Obituary: Penelope Spencer
Tuesday 12 October 1993
PENELOPE SPENCER brought an innovative vision to English dance and choreography in the 1920s. The late Arnold Haskell judged her in 1930 to be 'a creative dancer . . . the greatest of her type I have seen in any country'.
The daughter of Dr LJ Spencer, a well-known mineralogist, Penelope Spencer gained early contact with artistic and intellectual circles. Her mother's infant school was attended by the children of - among others - Augustus John, George Lambert and Bertrand Russell.
At the age of 11 she exchanged schooling for the theatrical world. She received ballet training and also did stage work with Italia Conti, appearing in the production of Where the Rainbow Ends. A formative influence was her training and work under Margaret Morris, a leading 'free' dancer of the period. The changes wrought by the First World War complicated the life of a dancer but also offered considerable opportunites.
Such was the case of Penelope Spencer. When in 1921 Rutland Boughton invited Morris to provide the dances and choruses for the forthcoming Glastonbury Festival, Morris dispatched her star pupil, just a few months over 19, in her stead. Spencer's letters home draw a graphic picture of a formidable challenge ('it's going to be awfully good for me if l can do it all') and a successful response that entailed an intense, hand-to-mouth, exploited existence. Her work for the Glastonbury Festival included creating dances Boughton included in his long-running opera The Immortal Hour, a production which opened in London in October 1922.
This success established Penelope Spencer's credentials as an independent dancer and choreographer, but the possibilities for a sustained career were limited. Her connection with the Glastonbury Festival lasted only until its decease in 1921.
The post of principal dancer with the English National Opera Company, although demanding (for Tannhauser she created a ballet for 50 dancers), was equally brief. More fruitful was her connection from 1924 to 1928 with Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. Several of their productions, including The Cenci and Henry VIII, featured her dances. In these years she also worked for Nigel Playfair at the Lyric, Hammersmith, notably in When Crummles Played and The Way of the World. Her other work including teaching dance both at the Royal School of Music and at Bertrand and Dora Russell's school at Dorking.
It was the dance recitals and occasional performances given in these years that permitted Spencer to develop as an original character dancer. Her choreography reflected the avant-garde artistic world in which she moved. Constant Lambert she had known since childhood; Oliver Messel (who designed several masks for her) and Rex Whistler were among her friends. Lord Berners, a composer much influenced by Les Six, provided the music and the theme for her first successful dance, Funeral March for the Death of a Rich Aunt, created in 1924. Music for other dances was chosen from works by Satie, Bartok, Milhaud, and Debussy.
Equally significant in shaping Penelope Spencer's choreography were the Blackbirds, a group of black dancers and musicians from the United States who burst on to the artistic scene in 1926. The sudden death of their principal star, Florence Mills, at the height of her fame inspired Spencer to create Elegiac Blues (1927), for which music was especially composed by Constant Lambert, equally moved by the death. Elegiac Blues, as dance and music, forms a significant moment in the influence exerted by Afro-American culture on English avant-garde art.
The smallness of the dance world at the end of the 1920s meant that Spencer maintained her contacts with ballet, particularly with Marie Rambert's circle. She was friends of both Frederick Ashton and Anthony Tudor at the very start of their careers. In fact, as she proudly recalled, she gave Tudor his first job. When the Camargo Society was formed in an attempt to fill the vacuum left by Diaghilev's death in 1929, Spencer was elected a member of its dance committee and danced in several productions organised by the society. In 1932 she created for the society a new ballet, The Infanta's Birthday, with costumes and decor by Rex Whistler.
This ballet, which did not meet with success, marked the turning- point in Spencer's career. Her talents were best expressed in composing and performing solo dances. She did not excel in classical ballet which, largely thanks to the genius of Ninette de Valois, became dominant in the 1930s. Marriage to Lowis Barman and the birth of three sons, of whom I was the youngest, justified her withdrawing from a full-time career.
Spencer maintained her involvement in the dance and theatrical world. She was one of the first dancers to perform on television when the service began in 1939. She arranged in 1949 the dances for two productions of John Blow's Venus and Adonis. Upon my father's retirement from business in the late 1960s, they moved to London where they both became involved in the affairs of the Royal Academy of Dance. Her final years were marked by pain and unhappiness. Twenty years ago, she began to suffer from a dancer's complaint, dissolving ankle-bones, a condition which eventually left her completely incapacitated.
In the late 1950s Penelope Spencer encountered Lydia Lopokova in the Arts Theatre Restaurant at Cambridge. The latter delivered what was an apt evaluation and tribute to her contribution to the English dance world of the 1920s: 'You had something. It was not very developed, but you had something original.'
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