Pamela May - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Pamela May

Glamorous Royal Ballet dancer

A ballerina of the highest order, Pamela May spent her entire performing career with the Royal Ballet, where she was one of a select handful of dancers second only to Margot Fonteyn. She started when British ballet was starting, when Ballet Rambert and the Vic-Wells Ballet were in their infancy. So she not only danced the standard 19th-century classics, but also created roles in works by Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois that were to define British ballet and form the company's core repertoire. This was to make her, later, a wonderful teacher, her students learning at first hand how a role had been conceived.

Doris May (Pamela May), ballet dancer and teacher: born San Fernando, Trinidad 30 May 1917; OBE 1977; married first Painton Cowan (deceased; one son), second Charles Gordon (deceased; one daughter); died Birmingham 6 June 2005.

A ballerina of the highest order, Pamela May spent her entire performing career with the Royal Ballet, where she was one of a select handful of dancers second only to Margot Fonteyn. She started when British ballet was starting, when Ballet Rambert and the Vic-Wells Ballet were in their infancy. So she not only danced the standard 19th-century classics, but also created roles in works by Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois that were to define British ballet and form the company's core repertoire. This was to make her, later, a wonderful teacher, her students learning at first hand how a role had been conceived.

She was born Doris May in 1917 in San Fernando, Trinidad. The family had moved to the Caribbean island because of her father's work as an oil engineer. When she was four they returned to London. Her first ballet teacher was Freda Grant and at 16 she joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet School. This was the school that fed de Valois's recently launched Vic-Wells Ballet and May made her début in the company in 1934, becoming a salaried member soon after.

Once in the company she found herself making rapid progress and dancing under a new name. "The Prelude in Sylphides," de Valois declared, "cannot be danced by Doris May." So the unfashionable Doris was changed to Pamela in the printed programme and May was told after the event, which was rather a blow, as she had been toying with Angela or Penelope.

As contemporaries she and Margot Fonteyn were close friends, sharing accommodation on tour, spending several summers together in Paris where they took classes with celebrated Russian émigré teachers. Another Vic-Wells dancer, June Brae, also went on these Paris trips and, after the first of these in 1935, the three girls briefly toured with the newly launched Markova-Dolin Company in the north of England, before the start of the new Vic-Wells season in the autumn.

For several years, the Vic-Wells Ballet performed at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge in May and the prettier girls would stay on for the university's May Balls. Pamela May, Margot Fonteyn and June Brae were nicknamed "the Triptych" by the dons and it was there that May met both her future husbands (and Fonteyn met Roberto Arias, whom she was to marry much later).

The company (now the Sadler's Wells Ballet) continued performing during the Second World War and new ballets were still being staged. May had already created the role of the Red Queen in de Valois's best-known ballet, Checkmate (1937). She had also created roles in several Ashton ballets: Les Patineurs (1937), A Wedding Bouquet (1937) and Horoscope (1938). But now came more roles from De Valois: she was Mlle Théodore in The Prospect Before Us (1940) and the titular heroine in Orpheus and Eurydice (1941). In 1940 Ashton added a "Foxtrot" number to his popular Façade for her and gave her a leading role in his mould-breaking, barefoot Dante Sonata (which Birmingham Royal Ballet remounted in 2000 with her help).

In The Wanderer (1941) Ashton choreographed a compelling, romantic pas de deux for May and the company's rising premier danseur Michael Somes. For this sequence, Ashton invented a walking-the-air lift for May that was to become a signature in his subsequent work. The ballet was made during a Christmas retreat for the company at Dartington Hall, Devon, where, between rehearsals, the company ate nutritious home-grown food and played strip poker.

Soon after, May left the company to marry Painton Cowan, one of the young men she had met at Cambridge. But three weeks after her son (also named Painton) was born, her husband was killed in action. Not long after, in 1942, May famously took Fonteyn to task for developing a star complex. Fonteyn was the first to acknowledge that May in speaking her mind had acted as a true friend. "Completely broken up by her loss," she wrote in her autobiography,

and living as she did facing up to stark reality, she was in no mood to put up with my fanciful airs. She told me outright I had become a bore.

After the war she remarried - another Cambridge friend, Charles Gordon, with whom she had a daughter, Caroline. And when Sadler's Wells Ballet reopened the Royal Opera House with Fonteyn in The Sleeping Beauty, an occasion and production that became a dance legend, May led the second performance. The same year (1946) she and Henry Danton were one of three couples - Fonteyn and Somes, Moira Shearer and Brian Shaw were the others - in Ashton's new Symphonic Variations, often considered his greatest work. In 1948 she created the role of the Fairy Godmother in Ashton's first three-act ballet, Cinderella.

Admired for her technical purity, her other classical roles included Odette-Odile in Swan Lake and the Queen of the Wilis in Giselle. She was considered to be particularly fine as the mettlesome Swanilda in Coppélia. In addition to having a superb line - highlighted by the role of the Moon in Ashton's Horoscope - she was a sensitive actress. And she had glamour: a quality that spilled over into real life. She belonged to a theatre generation which emerged from the stage door dressed stunningly, like stars.

In 1952 she premiered her last created role, as the mother in John Cranko's Bonne-Bouche, and made her début as a character dancer, playing the Princess Mother in Swan Lake. From then on she concentrated on character parts until her retirement from the stage in 1982.

She taught at the Royal Ballet School from 1954 to 1977, as well as teaching freelance. She was one of the Governors of the Royal Ballet Companies and was a Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Dancing. She received the Royal Academy of Dancing Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award in 1976 and was appointed OBE in 1997.

Nadine Meisner

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