Laverne Meyer: Founder of Northern Dance Theatre
Tuesday 13 May 2008
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.
Laverne Meyer, dancer, choreographer, ballet director and teacher: born Guelph, Canada 1 February 1935; died London 25 April 2008.
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