Ray Powell

Stalwart of the Australian Ballet
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The Independent Online

Ray Powell, dancer, choreographer, ballet master and teacher: born Hitchin, Hertfordshire 20 March 1925; MBE 1976; died Melbourne, Victoria 7 October 2003.

For someone who had originally intended to follow in his father's trade as a tailor, Ray Powell's achievements were not only unlikely, but far-flung and far-reaching. When the Australian Ballet's founder Peggy van Praagh invited him to come and work for her new company's first-ever season in 1962, he went out from Britain on a three-month contract. But he stayed for good, as ballet master and (from 1972) as associate director, to become, with van Praagh, one of the pioneers of a national company that has since become internationally respected.

His contribution to ballet in Australia may have been the most important aspect of his career, but his earlier impact as a dancer in England was considerable. Born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, in 1925, one of two boys in the marriage of Douglas and Peggy Powell, he had a go at tailoring, but, when someone suggested that perhaps he could try something else, he took up ballet.

After attending local classes, he went on to the Sadler's Wells Ballet School (now the Royal Ballet School) and became a member of the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) in 1941, creating roles in Frederick Ashton's The Quest and Ninette de Valois's Promenade (both 1943). Leaving in 1944 for military service, he rejoined the company in 1947 and stayed until his departure for Australia in 1962.

During these years, he created more roles: in de Valois's production of Don Quixote (1950); Andrée Howard's Veneziana (1953); Ashton's Madame Chrysanthème (1955); and John Cranko's Prince of the Pagodas (1957). In 1960, following an initial workshop piece, he choreographed One in Five, to music by Johann and Joseph Strauss, for the Sunday Ballet Club. This was taken up by the Australian Ballet for its first 1962-63 season and presented as a short companion piece with Giselle.

He went on to choreograph several works for the Australian Ballet, including Just for Fun, also performed on a bill with Giselle when the company visited London and the regions as part of a European tour during its 1965-66 season.

As a performer with the Royal and Australian ballets he was valued as a character artist. "He had an innate ability to act and portray a character," says the Royal Ballet School's Director, Gailene Stock, who as a very green 16-year-old recruit to the Australian Ballet found in him a kindly teacher, always willing to help and guide her. "He had a wonderful, descriptive face, particularly good at eliciting pity, so that he was heartbreaking in Cranko's The Lady and the Fool." He played the part of Bootface in the Royal Ballet's production and staged it for the Australians.

In Ashton's Cinderella for the Royal Ballet he was the first to step into the choreographer's own role as the put-upon Ugly Sister. With the Australian Ballet, he was a memorable Widow Simone in Ashton's La Fille mal gardée and also appeared in the 1989 film version (released 1994); he was the original Sancho Panza in Rudolf Nureyev's Don Quixote, also recorded on film in 1972, and he was Njegus in Ronald Hynd's 1975 The Merry Widow.

Powell retired from the Australian Ballet in 1982, but continued appearances as a guest artist. In 1985 Gailene Stock, then Director of the Australian Ballet School, engaged him as a teacher of mime, repertoire and stagecraft: a post he held up to this year. He also did fund-raising lectures for the Australian Ballet, keeping audiences riveted with accounts of his experiences. "We would joke that you only had to shine a torch on Ray and he would perform," says Stock. "He was born to entertain people."

When it became clear that their son was staying put in Australia, the whole Powell family emigrated to be closer to him. He never settled down with anyone and was childless, but he is survived by a nephew and two nieces - all living in Australia. Stock remembers an engaging personality:

He was very warm and sharing, with a passion for dance and dancers. He also had a love for dogs and wherever he went - classes, rehearsals, whatever - Bowie, a miniature white poodle, and Chloe, a bichon frisé, followed him. They were incredibly well behaved and would sit on a cushion during his classes, watch the entire process and trot out when it was all over.

Nadine Meisner