Obituary: Elisabeth Schooling

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The Independent Culture
ELISABETH SCHOOLING was one of a small band of people who took part in the birth of British ballet and its exciting creative ferment.

She worked as a dancer with Antony Tudor and Frederick Ashton, young men of artistic adventure who were to become the greatest choreographers Britain has yet produced. Her easy lightness of movement and musical sensitivity earned her a wide variety of roles. And even if she did not reach the heights of ballerinadom of a few of her contemporaries, her remarkable memory for steps - not only the ones she danced herself, but complete ballets - meant she was in demand for the staging of revivals.

Her dancing career evolved almost exclusively within Ballet Rambert (later Rambert Dance Company), Britain's first repertory ballet company, founded in 1920 after two seasons at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. She became a student with Marie Rambert in 1928 and danced in the company's first seasons, for which Ashton, Tudor and Andree Howard made ballets. Mermaid, choreographed collaboratively by Howard and Susan Salaman in 1934, to music by Ravel, gave Schooling her first original solo role, as the Bride.

She could claim to have been the inspiration for Ninette de Valois' Bar aux Folies-Bergere the same year, which took Manet's painting as its starting point and had a scenario by Marie Rambert's husband, the dramatist Ashley Duke. Schooling bore a distinctive resemblance to Manet's barmaid, which prompted the idea of a ballet in Duke's mind. "Ashley used to chuck her under the chin whenever he passed her and say, `There goes Manet's Fille au Bar'," Marie Rambert wrote in her autobiography Quicksilver. The ballet, to music by Chabrier, was well received, but de Valois insisted on the more experienced Pearl Argyle as the barmaid. Schooling, however, got her chance later in this central role, becoming, according to Marie Rambert, a very convincing interpreter.

It was not long before she had a succession of parts made on her. She was cast in other ballets by Howard, among them an Ugly Sister in Cinderella (opposite the choreographer as the other sister) in 1935 and the Little Girl in the Carnival of the Animals in 1945. She was one of the original soloists in Tudor's Suite of Airs, premiered in 1937 on BBC television before being taken into the Rambert repertory. Tudor also featured her prominently in several of his existing ballets: as Hebe in The Descent of Hebe; Caroline in Jardin aux Lilas; Venus in Judgement of Paris; and the French ballerina in Gala Performance. Similarly, Ashton chose her to take on many of Alicia Markova's roles in his ballets, such as the Polka and Debutante in Facade, the Etoile in Foyer de Danse, and Marguerite in Mephisto Valse.

She danced the first ballets of Frank Staff, a fellow Rambert dancer whom she married. An upbeat trio called The Tartans (1938), to music by Boyce, was a new version of a ballet by Ashton and, Rambert noted in Quicksilver, "Elisabeth Schooling was very fetching in her Scots Grey hat and kilt, with Staff and (Walter) Gore as her partners - a most delicious suite of dances." Czernyana (1939) used Czerny's piano exercises for a series of dances caricaturing different kinds of ballet; Schooling's dance was a witty and subtle solo called "Presque Classique". Czernyana became such a hit that Staff choreographed a sequel, Czerny 2 (1941), in which he gave Schooling another solo, "Presque Jazz". An amalgam of the most popular numbers from both ballets remained in Ballet Rambert's repertory for a long time, under the original title Czernyana.

Schooling left Ballet Rambert on only two occasions: the first time during the Second World War, when the company closed for 18 months and she danced in Tales of Hoffmann at the Strand Theatre; the second, in 1945-46, when she danced seasons of The Glass Slipper at the St James's Theatre and in between toured South Africa with Staff. She and Staff returned to Ballet Rambert for its 1947-48 trip to Australia, after which she retired from performing.

She was much respected as a memory-bank of choreography and consequently enjoyed a parallel career as a producer and coach for revivals. As far back as 1935 Ashton turned to Schooling when he mounted his Facade for the Vic-Wells Ballet (the company which grew into the Royal Ballet). Ashton, like many choreographers, could not remember the steps in detail and asked Schooling to teach the Vic-Wells dancers.

The Rambert company was also indebted to her in reviving ballets, as was Rudolf Nureyev for coaching him in Nijinsky's L'Apres-midi d'un faune, a ballet with which he became closely identified.

Schooling found a happy life in Devon following her second marriage to a farmer, Michael Chaplin.

Nadine Meisner

Elisabeth Schooling, dancer, producer and teacher: born London 1915; married first Frank Staff (one son; marriage dissolved), second Michael Chaplin; died Exeter 22 June 1998.