Mona Inglesby

Dancer of great energy who was founder director and leading ballerina of the International Ballet

Mona Vredenburg (Mona Inglesby), dancer, choreographer and director: born London 3 May 1918; married 1946 Major E.G. Derrington (died 1985; one son); died Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex 6 October 2006.

Mona Inglesby was a phenomenon in English ballet at a time when its foundations were still being laid - one of several crucial women to whom British ballet owes its existence. Inglesby allied driving ambition with a canny practical sense to found one of the major British companies of the 1940s-1950s, the International Ballet.

As its director and leading ballerina, she initiated audiences the length and breadth of the British Isles to ballet and, with her Russian ballet master Nikolai Sergeyev, presented versions of the big classics that were generally more authentic than the versions of other companies. She gave employment to an ensemble of some 70 dancers, as well as a full orchestra and music director, James Walker. Her dancers included stars and future stars: Harold Turner, Moira Shearer, Sonia Arova, Celia Franca and the French choreographer Maurice Béjart.

For Béjart the International Ballet was clearly a formative experience in his career as a ballet populariser on a grand scale. It was with this company that he not only danced his first full-length Swan Lake (in Paris only the second act was ever performed), but saw how ballet - even sombre pieces such as Giselle - could thrill ordinary people in regional England. Mona Inglesby's achievements were therefore extraordinary; yet her name is widely forgotten.

She was born Mona Vredenburg in 1918 in London. Her father was a Dutch businessman, Julius Cato Vredenburg; but initially she danced under the family name of Kimberley, before opting for Inglesby. As a child she had several enthusiasms - riding horses (third prize children's class at Olympia), piano and painting. Aged four, she began dance classes. Aged five, she made her stage début at the Scala Theatre as a Silver Bell and later appeared in charity shows. Aged 12, she decided to focus on ballet when she started to train with Marie Rambert, whose Ballet Club (later Ballet Rambert) was the rival company to Ninette de Valois's Vic-Wells Ballet (later Royal Ballet).

She also took lessons elsewhere: in England, with the distinguished teachers Margaret Craske and Nikolai Legat; and later (1935) in Paris with the legendary émigré ballerinas of the Russian Imperial Ballet Mathilde Kschessinskaya and Lubov Egorova. Meanwhile, she was dancing in various Ballet Club pieces: she made her début in Frederick Ashton's Foyer de Danse at 14; she replaced an injured Alicia Markova in de Valois's Bar aux Folies Bergère (1934). She was the Bride in Andrée Howard's Mermaid (1934) and Lampito in Antony Tudor's Lysistrata (1932).

In the family home's attic, her parents had installed a mirror, barre and baby grand piano for her. Perhaps she felt under-used by Rambert, perhaps she was simply responding to her enormous energy for work, but, either way, she began quietly formulating ideas for other projects. In 1939, aged just 21, she made her choreographic début with Endymion, premiered at a charity matinée at the Cambridge Theatre, with music by Moskowski and designs by no lesser a designer than Sophie Fedorovitch. The same year she danced in the corps de ballet of Victor Dandré's Russian Ballet when it appeared at the Royal Opera House.

On 19 May 1941 she launched the International Ballet in Glasgow with a loan of £5,000 from her father and a repertoire that consisted of the second act of Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, Aurora's Wedding, Prince Igor, Inglesby's Endymion and a new creation by her, Amoras. Stanislas Idzikowsky, then retired as an international dance star, was its first ballet master and the brilliant virtuoso Harold Turner its principal male dancer. (He returned to de Valois's company a year later.)

Its first London season was at the Lyric Theatre in the same year and two new ballets were added: Inglesby's Planetomania and Harold Turner's Fête en Bohème. (In 1943 she also choreographed Everyman and in 1946 The Masque of Comus.) London was to be a regular, annual fixture and, when the Royal Festival Hall opened in 1951, it was the International Ballet which gave the inaugural performance before the Queen.

To keep such a privately funded company going was remarkable, facilitated by Inglesby's skill in finding good people to help her, by giving audiences a repertoire they liked and by appearing in large-scale auditoria, such as cinemas, and even Butlin's holiday camps. She also initiated an educational policy with explanatory lectures, presented in conjunction with performances. She launched a ballet school, the International School of Ballet, where Moira Shearer was one of the pupils who entered the company. And she organised occasional tours abroad, among them a trip to Zurich in 1950, where they presented nine performances in a stadium to a total audience of 120,000, thereby earning a large profit.

But her biggest coup was enlisting Nikolai Sergeyev to stage the full-length versions of Swan Lake, Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. Sergeyev, who had been director-general of the Maryinsky Ballet, had fled Russia after the October Revolution with the Stepanov notations of the company's ballets and it was from these notations that the Russian classical repertoire of British companies is derived. From 1933 to 1939 he worked for Ninette de Valois, mounting productions for the company that was to become the Royal Ballet.

But in 1941 he joined the International Ballet, where he found a freer, more receptive environment for his methods. As well as staging ballets, he also coached members of the company to his exacting Russian standards. When he died, the Stepanov notations fell to Inglesby and in 1969 she sold them to Harvard Theatre Collection, where they have become the chief tool in the Maryinsky Ballet's recent recreations of The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère.

The International Ballet closed in 1953, eclipsed by the launch of Festival Ballet. Yet it had survived without subsidy for 12 years. Despite this considerable achievement, Inglesby was never treated kindly by the press, and this is perhaps why she fell into near-obscurity after her retirement. Had she been Anna Pavlova, she would not have been suspected of creating a vanity company to show off her own dancing.

She was a capable dancer, not an outstanding one. So, when she cast herself in the lead roles of most of the ballets, she was regarded with some hostility. Yet, in 1948 the critic Cyril Beaumont was able to write of her Odette in Swan Lake, "[She] now has at her command a considerable range of technique, moreover she has developed a more fluent line", and the magazine Ballet Today described her as having "some remarkable qualities as a dancer; she is exceptionally light, swift and aerial with strong, beautiful feet".

After her company's closure, she retired from ballet. In 1946, she had married Major E.G. Derrington and they had a son. When the Maryinsky Ballet came to London in 2000 with their "new" Sleeping Beauty reconstructed from the Stepanov notations, the producer Sergei Vikharev went to visit her, as a mark of homage to her own links with this Sleeping Beauty. By then she was at the rest home in Bexhill-on-Sea where she died last week.

Nadine Meisner

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