Obituary: Oleg Kerensky
TO BE BORN with a famous name must be a problem as well as a help. Being grandson of Alexander Kerensky, head of the Russian Provisional Government in 1917, certainly helped Oleg in his Oxford days at Christ Church and as treasurer and Librarian of the Oxford Union. I heard about him and was interested long before we met in that same Union. Our years just overlapped.
The problem comes from people's expectations. Touched by history as Oleg Kerensky was, he would, I thought, be obsessed with politics. He wasn't. Well-connected and informed, having languages and an international outlook which made me jealous, he won his success at Oxford and later at the BBC through ability rather than his name. Political expectations remained unfulfilled along with interest in the bridges and motorways built by his designer father.
What absorbed him was the world and personalities of the arts, especially classical ballet, to which he was introduced by his mother. They appeared together at performances, he myopic and astigmatic, carrying powerful opera glasses to see the stage, she tiny beside his bulky height, a galleon and its pinnace sailing slowly among the Covent Garden crowds.
Companionship with words, written or spoken, was grounded, he told me, in education at Westminster School. Scattering them widely at first across broadcasts on many subjects, particularly for the BBC's European and World Services, he focused finally on arts commentary and dance criticism, where he made his name. He was for five years deputy editor of the BBC's journal the Listener before going freelance, from the late 1960s. His writing and speaking had neither the imagery of Gautier, the wit of Tynan nor the glitter of Buckle at his best. Instead he offered from 1957 to 1978 a plain man's guide to dance for readers of the Daily Mail, the New Statesman and the International Herald Tribune.
This practical approach led him to criticise both sides of the curtain. He condemned whispering, chattering, sweet-eating audiences as much as indifferent stage performance and was ready always to fuel controversy. In the Times, the Guardian and the Dancing Times as well as in his regular outlets he discussed male dancing and homosexuality and argued for changes in dance training and better employment for dancers after performing careers. Thus he was an opinion-former as well as a critic heard frequently on The Critics, The World of Books and other BBC arts programmes.
Words too were companions in daily life. Prolific in conversation, revelling in gossip, always entertaining, he stayed nevertheless an outsider, a loner, socially and professionally. His life, it seemed to me, remained always in the same key, the same smile, the same phrases and the same desires reflecting a world lived within himself but often sunless.
He moved latterly to the United States, where his occasional pieces in the Stage and elsewhere signalled across the ocean that his commitment to classical ballet remained even while he fought the cancer which killed him. Classical ballet, he wrote in Ballet Scene (1970), his best book, is 'the most international form of theatre . . . more poignant than spoken drama, more exciting than a sporting event, as entertaining as a variety show and as aesthetically satisfying as painting or sculpture . . . one of the highest forms of art.' At a time of threat to all art we need such champions.
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