Alexander Grant: Ballet dancer who revelled in his long association with Frederick Ashton
Monday 10 October 2011
Alexander Grant remains unequalled as the Royal Ballet's finest character dancer.
Not quite tall enough to be a prince, he combined an exceptional technique with a rare dramatic ability, so that in many roles he expressed character through dance rather than mime. He was a living legend, his name spoken with reverence and pleasure because he inspired great affection.
In a collaboration lasting 30 years, the choreographer Frederick Ashton created 21 stage roles for him, the best known being Alain in La Fille mal gardée (1960), where Grant tempered comedy with a tender humanity. Alain, a rich farmer's son, pushed by ambitious parents into a betrothal with the resistant heroine, is not so much a simpleton (Grant never saw him as such) as too young and naive to cope. Although he provokes laughter, he also inspires compassion, and the final scene where, finally rejected, he desperately offers his glittering engagement ring to any girl out there on stage, is a moment of tear-pricking pathos.
Born in 1925 in Wellington, New Zealand, Grant started dance classes aged six. The visits of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Colonel de Basil's company, The Original Ballet Russe, in 1938 and 1939, made a huge impression and he thought: "This is why I've been dancing; this is what I want to do." He won a scholarship to the Sadler's Wells Ballet School, but had to wait for the end of the war to travel. He arrived in February 1946 and was almost immediately hauled into the company at Covent Garden to dance the boisterous trepak folk dance in The Sleeping Beauty because of the post-war shortage of male dancers. He then joined the newly-formed touring Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, but two weeks later, in September 1946, was back in the main Covent Garden company as a fully fledged member.
Ashton quickly spotted him and cast him in the "Popular Song" duet in Façade. He also gave him his first created role, as the boy who "jumps through a hoop" in the short-lived Les Sirènes (1946). It was an invitation to dance for the famous choreographer Léonid Massine that fixed Grant's future as a dramatic dancer. Watching a class specially assembled for him, Massine chose Grant to recreate the barber – a role he had formerly played – for a revised Covent Garden version of Mam'zelle Angot in 1947.
This was Grant's first success and compensated for the fright he had had before. Because of an 11th-hour absence of men, he had been thrown into Ashton's Symphonic Variations, a 20-minute dance poem of pure classicism in which the dancers never leave the stage. Having done well, none the less, he performed the ballet many times, as well as other plotless works such as Ashton's Scènes de ballet, but found the sheer nakedness of "just having to be me" terrifying. Mam'zelle Angot gave him a character to hide behind, and that made him feel comfortable.
He achieved further successes in Massine's Le Tricorne as the miller (another Massine role), for example, and in Petrushka, dancing Nijinsky's title role. But he was most closely associated with Ashton's work. In Cinderella (1948), the first full-evening British ballet, he was the jester, a bravura part tinged with melancholy. In Daphnis and Chloé (1951) he was the brawny Pirate Chief who abducted Margot Fonteyn in a one-arm overhead lift: "But you're so small," post-performance spectators would gasp when they saw him at the stage door. He was the implacable Tirreno, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea, in Ondine (1958) and ass-headed Bottom in The Dream (1964), dancing in point shoes to represent hoofs. In 1976 he performed his last created role in A Month in the Country as Natalia Petrovna's bumbling, sidelined husband.
The same year he retired from the Royal Ballet and from his post, which he took up in 1971, as director of the Royal Ballet's educational Ballet for All group. From 1976-83 he was director of the National Ballet of Canada, where he staged Fille, performing Alain, and brought many other works into the repertoire. From 1985-89 he was principal dancer and coach with London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet).
He inherited the rights to Façade and Fille when Ashton died in 1988 and staged them all over the world. He received many awards, among them a CBE in 1965. His presence off-stage was equally vivid, with his thick mane of hair, twinkling eyes and direct, often humorous turn of phrase.
What should have been a routine hip replacement turned into a seven-month hospital nightmare. He is survived by his brother Garry Grant, also a Royal Ballet dancer, and his partner, Jean-Pierre Gasquet.
Alexander Grant, dancer and director: born Wellington, New Zealand 22 February 1925; CBS 1965; died London 30 September 2011.
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