Terry Gilbert

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The Independent Online

Terry Gilbert, dancer, choreographer and writer: born Bond's Main, Derbyshire 11 September 1932; married 1954 Selina Wylie (two sons, one daughter); died Worthing, West Sussex 5 September 2001.

Born in a tough colliery village in Derbyshire called Bond's Main, south of Chesterfield, Terry Gilbert was a real Billy Elliot decades before the 2000 film hero was invented. Like Billy Elliot, he was the son of a miner and grew up besotted by dance. Prompted by the film's success, he wrote a letter to The Daily Telegraph last October (he was a trenchant letter writer): "I was self-taught," he stated, "trying to recreate the sequences I saw in films and pantomimes by whirling around the school playground or on colliery wasteground."

However, unlike Billy Elliot, he had the support of his family and friends. A scholarship boy at Chesterfield Grammar School, he performed in school plays and found the experience intoxicating. He started classes at Chesterfield's only ballet school and at 16 entered the Ballet Rambert School thanks to the Derby education authority who paid for his fees and living costs. He was always, he wrote, " sustained by the knowledge that the mining community of Bond's Main was proud of me".

In 1952 he joined Ballet Rambert, where he became a principal. His roles included the famously bravura pas de trois in Swan Lake and pas de deux in Giselle, and, from the modern repertory, the third song in Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies and the Dago in Frederick Ashton's Façade. In 1955 he moved to Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet and in 1956 entered Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) as a soloist. He was considered a demi-caractère dancer, meaning that he was suited to roles with a character flavour such as the Chinese dance in The Nutcracker and the Drummer in David Lichine's Graduation Ball. But he could also perform straight classical dance such as the company's showpiece ballet Etudes, by Harald Lander.

Of medium height, blond and handsome, he had confidence and bounce. "He had good pirouettes and batterie and was very vivacious," remembers Alain Dubreuil, now ballet master with Birmingham Royal Ballet. "He was someone who always caught your eye."

By then he had started choreographing. He composed a workshop piece, Spectroscope, while with Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet. For Norman McDowell's short-lived London Dance Theatre (1964-65), he created Let's Make a Ballet and Rave Britannia, a hit with designs by Mary Quant. For Northern Ballet Theatre, he made Pastures Green and Into the Sun. He choreographed for television and for musicals: among the latter, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Derby Playhouse) and Irma La Douce (Richmond Theatre).

He worked in films as a dancer: Invitation to the Dance (1956, with Gene Kelly), The Young Ones and Summer Holiday (1961 and 1963; both with Cliff Richard), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and others. He worked in films as a choreographer: Billion Dollar Brain (1967), The Elephant Man (1980) and, more recently, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). As a film choreographer, he forged a durable partnership with Ken Russell, who had himself trained at the Ballet Rambert School. They collaborated on Women in Love, The Devils, The Music Lovers and The Boy Friend.

He choreographed for opera. He worked on countless productions with, for example: the Royal Opera (Faust, Don Giovanni, Carmen, We Come to the River); English National Opera (e.g. Salome and Dido and Aeneas); Scottish Opera (e.g. Jenufa and Eugene Onegin); and the Dutch National Opera. He was most proud of the ballet he choreographed in 1976 as part of Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage for Welsh National Opera and San Francisco Opera; it made an important impact and was voted best ballet of the year by the magazine Dance & Dancers.

He also directed operas, such as an award-winning La Traviata in 1995 and La Bohème in 1996 for Opera on a Shoestring in Glasgow. In the late 1990s, as a resident of Henfield in West Sussex, he set up the Henfield Opera Project Trust for which he mounted Madame Butterfly, La Traviata and Hansel and Gretel. "I have always wanted," he said, "to give local people who do not have the opportunity to go to Covent Garden or Glyndebourne, the opportunity to enjoy opera."

He had a forthright manner and a blunt northern accent that in his early days earned him snobbish comments. "Many," he wrote, "noting my thick Derbyshire accent, were convinced that it was a miracle I managed a career at all." Former colleagues remember him as extremely likeable, someone who, according to Alain Dubreuil, "was great fun, liked a glass of wine and at parties was always laughing. He enjoyed his life as much as his ballet."

Clearly he had great energy and enterprise. With a family to support, he worked part-time as a gardener when he left Festival Ballet in 1960 for a freelance career. He also had literary ambitions. He wrote a humorous sitcom in 1988, Battersea Blues, which was shown at the Latchmere Theatre in London, and a semi-fictional memoir in 1989 about his Derbyshire upbringing, Dim White Phlox (the title comes from a poem by D.H. Lawrence).

In 1954 he married Selena Wylie, a dancer with Festival Ballet, and they had three children: Jasper, Emma and Seth.

Nadine Meisner