Obituary: Christopher Gable

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BLOND AND boyishly handsome, Christopher Gable had facial bones that seemed to catch stage lights perfectly. He became a star in the Royal Ballet, where he formed a famous stage partnership with Lynn Seymour, and then went on to do much else besides. He turned to acting and starred in films by Ken Russell; he founded the respected Central School of Ballet in London; and in 1987 he took on the artistic directorship of Northern Ballet Theatre (then based in Manchester, now in Leeds).

With that company he vigorously pursued his interest in drama, believing that dancers needed to develop their acting potential. He introduced the idea of directing ballets - not necessarily choreographing them, although he did do that sometimes, but collaborating with choreographers as a theatre director might do with a writer. In this capacity he staged eight full- length ballets, some acclaimed by reviewers, some despised, but all making a splash and attracting enthusiastic audiences.

Of these, Romeo and Juliet, premiered in 1991, was the biggest success, choreographed by Massimo Moricone, an Italian hitherto not known in Britain, and eventually televised. Together Gable and Moricone achieved a thrilling theatrical experience, taut and passionate, with a compellingly raw verismo.

Gable was born in Hackney, London in 1940. His early enthusiasm was the cinema. He fell in love with Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian film actress who wore fruit on her head and danced in tropical film numbers. He wanted to do the same. His mother agreed to dancing classes as long as he also studied the piano; and at the age of 11 he was accepted into the Royal Ballet School. He graduated with Lynn Seymour into the Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet where, in Seymour's words, "we created a heatwave in the pas de deux for Orpheus" (for the opera Orpheus and Eurydice).

Even so, his dance beginnings were inauspicious. When, after a year, Seymour was promoted into the Royal Ballet's touring company, Gable was shunted off to the lowly Covent Garden Opera Ballet. Desperate to be noticed by John Field, the touring company's director, he telephoned him with an outrageous fib: that he had sprained his ankle and would like to take class with Field's company to get into shape. The ruse eventually worked. When one male dancer was injured, John Field remembered the blond boy and took him as a temporary replacement. And when a permanent vacancy arose, he got it.

It had been a close thing, causing him weeks of worry. But now properly established in the touring company, where he was to stay from 1957 to 1963, he could concentrate on getting roles. His first big break came thanks to Seymour. Successful ballet partnerships depend on a close rapport of physiques and personalities and she was looking for a congruous partner. "Remembering how Christopher and I had sparked in Orpheus, my eyes fell upon him. Christopher has an ebullient personality. He is funny and smart and sexy," Seymour wrote in her autobiography, Lynn: leaps and boundaries (1984). She recommended him to Kenneth MacMillan for the important role of the boy in The Invitation, telling MacMillan: "He knows how to make a story come alive, his is an incredibly swift dancer and very musical".

The Invitation, premiered in 1960, was a provocatively seminal work, showing that ballet could treat a taboo subject such as rape, and made an enormous impact. Gable and Seymour did not have to wait long to appear together again in a new ballet. Frederick Ashton was preparing The Two Pigeons and cast Seymour as the heroine. Her wayward lover was to be Donald Britton, but when he came down with the flu a few days before the premiere in 1961, Gable stepped in. The Two Pigeons become one of Ashton's best- loved ballets and Gable, only 20, won praise for his stylish dancing. "Ballet buffs and critics began to say that our partnership might one day be historic," wrote Seymour.

Gable went on to dance many roles, becoming a soloist in 1969 and a principal in 1961. Critics praised his dramatic gifts, which had, they said, the modernity and immediacy shown by the Royal Shakespeare Company's new breed of actors. He was Florimund and the Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty, Siegfried in Swan Lake, Colas in Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee; he also took leading parts in MacMillan's Solitaire, Danses Concertantes, and The House of Birds.

In 1963 he transferred to the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden where he appeared with Seymour and Nureyev in MacMillan's Images of Love, created for the Shakespeare quatercentenary in 1964. Gable was the Comforting Angel (sacred love) to Seymour's Dark Lady (profane love), and together they struggled for possession of Nureyev, the poet figure. Nureyev admired Gable and cast him in his revival of the pas de six from Laurentia, and in the virtuosic role of Solor in his staging of the Shades scene from La Bayadere.

When MacMillan made his celebrated Romeo and Juliet in 1965, he created the lovers on Gable and Seymour who put everything - hearts, sweat, ideas - into rehearsals. But the preparations turned sour when late on the management decided to cast Fonteyn and Nureyev for the world premiere. Even so, Seymour and Gable put aside their disappointment to score a tumultuous hit as the second cast, with the critic Clive Barnes describing Gable as:

the most detailed and the most contemporary-seeming of the Romeos . . . One was conscious of a great deal more detail . . . This was a boyish Romeo, fresh and feckless . . . Gable's swift and fluent dancing and his very rhapsodic style of partnering fitted the ballet well. MacMillan also made exceptional use of Gable's unusual power . . . [to] stay stock still on stage in a way that rivets the attention.

He danced in John Cranko's new Brandenburg 2&4, as well as performing a wide repertory of established roles. In 1966 he resigned from the Royal Ballet and guested with Ballet Rambert, in Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas and Dark Elegies and MacMillan's Laiderette. Glen Tetley wanted Gable for the lead in the Rambert premiere of his Pierrot Lunaire, but by then Gable had decided to stop dancing.

He had never, Lynn Seymour's autobiography implies, got over the Romeo and Juliet trauma; but also he had osteo-arthritis in his feet which has already necessitated surgery. "When, a few years later, the condition began to reappear and the pain returned," Seymour explains, "he lost heart and decided to turn his mind to an acting career."

As an actor he spent a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Lysander in Peter Brook's famous production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and appearing in productions by Trevor Nunn, John Barton and Terry Hands. He worked at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester for several years and in the West End and other theatres. He often acted in films and on television: he played Eric Fenby in Ken Russell's admired Song of Summer; and he co-starred with Twiggy in Russell's The Boy Friend (1972).

In founding the Central School of Ballet in 1982 he wanted to introduce a Russian style to British teaching and a more dramatic emphasis. His wife, Carole Needham, who had been a dancer in the Royal Ballet's touring company, was one of the teachers. He was tempted back on to the ballet stage when the choreographer Gillian Lynne persuaded him to create the title part in her 1987 A Simple Man, commissioned by the City of Salford to celebrate the centenary of the painter L.S. Lowry who was born there. It was shown first on television (with Moira Shearer playing Lowry's mother), then entered Northern Ballet Theatre's repertory (with Lynn Seymour taking over from Shearer). It was a tremendous dance comeback for Gable, a role which exploited his skill as a dance-actor and as a partner.

Shortly after, in the same year, he succeeded Robert de Warren as artistic director of Northern Ballet Theatre. The company's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, premiered on 23 February this year, was based on an original scenario by Gable, but mounted and choreographed by the associate artistic director Michael Pink, who has often collaborated with Gable on previous productions.

Christopher Michael Gable, dancer, actor, choreographer: born London 13 March 1940; Founder and Artistic Director, Central School of Ballet 1982-98; Artistic Director, Northern Ballet Theatre 1987-98; CBE 1996; married Carole Needham (one son, one daughter); died 23 October 1998.