Obituary: Jack Spurgeon
Friday 10 June 1994
It was a great service to the arts in post-war Britain to have trained hundreds of ballet dancers, who subsequently became professionals. It was, perhaps, an even greater service to society to have provided over a period of 30 years a grounding in the disciplines of ballet for many thousands of
As Peter Brinson, former Director of the Royal Academy of Dancing in London and Director of the Gulbenkian Foundation, puts it:
Jack Spurgeon's famous ballet school in Edinburgh was in every way a school of excellence. Based entirely on the teaching of the Royal Academy of Dancing, which they held in high esteem, the school was a joint creation of Jack Spurgeon and Joan Tucker.
A great dance school teaches not only dance technique and dance standards - but style. With that style came often a moral strength and attitude to life which fortifies students in dealing with problems. The Spurgeons' school communicated this, not only to the professional dancers they trained, but to the thousands of children, who never intended to be dancers, but studied with the Spurgeons because their parents believed in what the Spurgeons taught and stood for.
It was the good fortune of the Festival City of Edinburgh that, after Jack Spurgeon and Joan Tucker had come as visiting artists to the King's Theatre in the summers of 1950 and 1952, that they decided, after another successful season in 1954, to stay on and make the Scottish capital the home of the ballet school they were determined to create.
Bornin Finchley, north London, in 1908, Spurgeon attended school at Muswell Hill. His father, John Spurgeon, was a lawyer's writer, a respectable occupation at the turn of the 20th century, long since superseded by the typewriter and Xerox copying machine. Jack left full-time education at 15, to become a clerk/builder's mate, acquiring skills and enthusiasms for construction work that never left him. My wife and I used to marvel how, half a century later, we would find him personally altering and decorating his ballet school at Lauriston Gardens in Edinburgh with the panache of an expert craftsman. The challenge of creating facilities with his own hands for pupils made him as pleased as Punch.
'But, Jack,' I would say, 'should you not be getting a builder to undertake the alterations?'
'No - scaffolding and all,' the 70-year-old retorted, 'I do it better myself.' And he probably did.
But, while learning the skills of building and quantity surveying, he yearned to become a dancer, following in the footsteps of his two talented elder sisters, who had joined the Italia Conti School of Dance. Here he met up with Noel Coward's proteges, in whose company he developed tap dancing of exquisite rhythm: a skill which remained with him until pensionable age, as we were able to appreciate as he performed impromptu Gene Kelly numbers from Singing in the Rain for us as we waited for our daughter to emerge from her classical tuition. It was at the Italia Conti School that he first met Anton Dolin, at that time about to star in The Blue Train, who showed Spurgeon the use of acrobatic technique with a classical ballet plastique. The Blue Train was a satire on the frequenters of the Riviera, handsome athletes, golf and tennis champions, and bathers.
A watershed moment in Spurgeon's life came with the first of a series of visits to Paris to train and work with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, founded in 1932 to be the guardian of the finest traditions and standards of the Tsarist Ballet of Diaghilev, Balanchine, and Nijinsky. Spurgeon's mother-mentor was the formidable disciplinarian Olga Preobrajenska, teacher of Irina Baronova and Tatiana Toumanova, who along with Tatiana Riabouchinska, taught by Mathilde Kschessinska, were memorably dubbed by Arnold Haskell as 'the three baby ballerinas'. Baronova described the ambiance to me last week: 'Like military barracks, anything that happens must not stop the curtain going up at 8.30. Fierce discipline was instilled into our life.' Baronova added: 'I take my hat off to Jack Spurgeon for his devotion to our art. Without people like him the art could not have survived.'
It was this tradition that was pervasive. The Paris Studios of the great Maryinsky ballerinas - Preobrajenska, Kschessinska, Lubov Egorova, Vera Trefilova - who had settled down in the French capital to teach after the Russian Revolution, contained a group of child prodigies. Spurgeon once explained to me that these 13-year- olds differed considerably from the previous generations of Russian dancers. The suffering of the Russian Revolution and their flight from Mother Russia had given them a precocity that was unknown to their carefully cloistered elders. It had also given them a closer contact with ordinary humanity. Compared to their predecessors in St Petersburg and Moscow, their training was somewhat perfunctory, but two factors had provided them with exceptional technical facility.
First, teaching had made great progress and they were being taught by the most experienced dancers of their day. Spurgeon and Tucker used to tell us that their teaching ability owed a great deal to their experience as professional dancers.
Secondly, the post-First-World- War girl was physically much stronger and more of a natural athlete than the corseted girl of pre-1914 days. These children were able to perform feats of virtuosity that had rarely been attempted before. Spurgeon would give as an example the fouette - the movement by which a dancer turns on one leg, accompanied by a whipping motion on the other. Although this is commonplace in the third act of Swan Lake, and many other much-performed ballets, Spurgeon was among the first to bring the multiple fouette to Britain.
Partly out of a sense of adventure, and partly to widen his horizons, Spurgeon joined the Polish National Ballet Company under the pseudonym of Jan Spur, in 1935. Again, this was a formative period because, under the tutelage of Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the great Vaslav Nijinsky, he learnt to perfect movements such as the entrechat - that is the jump during which the feet change their position with regard to one another four, six or eight times.
By 1938, the Polish National Ballet and much else in the war- clouded world of Middle Europe had come to a halt. Spurgeon returned to Britain to work with the International Ballet Company based in London. Moira Shearer, now Mrs Ludovic Kennedy, told me: 'I danced with Jack Spurgeon during my training when I was 10- 15 years old. This was in 1936 to 1939 and thought him a wonderful partner. He was not tall - indeed short and stocky - but wonderfully strong and reassuring. He was also charming - very much a masculine dancer. I had a slight crush on him]'
With the outbreak of war, Spurgeon volunteered for the Royal Artillery. However, as he would wryly say, with his delightful dry humour, his contribution to fighting Hitler was more as an entertainer, in company with Charlie Chester and Michael Denison, for others in the Forces - than pressing the triggers of guns himself.
Demobbed in 1945, Spurgeon was soon dancing with the International Ballet Company and their Principal Dancer, Joan Tucker, to be his adored partner and wife for the next half-century.
Mrs Noel Platfoot, Principal of the Manor School of Ballet in Edinburgh, who worked closely with him during his years in Edinburgh, told me: 'Spurgeon was quite simply a superb teacher.' That was the view of my daughter and the girls of her generation who, as pupils, were first in awe of him and then came to love and respect him. A strict disciplinarian, demanding perfection, but always fair and never wounding.
In our conversations with him we were ever conscious of his wide range of interests. He had an intense interest in Eastern European culture and society and the Slavonic world far beyond ballet. He was a lover of the Scottish countryside and most weekends were spent, with his family, in a caravan near the enchanting Border abbey town of Jedburgh.
Thelast word must rest with Dame Ninette de Valois: 'I was sad to hear of the death of Jack Spurgeon. He played an important role as a leading dancer with Moira Inglesby's International Ballet and subsequently as Principal of Edinburgh Academy of Ballet. He will be greatly missed.'
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