The Royal Ballet's history through an insider's lens

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Colin Jones is best known for his images of The Who in London during the Swinging Sixties. With a politically charged social eye, he has been described as "the George Orwell of British photography". However, his success as a chronicler of a fast-changing society is a considerable step from his largely underprivileged childhood.

Born in 1936, the son of an East London printer, Jones spent his youth struggling with dyslexia and illiteracy. He was evacuated three times during the Second World War, which meant he attended 13 schools before the age of 16.

Eventually, after several years of ballet lessons – which he took because he preferred the idea of being a dancer to a road sweeper – Jones won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in 1953, and soon joined its touring company.

He got interested in photography after buying his first camera on tour in Japan (while running an errand for the ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn) and eventually took up a career as a press photographer, encouraged by The Observer's Michael Peto, who regularly toured with the company.

Jones's own photographs of life behind the scenes at the Royal Ballet, taken in the early Sixties, include portraits and action shots of ballet superstars such as Dame Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Christopher Gable and Dame Ninette de Valois.

They reveal the glamour and elegance of the dancers as well as the gruelling regimes they endured, whether at rehearsals and in dressing rooms or on stage. Jones's later work was far grittier, documenting facets of social history as diverse as the vanishing industrial working lives of the North East (in a set of photographs entitled "Grafters"), delinquent Afro-Caribbean youth in London ("The Black House"), and the high-octane hedonism of Swinging London with his pictures of The Who early in their career ("Maximum Who").

Fifty Years of the Royal Ballet, photographs by Colin Jones, Proud Galleries, 161 King's Road, Chelsea, London, SW3 5XP, 13 January