Obituary: Elaine Fifield

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The Independent Culture
ELAINE FIFIELD possessed a remarkable natural gift for dancing and lived a life of exotic contrasts.

Photographs show an ideally neat and slender individual, with high-arched feet, beautiful legs and a dark, pretty oval-shaped face that drew comparisons with Margot Fonteyn.

Born in Sydney, Australia in 1930, she had, as a child, an infatuation with dancing which her loving but conscientious Seventh Day Adventist parents tried to quash. Yet she became a one of the Royal Ballet's most exciting newcomers. It seemed a fairy tale come true, except that her 1967 autobiography In My Shoes makes sad reading as a catalogue of exceptional promise vandalised by impetuous choices.

It was the intervention of a doctor - who said dance lessons would toughen her up - and the counsel of a pastor that finally persuaded her parents to allow her to learn dancing. At 14 she won a Royal Academy of Dancing scholarship to study in London, although because of the Second World War she had to wait two years before making the sea voyage. Applying a nun- like devotion to work, she studied at the Sadler's Wells Ballet School and spent her first holiday taking classes in Paris with the legendary Russian teacher Olga Preobrajenska.

After less than a year, Ninette de Valois took her into the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, newly formed as a junior version of the Covent Garden company. Fifield was soon performing featured roles, such as the polka in Frederick Ashton's Facade and the lead in his Les Rendezvous. He cast her as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker and choreographed a role for her in Valses nobles et sentimentales, as did George Balanchine in Trumpet Concerto. Andree Howard created Selina on her; and Alfred Rodriguez the bride in Blood Wedding.

When she danced the heroine Swanilda in the company's Coppelia, newspapers exclaimed "A Pavlova!" and the Times defined her dancing as "beautifully neat, musical and supple". Her biggest success was in the central role of Pineapple Poll, John Cranko's comedy (after Gilbert and Sullivan) for the Festival of Britain in 1951. The impresario Sol Hurok pronounced her a glittering asset in the company's forthcoming North American tour that same year. She was up there with all the great ones and, when someone demurred "Ah, but she's so young", he barked "So what! I don't want 'em old."

On this tour, many critics singled Fifield out for praise, including John Martin of the New York Times, who said:

She has a simple personal charm that is utterly without sham, and a theatrical integrity that matches it. If she is not yet in emotional control of such a role as that in Swan Lake, she nevertheless dances it with beautiful purity of style and a dramatic awareness that is true and unaffected . . . When she steps into the gay-spirited Coppelia she fairly bubbles with animation and impishness, remaining still entirely within the bounds of theatrical truth.

In Los Angeles Fifield married John Lanchbery, the company's conductor, and as a wedding present Hurok arranged for them to meet Charlie Chaplin on the set of Limelight, where they were also introduced to Claire Bloom and Buster Keaton.

It was, though, a marriage of friendship rather than love and, back in London, it was to run adrift. Fifield became pregnant and gave birth to Margaret in 1954. She returned quickly to work, to regain her form for the transfer to the Covent Garden company which de Valois had promised her. One of her first ballets there was an Ashton premiere, Variations on a Theme of Purcell. Ashton also constructed his Japanese Madame Chrysantheme around her delicate quality and Rodriguez used her in another dark drama, The Miraculous Mandarin. She also danced The Sleeping Beauty, the complete Swan Lake and the ballerina in Petrushka.

The atmosphere at the Covent Garden company (which became the Royal Ballet in 1956) was cooler and she felt on her own. Immediately below the supreme Fonteyn was a stratum of five ballerinas including Fifield, each with their own following. Fifield sometimes interpreted directorial decisions as slights, and when she learnt she would not be in the company's Australian tour, it seemed the last straw.

She decided to hand in her notice and join the Australian Borovansky Company. De Valois offered her a year's sabbatical, but she turned this down, despite de Valois's warning that such a final move meant she would never be allowed back.

She arrived in Australia with Margaret in July 1957 and realised her mistake. "The stage seemed small and the orchestra thin by comparison. There was no Frederick Ashton, no Ninette de Valois . . . The standard of dancing was not high." Nor was her contract long-term. Soon, the engagements with Borovansky ceased and she found herself with little to do. Sitting on a beach she met Les Farley, a planter working in Papua New Guinea. Six weeks later she and Margaret went to live with him on his plantation.

The house was a great deal more basic than he had implied - "I had my first misgiving when my stiletto heel went through the floorboard" - and the natives were radically primitive. (There were still cannibals in the more remote highlands.) To occupy herself she opened a little store selling food, utilities and clothing. The native girls bought brassieres, but before wearing them "they cut two holes in them for the nipples to protrude".

She divorced John Lanchbery, prompting Australian headlines such as "Aussie Girl Gives Up Fame for Love in Jungle", and married Les Farley. Although she had two more daughters, she was profoundly depressed at giving up dancing. In 1964 she decided, with a great wrench, to leave her family and join the recently formed Australian Ballet. She trained hard, but although she retrieved her suppleness, she never found her full strength.

Among her roles were the leads in Giselle and Nureyev's production of Raymonda. She was reunited with Fonteyn, when Fonteyn and Nureyev worked with the company as guests in Australia and on an international tour which included performances at Covent Garden. From the savage wilderness of Papua New Guinea, she was now attending receptions, meeting Princess Margaret and dancing the Corsaire pas de deux in Paris with Nureyev. But she left the Australian Ballet in 1966. She returned between 1969 and 1971 and thereafter withdrew completely from ballet.

Nadine Meisner

Elaine Fifield, ballet dancer: born Sydney, New South Wales 28 October 1930; married 1951 John Lanchbery (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1960 Les Farley (two daughters); died Perth, Western Australia 11 May 1999.