Born into a farming family in 1917, he discovered ballet through a devotion to music - he is possibly the only choreographer to have had his own music broadcast on the radio by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, sandwiched between Schumann and Debussy. That was in 1943, by which time he had been demobbed from army war service.
A demobilisation grant allowed him to resume his ballet studies in earnest, following which he found dancing jobs with small troupes run by Molly Lake. Here he had his first try at choreography: a pas de deux in a ballet by Lake who, faced with a studio full of fidgeting dancers and an inspirational blank, saw Carter smiling (at something else, actually) and snapped "Go on! Do it! You do it!" So he did.
He made his first piece, Fantaisie, in 1946 for Lake's Continental Ballet. He also danced with the Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet, appeared in the film The Red Shoes (1948) and sometimes slept in Victoria Station for lack of money. He joined the small Ambassador Ballet where he choreographed Stagioni. This piece marked the start of a close friendship and collaboration with the dancer and designer Norman McDowell, which lasted until McDowell's death in 1980.
Then in the early 1950s Carter worked with Ballet Workshop, a crucible for young choreographers which had links with Ballet Rambert. His pieces included Echo and Narcissus, performed by the celebrated John Gilpin and Nathalie Krassovska, and given a television showing; Ouverture, a Proust ballet which entered the Rambert repertoire as Past Recalled; and The Life and Death of Lola Montez, which Rambert also acquired.
Ballet Workshop folded, as did the original Ballet Russe where he had been dancing, and once again there was no work. "I had kept going with lonely hope," he wrote in Dance & Dancers (July/August 1986),
but now I had reached the nadir and desperately needed the encouragement of someone - anyone - saying, "Stick at it. Don't give in." I chose to call on the then editor of Dance & Dancers, who had reviewed my ballets, at his imposing flat in Eaton Square . . . His answer was short: "Well, ducky. If you were any good, someone would use you." In the stunned silence that followed this pronouncement I heard a bell ringing. It came from the bag on the floor by my side that contained my total possessions in the world when there was no other place to leave them, and included was an alarm clock. Humiliated at the prospect of my whole sorry situation being revealed, I said brightly as I stopped the alarm bell ringing: "Oh, is it so late? I'm sorry but I have
another appointment and must go now," and I hurried out, most probably thinking to throw myself in the Thames.
In this darkness came sudden light: an invitation to be the choreographer of the Ballet der Lage Landen, a company of 30 dancers in Amsterdam. He moved there in 1954 and began producing many fine works, including his big hit, The Witch Boy, in 1956. Using a powerful commissioned score by Leonard Salzedo and designs by Norman McDowell who also danced the title part, The Witch Boy vividly retells the Ballad of Barbara Allen. It was, though, because of the modest cost of its staging, rather than its gripping theatricality, that London Festival Ballet agreed to take it the following year, allowing their leading man John Gilpin to try something more exciting than his usual classical diet. Carter went on to make other ballets for this company, including London Morning which had a plot and music by Noel Coward.
Thanks to The Witch Boy, Carter began working with companies all over the world. In 1964, he and McDowell decided to launch a small company, London Dance Theatre. For this he choreographed Agrionia, his own favourite, which featured McDowell as a Dionysius who punishes three sisters for refusing to take part in his orgies. Although the piece was enthusiastically received, the company could not continue without a subsidy. The Arts Council orchestrated its merger with London Festival Ballet, in which Carter became chief choreographer and McDowell artistic director.
For LFB, Carter mounted a widely admired Nutcracker and an interesting Swan Lake, set to Tchaikovsky's original musical order, a version which he had previously staged for the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, and which is still being performed there. In 1967 he made the vivid and biblical Cage of God for Western Theatre Ballet. When that company became Scottish Ballet they commissioned other works from him, among them his enduring Three Dances to Japanese Music in 1973.
This piece emerged from trips to Japan - as did Shukumei in 1975, to music by the rock composer Stomu Yamash'ta, for Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. In 1976 he also made Lulu for SWRB, an ironically chic and captivating account of Wedekind's character, in which he cast the Royal Ballet's Merle Park. Yet neither lasted long and thereafter he mostly worked abroad.
Last June he revived The Witch Boy for the Colon in Buenos Aires and had planned to return this year for his Swan Lake.
Jack Carter, choreographer: born Shrivenham, Oxfordshire 8 August 1917; died London 30 December 1998.Reuse content