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Obituary: Keith Lester

Keith Lester, dancer, choreographer and teacher: born Guildford 9 April 1904; died London 8 June 1993.

KEITH LESTER's life, successful and distinguished as it was, seemed beset nevertheless by contradictions. Early among them was to have been schooled as a classical dancer, choreographer and teacher in the Diaghilev tradition of Russian classical ballet, a man partnering the finest ballerinas of the time, and also to have been the principal creator of the famous fan dances at London's Windmill Theatre in the late 1940s.

Tall, strikingly handsome, very elegant, he made his professional debut in dances arranged by Mikhail Fokine for Basil Dean's production of Flecker's play Hassan in 1923. Immediately thereafter he partnered the Russian ballerina Lydia Kyasht on tours for two years, then the great Tamara Karsavina, touring again for another three years. With her he remained a close collaborator for the rest of their lives, influencing profoundly the training of teachers at the Royal Academy of Dancing. After Karsavina he was invited to partner Olga Spessivtseva, the great Russian ballerina of the late 1920s and an outstanding interpreter of Gieslle. Finally in the 1930s he partnered Ida Rubinstein at the Paris Opera.

Such experience in such a tradition established him not only as a leading British male classical dancer but one of the greatest exponents of classical partnering. He was much valued therefore in the 1920s and the 1930s, but his career was overshadowed by Russian successors to Diaghilev and by the war. Unjustly, historians overlook his importance in the emerging British ballet. At a time when classical dancing was not considered a suitable career for young men, Keith Lester contradicted prejudice by a noble and elegant male stage presence.

Trained by Serafina Astafieva, Nicolai Legat, Fokine and Anton Dolin, Lester was heir through them to the Russian style and the principles upon which the whole of classical Western ballet today is based. This is what he communicated not only in his dancing but his choreography and, supremely, in his teaching. Recruited to help the Markova-Dolin Company in 1935, he created for them that year the ballet David and followed it in 1936 by Pas de Quatre, inspired by the Chalon lithograph of the famous Pas de Quatre, of 1845, when the choreographer Jules Perrot brought together the four greatest ballerinas of the time on stage in London.

David, wrote Cyril Beaumont, the historian-critic, was a masque rather than a ballet, dominated by Dolin as the young David with Lester 'an impressive Saul . . . the story is presented with clarity and dignity, often full of atmosphere'. Clarity and dignity were characteristics equally of Lester's dancing, of his Pas de Quatre, of his choreography for the Windmill Theatre and, later, of his teaching. The Pas de Quatre was a huge success replaced only with a version by Anton Dolin in the United States in 1940 because details of Lester's choreography were lost on their way from wartime Britain.

Today Keith Lester is honoured and remembered above all for his teaching. 'He was,' says Katherine Wade, director of English National Ballet School and once his pupil at the Royal Ballet School, 'a most marvellous teacher of pas de deux because he was himself a most sensitive partner and teacher.'

'He taught us the magic of classical ballet,' said Susan Danby, principal of the Royal Academy of Dancing's College. 'He was the one who really could analyse classical movement and show how it worked. He was a communicator of stage secrets, not only in partnering where he was pre-eminent, but in all the courtesies of classical ballet, its performance, presentation and command of the stage. He was an enormously popular teacher.'

The Royal Academy of Dancing became Lester's home. In 1965 he was made head of its teacher-training course under Kathleen Gordon, my predecessor as director, and then formed the present college of the RAD until retiring in 1975. For me Keith was the wisest ally, soothing the difficult women who dominated the academy at that troubled time. His greatest contribution was style in teaching informed by an intellect unique in the dance world of his day. There was always explanation, often with historical reference, always careful analysis laced with wit, then corrections, sometimes gentle, sometimes touched by fire. He was a colleague of integrity and enormous courage, never more than at the end, when, in the most dreadful contradiction to afflict any dancer, he lost both legs in a final illness. 'He was architect of our college as it now is,' recalls Ivor Guest, former chairman of the RAD. 'He transformed it. It is his memorial.'

(Photograph omitted)