lasted until his death 10 years later. She mounted his ballets in Milan, Munich, Stockholm and Zurich, besides doing her own choreography for ballet and opera in Germany. With him, she developed the theatre's part-time student classes into West Germany's leading ballet school, the first to provide boarding accommodation and general education. (This is now called the John Cranko School.) She was instrumental in Cranko's success in establishing the Stuttgart Ballet as a major international company and in 1969 was appointed assistant director.
When Cranko died in 1973 she, with the company's leading ballerina Marcia Haydee and Cranko's heir Dieter Graefe, formed a directorial triumvirate which held the company firmly together during tours to London, Australia and Japan. In 1976, following Glen Tetley's appointment as artistic director of Stuttgart, she accepted the post of artistic director of the Australian Ballet.
She stayed two years, staging a prize-winning Swan Lake and mounting Cranko's Onegin and Romeo and Juliet. In 1978 she was made the first Dean of Dance at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, where she remained until 1987 and where she started a student touring group which represented Australia in youth festivals overseas.
In 1978 her book Ballet Studio was published, the English-language version of her 1973 Ballettsaal, a treatise on teaching which she wrote in Germany. And in 1982 she directed Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin for the Victoria State Opera, a production so admired that it was acquired by the Australian Opera.
On her return to Europe in 1987 she helped found a vocational ballet school in Zurich. In 1993 she became artistic director of the ballet at the Vienna State Opera, where she presented Peter Wright's new production of The Sleeping Beauty. Few ballet directors survive long at the Vienna State Opera, however, and soon she was back in England, disillusioned with ballet, although she did accept guest-teaching assignments. Mostly she focused on her other talent, which was painting. Her husband is a keen sculptor and together they worked in a studio in Canterbury. She was gifted, according to Wright, and her experience in dance suffused her painting with a vivid sense of movement.
As a teacher she made dancers understand that they should have an inner discipline. "She was also very good at making people be honest about themselves," says Wright. "She had an ability to expose their talents; but equally she could also make them recognise their faults. She insisted that they should not rely on what they liked doing, which is what dancers tend to do."
Woolliams had a strong personality and was very forthright. She had a good sense of humour and also, Wright explains, "a bit of a temper, which is no bad thing. But when it came to major issues she would fight like mad and this could cause problems." In the Australian Ballet, her stubbornness over a particular disagreement led to her resignation. "She had passion and emotion," Wright concludes, "and great grace. She was a woman of style."
Anne Woolliams, dancer, teacher, choreographer and director: born Folkestone, Kent 3 August 1926; married Jan Stripling; died Canterbury 8 July 1999.
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