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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project