Ballet Rambert leading ballerina of unusual dramatic power
Wednesday 26 May 2004
Marie Rambert, the founder of Ballet Rambert (now Rambert Dance Company), had a sharp eye and a sharp tongue, and was frugal with praise. But in her 1972 autobiography
Quicksilver she didn't stint when it came to Sally Gilmour, the company's leading ballerina in the 1930s and 1940s. "Sally was an outstanding artist," she wrote of Gilmour in her created title role in Andrée Howard's
Lady into Fox. Gilmour was "enchanting" in Frank Staff's
Peter and the Wolf; her Giselle was "most touching"; and she was "astonishing" as the native girl Tulip in Howard's
The Sailor's Return:
Sarah Gilmour, dancer: born Sungei Lembing, Malaya 2 November 1921; married 1949 Dr Allan Wynn (died 1987; two sons, one daughter); died Sydney, New South Wales 23 May 2004.
Marie Rambert, the founder of Ballet Rambert (now Rambert Dance Company), had a sharp eye and a sharp tongue, and was frugal with praise. But in her 1972 autobiography Quicksilver she didn't stint when it came to Sally Gilmour, the company's leading ballerina in the 1930s and 1940s. "Sally was an outstanding artist," she wrote of Gilmour in her created title role in Andrée Howard's Lady into Fox. Gilmour was "enchanting" in Frank Staff's Peter and the Wolf; her Giselle was "most touching"; and she was "astonishing" as the native girl Tulip in Howard's The Sailor's Return:
Even physically she managed to transform herself into a real native girl, spontaneous, innocent and reckless in her love for her husband and baby.
Sally Gilmour was not just a dancer, but a dramatic performer of unusual power, able completely to become each character she played. She had the advantage of a face made striking by high cheekbones and deep, compelling eyes, but there was nothing in her origins pointing towards the stage.
She was born Sarah Gilmour in 1921 in Malaya, where her father, Colin Gilmour, was Chief Medical Officer. Aged just four or five, she was sent to boarding school in London, only travelling back to see her parents every two or three years. This was a harsh childhood, but the school did offer access to ballet lessons and by six she was determined to become a ballerina. At nine, she became a pupil of the famous Ballets Russes ballerina Tamara Karsavina, who had settled in England; at 12 she entered the Rambert school; and at not quite 16 joined the company.
Besides the chill of separation, her childhood was marked by tragedy. Aged three, she saw her five-year-old brother fatally hit by a car. In the Malayan war, on the day Singapore fell in February 1942, her mother Florence was killed in the fighting. Her father ended up in a prisoner-of-war camp - an experience made all the more harrowing by the stress of trying to tend the sick.
On the other side of the world, Gilmour's growing success with Rambert went unseen by her family. Her big début was in the premiere of Lady into Fox (1939), as the central character, Silvia. Other created roles followed: the younger sister in Howard's The Fugitive (1944) and Tulip in The Sailor's Return (1947); the Duck in Frank Staff's Peter and the Wolf (1940). She also created roles in a wide span of Walter Gore ballets: Confessional (1941), Simple Symphony (1944), Mr Punch (1946), Concerto Burlesco (1947) and Winter Night (1948). She was possibly the best British Giselle of her generation.
It was during Ballet Rambert's 1948 tour to Australia - a tour of enormous impact exercising a formative effect on Australian ballet - that she met her future husband, Allan Wynn. The son of Samuel Wynn, who, as Samuel Weintraub, emigrated from Poland to Australia before the First World War and became one of Australia's leading winemakers, he was a young doctor, and followed her to London where he became a cardiologist. They married in 1949 and their son Simon was born a year later.
Having taken time out for the birth, Gilmour briefly returned to Rambert for the 1950 season, as well as appearing in the West End as Louise in the musical Carousel. On 10 December 1952, during Ballet Rambert's run at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, she gave her farewell performance, dancing Confessional.
In 1976, for the book 50 Years of Ballet Rambert, 1926-1976, she wrote how, having joined the Rambert fold at the age of 12, it had become her family. She remembered morning classes with the choreographer Antony Tudor and afternoon ones with Rambert, she recalled "a dream-like world of incredible and brilliant people" such as Ashton, Tudor and Howard.
During the threadbare Second World War years, she, along with a few other dancers, lived with Marie Rambert. Rambert's energy and perfectionism were inspiring. They performed for Cema (the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) and the constant work and discomfort of touring made the company into a family. Or so it seemed to Gilmour. "I grew up with her [Rambert] as a dancer, and a person," she wrote. "I could never have left Rambert if I hadn't married."
After her farewell performance, Gilmour and her family settled in Melbourne. She made occasional guest appearances with the Australian Ballet, helped mount the ballets she had danced, did some teaching and examining. But she devoted herself to her family. Perhaps because of her own childhood, she was determined to provide her three children - Simon, Sabina and Toby - with emotional warmth. In 1970 the family returned to London, where Gilmour did find some time to work with the Arts Council and help with revivals.
Very occasionally, she would have famous visitors such as Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn to her home, but her children had little inkling that she had been a star. They were made to feel the stars, although none of them followed her on to the stage. She didn't talk much about her dancing. She did have photographs and her children did see the film of her in Lady into Fox. But what they remember most was that she was down to earth, good- humoured and interested in young people.
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