Gailene Stock: Dancer and teacher who became a successful, if controversial, Director of the Royal Ballet School

 

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The Independent Online

Gailene Stock was a woman of enormous courage and determination who battled personal setbacks to become a ballerina, teacher and eventually Director of the Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden. Her 15-year tenure saw her transform an institution seen as somewhat isolationist and archaic into a more internationally welcoming establishment which is now widely recognised as one of the world’s leading classical dance training centres.

Her arrival in London coincided with a crisis of confidence at the Royal Ballet School, with concerns about slipping standards. “That elegance and schooling, that impeccable presentation, that’s not there any more,” she said when she took over in 1999.

Stock wanted to make a difference, and she did. She ruffled feathers with her no-nonsense, innovative approach – revolutionary to some – and found the idea of working to an “English” artistic brief outdated. She gave the curriculum a complete overhaul, placing a greater emphasis on contemporary dance and pas de deux, introducing a third year into the Upper School, expanding the choreographic course, furthering the School’s touring opportunities and re-introducing a teachers’ course for professional dancers and a teacher exchange programme.

With more public performances, overseas exchanges and increased competition, Stock had the sole aim of preparing students for the rigours of a professional career. When she took up her post, employment rates for graduates of the school stood at 48 per cent, a figure which quickly rose to almost 100 per cent, although she was criticised for a drop in the number of British-born students and the increase in the number of those coming from overseas. She concentrated on producing more all-purpose graduates who were more readily employable in a variety of international companies, rather than, under the previous regime, an elite streamed to solely serve the Royal Ballet. Current British successes include principal dancers Lauren Cuthbertson and Rupert Pennefather, as well as Liam Scarlett, the Royal Ballet’s first Artist in Residence who is fast becoming a world-renowned choreographer.

Her strong leadership and drive had a huge impact on the School’s international success and reputation, with her legacy, according to Australian Ballet’s Director David McAllister, “living in the thousands of dancers whose careers she touched and nurtured during the prestigious positions she held.”

Born in Ballarat in Victoria, Australia, in 1946, Gailene Patricia Stock was the second of three daughters of Roy Stock, a journalist, and his wife, Sylvia, who taught theatre dance. Gailene was subsequently drawn to dance from an early age, but at the age of eight she contracted polio and spent over 18 months in hospital in an iron frame. She was told she would never walk again, but through painstaking rehabilitation and exercise she not only walked but was dancing again by the age of 12.

Two years later she had a further setback, suffering serious injuries when a collision between a cement lorry and her father’s car left her with a fractured skull and jaw and in a coma for three days, three months before she was to take her Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) intermediate exam. Showing great determination she pulled through and passed her exam with a commendation.

In 1962, aged 16, Stock was awarded a RAD scholarship to London’s Royal Ballet School. At the same time, Dame Peggy van Praagh chose her to be the youngest foundation member of the newly established Australian Ballet, so Stock deferred her scholarship to join the company. The following year she took up her scholarship in London, after which she was invited to join the Royal Ballet. She chose instead to return to Australian Ballet, where she spent the next seven years, touring the world and rising to Principal Dancer under Director Robert Helpmann. She also made frequent media appearances, the highlight being a cameo in Rudolf Nureyev’s film of Don Quixote (1973).

Stock spent three years in Canada as Principal Artist with the National Ballet of Canada, and with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, before returning with her husband, the principal and ballet master Gary Norman, to resume their careers with Australian Ballet in 1977. With the birth of their daughter Lisa the following year, Stock retired from dancing and moved into teaching and management. She was soon appointed Director of the National Theatre Ballet School in Melbourne.

After six successful years, in 1990 she became Director of the Australian Ballet School and then in 1999 she was head-hunted to take over from Merle Park as Director of the Royal Ballet School. She accepted the post with the proviso that her husband taught the boys at the School, exploiting the interest created following the 2000 film, Billy Elliot.

Under Stock’s watchful eye the School underwent major structural developments, including the 2003 move of the Upper School from Baron’s Court in West London to an award-winning conversion next to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, a £22m redevelopment of the Lower School at White Lodge in Richmond Park, completed in 2009, and new accommodation for Upper School students in 2010; she also helped establish the Young British Dancer of the Year award.

Stock’s knowledge and experience were regularly drawn upon by the international dance community and she often travelled as a jury member for international competitions, including stints as president of the Prix de Lausanne and the Youth America Grand Prix in New York. In 1997 she was appointed to the Order of Australia and in 1998 became the first Australian representative on the Executive and Artistic Committees of the Royal Academy of Dance in London. In 2013 she received the Governors of The Royal Ballet Gold Medal, and her CBE was taken to her hospital bed, where she was being treated for cancer after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Kevin O’Hare, the Royal Ballet’s current Director, paid tribute to Stock’s “talent, drive and determination’’ and said she “made an extraordinary contribution to dance and the dance world.”

MARTIN CHILDS

Gailene Stock, ballerina, teacher and administrator; born Ballarat, Victoria, Australia 28 January 1946; CBE 2013; married 1976 Gary Norman (one daughter); died London 29 April 2014.

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