TODAY'S ballet students should know about Ailne Phillips. Not just because she was a fine dancer and a great teacher for Sadler's Wells Ballet. She was supremely professional - about the highest compliment one dancer can pay another - a professional whose training encompassed the wide theatrical experience which was normal background for the first generation of the Vic-Wells Ballet. That generation shaped the early character of our national company.
'She was sort of permanent,' said one of the company's longest-serving dancers. 'She was there when we arrived.' He meant that Babs Phillips, as everyone called her, was one of the first six dancers, all female, in what was named ponderously in 1931 the Vic-Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet. Vic-Wells developed into Sadler's Wells Ballet into the Royal Ballet. Babs Phillips was a founder member.
Born in Londonderry, she began to dance in the Carl Rosa Opera Company, directed by her father. Trained there by Lydia Kyasht, a favourite Russian principal dancer at the Empire, Leicester Square, before the First World War, Phillips eventually herself became premiere danseuse. Her whole life was lived in the English lyric theatre.
English she was in every detail. 'A symbol of the English School,' said Frank Freeman, one of the later members of the Royal Ballet to be taught by her, now a distinguished teacher and choreographer. 'She was very precise, very careful, with enormous attention to detail.' This precision informed her dancing, notable for its speed, vivacity and accuracy. With the Camargo Society in 1930, helping to advance the cause of British ballet, she was one of four heroic dancers who danced the pas de quatre in Swan Lake at the frantic speed demanded by Sir Thomas Beecham. Such technique gained her distinction in roles like the pas de trois in Frederick Ashton's Les Rendezvous and the peasant pas de deux in Giselle introduced in 1935. 'A good technician,' wrote the photographer Gordon Anthony in the Bystander at this time, 'strong, precise style, a consequential charm and humour of her own . . . suitable to bright impudent roles.' She was therefore a demi-character dancer but she had also, Anthony added, 'a lyrical quality which she could and did use when necessary'. Her waltz in Les Sylphides was one of the distinctions of early productions at Sadler's Wells Theatre.
She possessed, too, a mind of her own, leaving the Sadler's Wells Company in 1937 to return to Carl Rosa, then to Mona Inglesby's International Ballet until war broke out. From then on her life was devoted to Sadler's Wells. Teaching at Sadler's Wells Ballet School from 1940, she administered the school from 1942. In 1946, when the company moved into the Royal Opera House, she became personal assistant to Ninette de Valois. In fact, much more than PA - taking rehearsals and company classes, coaching principals, teaching theatrecraft as well as technique. 'She was frightfully good on feet,' said one pupil. Among her pupils were most of the stars of the company, from Fonteyn, Grey, Nerina and Beriosova to Sibley, MacLeary, Shaw and Edwards. From the standards of teaching she established much of early British success in classical ballet. These she took to Turkey in 1960 at de Valois' request to teach the national school which de Valois had founded.
Over time she became de Valois' close friend. I used to meet her, quiet and slightly reticent, when I visited de Valois at the top of the Royal Opera House in the early 1950s. Conservative in dress with greying hair, she signified in herself the social world from which the Royal Ballet was born. The ideology and values of this world, its loyalties and prejudices, became translated into the attitudes of staff, teachers and many dancers far outside the Royal Ballet. Nowadays, as the organisation Dance UK is about to demonstrate in a dancers' charter, dancers have modified these attitudes through a more relaxed morality and a training which looks beyond technique. But the fundamentals which Babs Phillips and de Valois introduced remain the same.
My last memory of the two together is the help Babs gave de Valois when Gordon Anthony, de Valois' brother, died two years ago. 'She was the kindest of people,' said Peter Brownlee, general manager of the Royal Ballet, 'kind to me, kind to us all.'
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