Maryon Lane: Sadler's Wells ballerina

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The Independent Online

Petite, with dark hair, a pretty, oval face and ideal proportions, Maryon Lane had the quintessential looks of a ballerina of her time. Born in Zululand in 1931, she was one of an important group of young dancers from the Commonwealth who found success in England.

Without the likes of Lane and fellow southern Africans such as Nadia Nerina, Monica Mason and John Cranko, the talent-base of the Royal Ballet would have been severely depleted. And without Maryon Lane, the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan would have been deprived of an early muse. Lane created central roles in ballets that defined MacMillan's innovative vision and marked him out as a major artist.

Born Patricia Mills, she studied ballet in Johannesburg before coming to London to the Sadler's Wells School. She arrived in 1946, shortly after the Sadler's Wells Ballet moved to its new home, the Royal Opera House, where it later became the Royal Ballet. Dancers left behind in the Sadler's Wells Theatre formed the core of a second company, the Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet (soon renamed Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet). New recruits were needed and in 1947, aged 16, Lane was taken into the second company.

Her sharp technique and musicality, woven with a vivid presence that contradicted her small stature, soon brought her to the attention of the company's director Ninette de Valois and the choreographer Frederick Ashton. In her first year she danced in the premiere of Ashton's Valses nobles et sentimentales and later, in 1951, created a role in his Casse-Noisette. In 1948 she was promoted to principal.

Other choreographers were quick to use her. In 1950, when George Balanchine created Trumpet Concerto for the Sadler's Wells Theatre company, he picked Lane as one of the three soloists supporting the lead couple, Svetlana Beriosova and David Blair. Walter Gore cast her in his Carte Blanche (1953) and Alfred Rodrigues in his Café des Sports (1954), a comic ballet about a bicycle race.

Most enduring was Lane's collaboration with Kenneth MacMillan, who choreographed his first ballet, Somnabulism (1953), with Lane and Margaret Hill in the female roles. A last-minute crisis threatened the premiere: Hill fell ill and MacMillan himself had to dance her solo, adapting the choreography to a man's way of moving. Even so, the ballet was a triumph, televised in 1954 by the BBC with the new title The Dreamers.

In 1954 Lane created the title role of MacMillan's Laiderette, a workshop production and the first of his ballets on the theme of social outsiders. Lane played a young girl whose admirer rejects her when her bald head is revealed, and the gritty poignancy of the part was perfect for her expressive powers and childlike physique.

After Laiderette came MacMillan's Danses Concertantes (1955), to Stravinsky's acerbic score, a plotless ballet that made rigorous demands on the dancers' techniques and musical understanding. In keeping with the music, MacMillan devised a wilfully modern dance language, fracturing ballet's harmonies with strange hand movements, off-kilter postures and abrupt changes of direction. Lane danced an extended pas de deux with David Poole that included unexpected lifts and highlighted her technical and expressive qualities. Shortly after came another MacMillan ballet, House of Birds (1955), based on a Grimm fairy tale, in which Lane was one of two lovers captured by a frightening Bird Woman.

The same year (1955) was marked by Lane's transfer to the main company at the Royal Opera House as soloist. Her professional association with MacMillan continued with Noctambules (1956), a mysterious character piece, in which she created the part of a hypnotist's assistant, and she danced the premiere of Diversions (1961), a rare pure-classical piece in MacMillan's canon.

Meanwhile she was working with other choreographers. Ashton chose her for the title part of his 1955 Madame Chrysanthème, when the company appeared in New York later the same year. She portrayed a Japanese woman who, for all her charm, was entirely opaque to her Western lover. In Ashton's Ondine (1958), Lane and her partner were the lead couple in the third-act divertissement, a pure-dance sequence combining technical brilliance with a doom-laden atmosphere.

She had met her husband David Blair while they were dancers with the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet. Blair moved to the main company a few years earlier than Lane and in 1960 created the central male part of Colas in Ashton's famous La Fille mal gardée; it was during the rehearsal period of this ballet that Lane gave birth to twin daughters.

In 1966 she appeared as a guest with Ballet Rambert in their production of MacMillan's Laiderette and was an alluring Caroline in their revival of Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. She retired from the Royal Ballet in 1968, becoming a teacher at the Royal Ballet School, the London Ballet Centre and the Urdang Academy. In recent years she had been living in Cyprus, where she set up the Maryon Lane Ballet Academy in Kyrenia.

Nadine Meisner

Patricia Mills (Maryon Lane), ballet dancer and teacher: born 15 February 1931; married 1957 David Blair (died 1976; two daughters); died 13 June 2008.