John Percival: Dance critic for ‘The Independent’


The dance critic John Percival belonged to a generation which, in the 1950s, persuaded newspapers to employ specialist writers rather than making do with music critics. Before joining The Independent (1997-2002), he had been The Times' critic for 32 years. He was a familiarly tall silhouette at performances, always there because he had an exceptional receptiveness to dance of any creed and faithfully fulfilled the critic's duty to be well informed. Where others might flag after a few weeks of non-stop performances, he was invariably hungry for more.

This was especially remarkable given that by day he was a local government administrator, latterly with the Inner London Education Authority until its dissolution in 1990. His commitment meant that The Times charted dance at home and abroad with a completeness unequalled by any British paper before or since.

Born in Walthamstow, London in 1927, the elder son in the working-class family of Cecil and Phoebe Percival, he was a 16-year old at St George Monoux Grammar School when he saw his first dance performance. A friend had recommended a programme by Sadler's Wells Ballet in Victoria Park, Hackney, and it was the wittiness of the last item, Frederick Ashton's Façade, that got him hooked. He became a balletomane, able to afford the cheapest tickets by walking home from Sadler's Wells Theatre to Walthamstow.

Those years formed his wide-ranging taste. Dance boundaries were being exploded and new stimuli came thick and fast to the UK, beginning with the German expressionism of the Ballets Jooss. Then came, for example, Roland Petit's sharp-edged, Gallic take on ballet; the pure-dance of George Balanchine's New York City Ballet; Martha Graham, high priestess of American modern dance; and the first Western visit of a Soviet company, the Bolshoi Ballet, in 1956.

After National Service spent working in a hospital as a conscientious objector, he went to Oxford in 1948 to read English. The year before he had met Clive Barnes, a regular in the queues for gallery tickets. They became lifelong friends and Clive, who would precede John as The Times' first full-time dance critic in 1961, also went to Oxford. Together they took over the university's Ballet Club.

At Oxford John began writing for specialist publications, such as Dance & Dancers. In 1981, he would become editor until the magazine's closure in 1994. On graduating in 1951, he joined the London County Council. Travelling cheap to watch dance far and wide, he and Clive earned the moniker "the vigilantes" because of their habit (continued throughout their careers) of watching nearly every cast of a given production.

John managed to get published in various newspapers and the short-lived The New Daily provided his first regular outlet. When Clive became the New York Times' chief dance critic in 1965, John succeeded him at The Times. At that time, there was little page space – 289 words, for example, for a major premiere. Later, when reviews got longer, the previous restriction contributed to John's distinctive ability to pack information without rebuffing the reader. His prose was engaging and accessible, uncluttered and direct, peppered with sudden jolts of particularly incisive observation.

His openness to the experimental, allied to a deep love and knowledge of ballet, made him a rare and important critic. He championed iconoclasts such as Michael Clark and William Forsythe; he was the one national critic who from the start gave full coverage to the post-modern Dance Umbrella festivals; he wrote as enthusiastically about Pina Bausch – whose earliest work he saw in 1970s Wuppertal – as about established choreographers such as Ashton and Peter Darrell.

His mild, taciturn manner hid a sharp mind gifted with total recall. He never took notes at performances and, in the days when overnight reviews were commonplace, he wrote at an astonishing speed. His knowledge was so encylopaedic that some of us shamelessly took to phoning him to sort out facts, because it would be quicker than scouring books or the internet.

He was the author of Nureyev: Aspects of the Dancer (1975), Facts about a Ballet Company (1978), The World of Diaghilev (1979), Modern Ballet (1980), Theatre in My Blood: A Biography of John Cranko (1983) and, with Alexander Bland, Men Dancing (1984). He was a past president of the Critics' Circle and was made MBE in 2002.

John Percival, dance critic and author: born Walthamstow, London 16 March 1927; MBE 2002; married 1953 Betty Thorne-Large (divorced 1972), 1972 Judith Cruickshank; died London 20 June 2012.