Nadia Nerina: Ballerina whose effortless and dazzling virtuosity made her a favourite of Frederick Ashton

Nadia Nerina's most famous role is so popular, so fixed in the minds of even the most casual ballet lovers, that any other ballerina would have sold her soul for the same chance of creating it. She was the adorable, mischievous Lise, the delinquent daughter determined to marry the man of her choice and heroine of La Fille mal gardée, Frederick Ashton's most-loved ballet.

These days, you can see La Fille mal gardée on stages in Paris, Moscow and America, as well as in London. But for its premiere in 1960, Ashton was working for the Royal Ballet, and as Lise he chose not his muse Margot Fonteyn, but Nerina, whose sunny stage personality, melting lightness and fizz had impressed him on previous occasions. He would enjoy pushing her un-English virtuosity to the limit, just as he would later do with the Russian star Mikhail Baryshnikov with the pure-dance Rhapsody in 1980. For Nerina, La Fille mal gardée was sheer pleasure, one in which she allied the effortless dazzle of her technique with the humour and humanity Ashton intended. "if ever you started a performance feeling flat," she wrote, "you became so caught up in the fun of it that you were exhilarated and refreshed."

Like many eminent British-based dancers of her generation, Nerina came from the Commonwealth. She was born Nadine Judd in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1927, the daughter of a businessman and a mother whose name – Nerine is a South African flower – Nadia would adopt for the stage. it was a doctor's recommendation that took her to her first dance class, aged eight, in Bloemfontein, where the family now lived.

Soon after, she made her stage début, when a touring opera company needed a baby for Madame Butterfly. Although rather old for the part, she was chosen because she was so tiny. She was distraught when she saw Madame Butterfly stab herself with a dagger; nothing anybody said could console her; and then she was totally baffled when she saw Madame Butterfly walk back on stage the following night.

On moving to Durban in 1939, Nerina started dance classes with two fine teachers. Dorothea McNair had worked with Marie Rambert in Britain and Eileen Keegan had danced with Pavlova. impressed by her gifts and outstandingly hard work, the teachers advised her father (by then her mother was dead) to send her to Britain for further training.

In October 1945 her father managed to secure her a boat passage from Cape Town (not easy so soon after the Second World War) and aged 17 she arrived at the school of Marie Rambert, who took her under her wing. However, at the insistence of her father she then enrolled at Ninette de Valois' rival Sadler's Wells school. Given Rambert's kindness towards her, the news that she could not simultaneously attend both schools was a shock. None the less she had to make a choice, and stayed with Sadler's Wells.

In 1946 she joined the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, newly formed to replace the company that had moved to Covent Garden (where it eventually became the Royal Ballet). Her first created role was as a Circus Dancer in Andrée Howard's Mardi Gras in 1946. Howard was not pleased at having this novice thrust upon her, especially one so unused to learning roles quickly. But she completely revised her opinion at the premiere and the role was Nerina's first success. She also danced one of the solos in Les Sylphides and was given a leading part in Children's Corner, choreographed by a South African compatriot, John Cranko.

In December 1947 she transferred to the bigger company at Covent Garden, where immediately on arriving she danced the lead of Les Sylphides with Alexis Rassine – "an undreamed of promotion," she said. But at the other extreme, she often had to appear as a member of the corps de ballet, something she had managed to avoid with the junior company.

Ninette de Valois had noticed her unusual promise, especially her elevation – not a strong point among English dancers – and her natural flow of movement. it was this technical brilliance which, in 1962, was at the root of an episode of one-upmanship which she admitted had been "naughty" but "also great fun". it followed Nureyev's performance of Giselle during which he had amazed his audience by inserting a series of entrechats-six in a second-act solo. Nerina, performing Swan Lake and knowing Nureyev to be in the audience, substituted 32 entrechats-six for Black Swan's famous 32 fouettés. (The postscript though, that Nureyev stormed out of the theatre, is apocryphal.)

Her special qualities also informed the composition of her first created role at Covent Garden. When Ashton cast her as the Spring Fairy in his new Cinderella (1948), he made her listen to the music and tell him what it suggested. She told him, "the bursting of buds", and the result was a dazzling cascade of steps that held the audience riveted. Although Nerina was the stylistic opposite of the lyrical Fonteyn, Ashton would go on to give her many other created roles – Homage to the Queen, Variations on a Theme of Purcell, Birthday Offering – and also the leads in some of his existing ballets, such as Cinderella, Sylvia and Ondine.

She excelled in ballets by Mikhail Fokine: among them, The Firebird, Carnaval and Petrushka, as well as Les Sylphides. Léonid Massine chose her to dance the title role in his 1947 production of Mam'zelle Angot and the Can-Can dancer in his Boutique Fantasque. if many of these were demi-caractère ballets, she could also rise to the challenge of grand classical parts, as she showed with the rich clarity of her Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.

In 1954 Ninette de Valois gave Nerina the lead role in her new production of Coppélia; and then in 1960 came La Fille mal gardée, dancing opposite David Blair, a regular partner. The same year she became the second dancer from a British company to be invited to appear in Russia, guesting in Swan Lake in Moscow and, in 1961, in Giselle in Leningrad. The Russians were impressed by her commitment to learning their versions of these ballets, using every last minute to rehearse.

In 1965 she accepted an invitation to perform the lead in Home, created for her and Western Theatre Ballet by Peter Darrell. The playwright John Mortimer's scenario about life in a mental home, combined with Darrell's gritty intensity, might have been against type, but she fitted in well. She also did a lot of television work, including a filmed version of La Fille mal gardée with Blair in 1962, and Laurencia pas de six, dancing with Nureyev in his own production, in 1964.

She stopped performing with the Royal Ballet in 1968 and continued making occasional gala appearances for another year before retiring completely and moving to the South of France. Married from 1956 to an entrepreneur, Charles Gordon, she always gave her gala fees to ballet charities. To the Greater London Council she donated an abstract statue, titled Zemran, which now stands near the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the South Bank Centre. Her memories, with additional essays by friends and colleagues, are collected in Clement Crisp's Ballerina: portraits and impressions of Nadia Nerina (1975).

Nadine Meisner

Nadine Judd (Nadia Nerina), ballerina: born Cape Town, South Africa 21 October 1927; married 1956 Charles Gordon; died Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France 6 October 2008.

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