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Norman Morrice: Modernising director of Rambert and the Royal Ballet

Norman Morrice, dancer, choreographer, director and teacher: born Agua Dulce, Mexico 10 September 1931; Associate Director, Ballet Rambert 1966-74; Director, The Royal Ballet 1977-86, Director, Royal Ballet Choreographic Group 1987-96; Director, Choreographic Studies, Royal Ballet School 1987-2000; died London c10 January 2008

Norman Morrice had such humility, he was so self-effacing, he did himself a disservice. His modest renown did not equal his importance in the development of British dance. As a choreographer, director and teacher of vision and wisdom, he had an influence that was, in fact, pivotal. Many in the dance community believed he had turned into a recluse in recent years, but in truth he had become reluctant to continue as a public dance figure. He maintained his close friendships, and it is these friends who raised the alarm at his sudden, atypical silence. His body was found at his London home last Friday.

The man who would become the director of Ballet Rambert (now Rambert Dance Company) and of the Royal Ballet was born in Agua Dulce, Mexico in 1931 to British parents – and had been destined to follow his father as a geophysicist. When he was six, he and his sister Ruby were sent from Mexico to live with their grandmother in Aboyne, a village near Aberdeen. It was in Aberdeen that he saw his first ballet performance: Swan Lake. He liked to joke that it was the sight of Beryl Grey's bodice-strap breaking that converted him to the art.

Eventually, reunited with his parents, he moved to Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, where he took ballet classes. He was a late starter and already 21 when he took up a scholarship at the Rambert School in London. His parents were disappointed, especially his mother. She reputedly became reconciled only when he became director of the Royal Ballet.

He joined Ballet Rambert, Britain's first ballet company, in 1953, where he was valued as an expressive dancer rather than a virtuoso. In 1958, he choreographed his first piece, a modern-dress drama about sibling jealousy called Two Brothers. Set to a score by Ernst von Dohnányi and inspired by the James Dean film East of Eden, its title roles were performed by Morrice and John Chesworth. This was good enough to persuade the company's founder, Marie Rambert, to allow Morrice to choreograph one piece every year.

When Two Brothers was shown at the Jacob's Pillow dance festival in the United States, it impressed American benefactors enough for them to award Morrice a bursary for 1961-62. In the US, he discovered new American dance – from modern ballet to contemporary idioms – and studied Graham Technique at Martha Graham's school.

On his return he became Rambert's principal choreographer and gradually abandoned his performing career. Already in 1959, he had choreographed Hazaña ("Achievement"), in which a man (Chesworth) struggles to erect a heavy cross on a newly built church, encouraged or hindered by other characters. This was followed by A Place in the Desert (1961), Conflicts (1962) and The Travellers (1963). All these pieces were theatrical, breaking new ground with big themes, music that was often contemporary and designs by boldly innovative artists such as Ralph Koltai and Nadine Baylis. Morrice had started as a classical choreographer, but after America, moved into a more contemporary aesthetic.

Ballet Rambert, however, had run into difficulties. The company had started in 1926 as a small creative ensemble, showing the work of new choreographers such as Antony Tudor and Frederick Ashton. But after the war, under pressure from changing tastes and advice from the Arts Council, it had gradually placed more emphasis on scaled-down productions of the popular 19th-century classics, which required a corps de ballet. Despite expanding in size, Rambert had neither sufficient dancers, nor the funding to compete with the Royal Ballet and London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) on their own ground. It was a case of either change or die.

Morrice proposed that Rambert should downsize and return to its creative roots, using young choreographers, designers and composers. He saw that recent visits to London by American companies such as Martha Graham's and Paul Taylor's had sparked a taste for modern dance. He realised that to survive Rambert needed to keep what was best in its repertory – that is, the pieces created by its earlier choreographers, especially Antony Tudor – and combine this with work offering a more contemporary approach.

Once his ideas were accepted, he worked like a madman. "It was an extraordinary achievement to turn a company round like that in six or eight months," says Val Bourne, a friend of Morrice and former director of the Dance Umbrella festival. With a smaller, leaner group of 17 dancers, all with solo status, the company also had to face up to the reality of a smaller audience. From presenting seasons at Sadler's Wells, Rambert now bravely had to adjust to the humbler Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre in Bloomsbury, before gradually building up its following again and returning to Sadler's Wells.

It was truly a momentous change, executed a year before the founding of London Contemporary Dance Theatre. As such, Morrice can said to have been a pioneering architect of British contemporary dance, the first to bring it to the stage.

Named Associate Director, Morrice was largely running Rambert on a daily basis. He invited American choreographers to work with the company, including Anna Sokolow and, most importantly, Glen Tetley, whose mould-breaking fusion of ballet and contemporary technique had already made a mark in the Netherlands. Tetley was to be an important influence, mounting three existing works (including Pierrot Lunaire), and creating Ziggurat, all in the same year (1967). He then created Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (1968), Rag Dances (1971) and The Tempest (1979). Meanwhile, Morrice set about encouraging John Chesworth, Jonathan Taylor and Christopher Bruce as in-house choreographers. Of these, Bruce has been the most successful, achieving long-lasting popularity in repertories around the world.

ITV made a television programme about Morrice in 1971 called People for Tomorrow. In 1974 he received the Royal Academy of Dancing Elizabeth II Coronation Award. That year, wanting more time for his own choreography, he resigned as director to pursue a freelance career. He fulfilled commissions from Rambert, the Batsheva company in Israel, and the Australian Dance Theatre.

In 1977, urged on by the Royal Ballet's founder Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert ("she made him feel it was almost his national duty," says Bourne), he accepted the directorship of the Royal Ballet. It was not a happy experience, nor a particularly successful one. The Royal Ballet is a hard place if you haven't come through the system. It was clearly felt that engaging an outsider from contemporary dance was quite enough, without allowing him to create work. So he didn't choreograph, restricting himself to mounting productions of Swan Lake (1979) and Giselle (1980) and encouraging – as he had with Rambert – new choreographers, both within the company and outside. The Royal Ballet's Ashley Page and Michael Corder made their choreographic débuts on the Royal Opera House stage, as did Richard Alston, an alumnus of London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

Morrice stayed until 1986, after which he never returned to choreographing, to the regret of many. Did he feel that he had stopped for too long? Or that he had lost touch? In 1993 Richard Alston, then Director of Rambert, was planning to revive Morrice's That Is the Show (1971), with music by Luciano Berio, but the project was aborted by Alston's abrupt departure from Rambert. The piece's themes managed to evoke the legend of Tristan and Isolde while drawing parallels with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It sounds odd, but many considered it a fine work, his best.

Morrice threw all his energies into teaching choreography, always ready, with his kindly sensitivity and talent to help. He was for many years Director of the Royal Ballet Choreographic Group and Head of the Choreographic Composition Course at the Royal Ballet School. He was therefore responsible for moulding generations of young choreographers. For a while it had seemed that classical ballet was in the creative doldrums; but recent Royal Ballet-trained choreographers have smashed all gloomy forecasts. People such as Christopher Wheeldon, Cathy Marston and Christopher Hampson are now blazing stages the world over. And that, in part, is thanks to Norman Morrice.

Nadine Meisner