Laverne Meyer: Founder of Northern Dance Theatre

Like many of the prominent figures of British dance during the 1950s and 1960s, Laverne Meyer arrived at the Royal Ballet School from the Commonwealth – Canada in his case. But unlike his Commonwealth contemporaries he will be remembered not as a dancer or choreographer (although he was both of these), but as the founder of England's first officially funded regional ballet company. A modest, shy man by nature, Meyer was none the less extremely proud that this company, now known as Northern Ballet Theatre, is still very much in existence.

His exterior was gentle – with his tousled mop of grizzled hair he looked, as the critic James Monahan wrote, like a professor. But behind lay a tough resolve which manifested itself early on. Aged eight, living in Guelph, 60 miles from Toronto, he knew he wanted to learn dancing. Faced with a choice between tap – and tap – he became proficient enough to be called, to his retrospective glee, "the Fred Astaire of Canada".

But he had a curiosity about ballet which pushed him to travel to Toronto twice a week for classes and the chance to watch the National Ballet of Canada. The performances of Antony Tudor's Lilac Garden and Dark Elegies were eye-opening experiences for him, sombre distillations of dramatic movement in which he saw the destiny of ballet. He was eventually accepted by the distinguished teacher Boris Volkov, and to his parents' consternation, decided to forgo university in favour of a job in a paint factory which would allow him to continue with ballet on the side.

To his surprise, he passed an audition for the Sadler's Wells (now Royal Ballet) School and so, in 1956, already aged 21, he arrived to spend just over a year in an institution where he was, in his own words, a rather elderly and backward senior. His younger classmates would prove to be a spectacular vintage, including, as they did, Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable.

Meyer danced briefly with Welsh National Opera and attended the studios of other teachers such as Lubov Egorova in Paris and Anna Northcote in London. At one of Northcote's classes he met Elizabeth West, who was launching a small company – Western Theatre Ballet. It was 1957, the era, in British theatre, of the Angry Young Man. She and the company's founding choreographer, Peter Darrell, wanted to challenge the status quo of mainstream ballet with chamber works about real people in a contemporary world. She invited Meyer to join.

Initially based in Bristol, Western Theatre Ballet existed on a shoestring. Darrell created works such as The Prisoners (1957) that used contemporary composers and themes and identified him as a real talent. The dancers also performed dramatic works by other notable choreographers such as Kenneth MacMillan and Fleming Flindt.

The company was gaining critical recognition and, during a brief season abroad, it so impressed Maurice Huisman, administrator of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, that he invited it to appear there along with the companies of Janine Charrat and Maurice Béjart. This meant that, as well as performing their own work, they merged with the other companies to dance Béjart's Rite of Spring (to Stravinsky), a famous, overwhelming work that led to the formation of Béjart's Brussels-based Ballet du XXème Siècle.

Meanwhile, some of Western Theatre Ballet's dancers were also trying their hand at choreography. Meyer created his first ballet, The Web (1962), set to music by Webern, which was well received. Besides this, and dancing, he was working as Elizabeth West's typist, which he would see as his first schooling in administration. Then, the same year (1962), disaster struck: West was killed by a falling stone while climbing in the Italian Alps. A few days later, Darrell accepted the role of artistic director and Meyer was appointed Ballet Master and Associate Director.

Meyer choreographed Reconciliations (1963) and The Trial (1966), both to music by Berg, which (like Webern) was considered "challenging". In 1965 the company moved to London, to dance in the opera productions of the Sadler's Wells Opera and, finally, in 1969, it settled in Glasgow where it took the name Scottish Theatre Ballet (now Scottish Ballet).

Scottish Theatre Ballet made its Glasgow debut in May 1969, collaborating with Scottish Opera in The Trojans. This production staged both parts of Berlioz's opera completely uncut (never done before) and had Janet Baker in the role of Dido. With Darrell already occupied with creating a full-length ballet, the choreography fell to Meyer, who successfully wove movement sequences throughout the opera's action, with dancers involved right from the opening scene.

However, Meyer had already been busy with other plans. He had been asked to prepare a feasibility study for a regional company based in Manchester. This resulted in the establishment of Northern Dance Theatre (later Northern Ballet Theatre), backed by the Arts Council, North West Arts and other supporters. The company of 10 dancers made its début on 28 November 1969 at the University Theatre, Manchester, accompanied by musicians of the Royal Northern College of Music.

The emphasis was on small-scale classical and modern works. The result – eclectic, not too radical and including modern classics such as Kurt Jooss's The Green Table and Fokine's Le Carnaval – was liked by northern audiences. Meyer planned to add two dancers each year as the repertoire expanded and by 1975, the company numbered 18.

Meyer continued to choreograph, contributing some 11 ballets, including a full-length Cinderella (1973, to music by Robert Stewart) and Aladdin (1974, music by Ernest Tomlinson), as well as shorter pieces. He also encouraged the dancers to choreograph and one of these, Jonathan Thorpe, would become recognised as a gifted creator.

Vis-à-vis his own choreography, Meyer was the first to admit he was merely a competent choreographer. He rated only three of his ballets: The Web, Brahms Sonata (1970) and Silent Episode (1970). He thought of himself less as a choreographer than a company-maker. His big achievement was to give the north of England its own ballet company for the first time.

In 1975, while preparing to stage a production of Coppélia, he resigned following a disagreement over artistic policy. Meyer then concentrated on staging existing ballets for other companies, and teaching. For many years he was a senior lecturer in classical ballet at the Laban Centre in London. From 1991-95 he was Director of Ballet at the Legat School in Sussex. In 2000 he retired and, although he still did some teaching, he was determined to enjoy his allotment in Richmond.

Nadine Meisner

Laverne Meyer, dancer, choreographer, ballet director and teacher: born Guelph, Canada 1 February 1935; died London 25 April 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
science
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links