Ronald Emblen

Ballet dancer with enormous stage personality
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The Independent Online

Ronald Emblen, dancer and teacher: born Port Said, Egypt 14 October 1933; died Banbury, Oxfordshire 11 November 2003.

Ronald Emblen's work will be imprinted on the memories of many spectators of British ballet. As a young man, he was a dependable classical dancer; as a mature artist he was unforgettable in character roles, so immersed and real that he was unrecognisable each time. He was closely associated with the famous travestie part of Widow Simone in Frederick Ashton's dearly loved masterpiece La Fille mal gardée. He gave vivid colour to Widow Simone's comedy and humanity, and invested the famous clog dance with more wit and natural ease than most other performers before or after. He also danced it more often than anyone else - 269 times.

Emblen was adored not only by audiences, but by fellow dancers and dance students. As a member of the Royal Ballet (previously the Sadler's Wells Ballet) and other companies, he was known for his incredible generosity - with money, time and help. In the true apostolic tradition of ballet, he made it his duty to help younger dancers. He was always to be seen advising and demonstrating to others on the side of the stage or in the studio.

This was to make him a superb future teacher: skilled in analysing the mechanics of movement, but - just as important - in enthusing his students. "It is one thing to be a teacher," says the former dancer and now teacher Brenda Last, "another to be uplifting and encouraging. Where other teachers might just criticise, he would make helpful recommendations in a wonderfully positive way so he didn't damage anybody's self-confidence."

Born in 1933 in Port Said, Egypt (his father was in the British Army, his mother was Syrian), Ronald Emblen was one of three boys and a girl. Returning to England in 1938, his family settled in Hayes, Middlesex, where he grew up. He loved the musical films with Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire which his mother took him to see. This led to classes in tap and from there to ballet. He was accepted into the Sadler's Wells School (now the Royal Ballet School) and made his stage début in 1949 as a student, performing the role of the American Child in the Sadler's Wells Ballet production of George Balanchine's Boutique fantasque at Covent Garden.

On graduating in 1951, he went to Mona Inglesby's International Ballet, a large touring classical company. When it closed in 1953 he briefly joined the Walter Gore Ballet, founded by the dancer and choreographer Walter Gore. Then in 1954 he moved on to Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), first appearing during the company's Spanish tour and ranked as soloist.

Apart from a year out (1960-61) to perform with Western Theatre Ballet, he stayed with Festival Ballet to 1962. He danced in Prince Igor, Léonide Massine's Bourrée fantasque, Michael Charnley's Symphony for Fun, Harald Lander's Etudes, Noël Coward's London Morning. Small early featured roles included a pickpocket in Nicholas Beriozoff's La Esmeralda and the Mad March Hare in Alice in Wonderland, both in 1954.

But Emblen was also cast in major parts. He covered for the company's male star John Gilpin when Gilpin was sick or guesting at Covent Garden. He danced the lead cadet in David Lichine's Graduation Ball and the titular role in Jack Carter's Witch Boy. Making his début as the Witch Boy in 1960 at the Royal Festival Hall, he was able to give full rein to his talent for projecting character. "Mr Emblen, undergoing a baptism in this role, danced and acted with the sort of possessed ferocity that perfectly balanced Miss [Anita] Landa's controlled frenzy as the luckless Barbara Allen," one reviewer wrote.

Although he was to become chiefly known as a caractère or demi-caractère dancer, he had in his earlier career a respectable technique, honed by the distinguished teachers whose classes he attended: Anna Northcote; Vera Volkova; Harald Lander; Errol Addison; and, in Paris, Lubov Egorova. He was slender and smallish - the overall impression was of neatness with good turns.

But his forte was drama and his year with Western Theatre Ballet was a seminal experience. A small touring company, its dancers performed the highly charged theatrical ballets of Peter Darrell and Elizabeth West. Brenda Last, also a member, recalls that everybody was carefully picked for both technique and acting ability and that Emblen's stage personality was enormous - which didn't prevent him dancing one of James's pas de deux in August Bournonville's La Sylphide and the peasant pas de deux in Giselle. Last was often his stage partner because she was small. They also appeared in pantomime, opera and shows together, to earn money in the gaps between Western Theatre Ballet fixtures.

Like Last, he became a principal with the Royal Ballet, joining the Royal Ballet touring company in 1962, promoted to principal in 1964 and moving to the resident company at Covent Garden in 1970 - although the fluidity between the two companies meant he often appeared with both. He danced many roles - Jasper in Pineapple Poll, Bootface in The Lady and the Fool (both ballets by Cranko), the Hungarian Prince in Raymonda and more - increasingly focusing on character parts. He was an Ugly Sister in Ashton's Cinderella and Bottom in the same choreographer's The Dream, Dr Coppelius in Coppelia, the Barber in Massine's Mam'zelle Angot and he danced the Cancan in Boutique fantasque, the ballet in which he made his stage début as a student.

In 1975, having made the decision to teach, Emblen undertook a teacher-training course, although he continued appearing with the Royal Ballet until 1979. In 1976 he joined the Royal Ballet School where he mostly taught the boys at White Lodge, the junior section. An expert in the transforming power of make-up, he also gave classes in this. In 1980 he left the Royal Ballet School.

He joined the faculty of London Contemporary Dance School in 1981, as well as teaching at the Royal Academy of Dancing summer schools overseas and at the Louise Brown Yorkshire Scholars courses. It is a measure of Emblen's charisma that when he retired from London Contemporary Dance School in 1997, many students were seriously upset, even if for them classical ballet was a side issue and contemporary dance the core discipline.

He had dark attractive looks and too much of a twinkle in his eye to become an authority figure such as a director. David Drew, another Royal Ballet principal character artist, also remembers that although Emblen was every inch a person of the theatre, he did not share the blinkered outlook that can afflict over-worked ballet dancers. He had the open, cultured vision of broad mental horizons. He lived in Hornton, Oxfordshire, near Banbury, with his friend of 36 years Philip Williams.

Nadine Meisner