IF IT is true that in dying the passage of your life appears before you Simone Michelle's last vision must have been not just her own achievements as a dancer but the memory of Britain's first attempts at modern dance in the theatre. She became one of the finest performers and teachers of the Leeder system of modern dance in Britain. She was also a remarkably kind person, widely loved and respected.
Born Simone Moser in Paris in the darkest days of the First World War she graduated at the Ecole Normale de Musique before moving in 1934 to study as a professional dancer at the newly founded Jooss Leeder School in Dartington, south Devon. The memory of Isadora Duncan was vivid still in people's minds and Kurt Jooss's modern dance epic The Green Table had just won first prize at the first international choreographic competition in Paris.
Vivacious, with a compact, neat physique singularly expressive in movement, Moser was also very pretty, attracting much attention when she became a member of the Ballets Jooss at Dartington under the name Simone Michelle. Not only the Ballets Jooss with choreographers and teachers like Rudolf Laban, Jooss and Jooss's closest collaborator Sigurd Leeder were among the artists at Dartington in retreat from Hitler's Europe. There were actors and actresses, singers and other musicians, painters and sculptors, among them a penniless Austrian sculptor named Willi Soukop. He became a Royal Academician and Simone's husband.
Leeder, Michelle and others contributed an important strand to the growth of British modern dance long before American dance missionaries brought the teaching of Martha Graham in the 1960s. There were others, of course, in this development. Madge Atkinson, Ruby Ginner and especially Margaret Morris evolved their own modern styles aiming at the theatre but the Leeder system was based most soundly on theatrical experience and communication. Michelle's career personifies the legacy and influence of this Central European tradition upon British theatre education.
Supplementing her Leeder training with studies in classical ballet under Vincenzo Celli, the foremost Cecchetti teacher in the United States, then with studies in Spanish dancing, she toured the US giving solo recitals and performances for five years. She had gone there at the beginning of the war to be near Willi Soukop who was interned in Canada before being released to return to Britain after only nine months. She herself had to remain until 1945.
The other day I listened to a tape in the oral history section of the library at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance. Her voice with its distinctive French accent, gentle in cadence, recreated her presence. She told of her meeting with Willi, their separation during the war and her return and marriage in 1945. They lived together in one room in Hampstead making cups of tea on a gas stove.
Presently she taught movement part-time for singers at the National Opera School, then full-time at the London Opera Centre, then movement for actors part-time again in drama schools. Finally for seven years from 1958 she directed the Leeder School in London before joining the Laban Art of Movement Studio in Addlestone, Surrey, in 1965. All this with a son and daughter and being wife to a rising star of sculpture.
In the 1950s I watched her dance in a concert at Morley College. She was near the end of her performing career, but still a marvellous mover with a face and body which communicated emotion to the back of a crowded hall. In her time there was no grant system, so that the burgeoning modern dance of which she was a leader had to compete unaided with the hegomony of classical ballet. For that reason the Leeder School closed but Michelle took with her to the Art of Movement Studio all her knowledge of the Leeder method. Teaching the method, she became one of the remarkable group of teachers in many dance styles assembled by Marion North, the studio's new director, when the studio moved in 1974 to south-east London to become the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance.
For 25 years until she retired in 1991 the centre and her students were a passion shared with her family now increased by grandchildren. The one was an extension of the other because the students were her students. For them she fought in committees, in the preparation of timetables, in examinations and when they presented their work in the Laban theatre. 'Her loyalty to colleagues, students and the centre was extraordinary,' says Marion North. 'Always she saw the best in students drawing from them qualities they never knew they had.' 'She had a remarkable perception of how young people could progress, especially in choreography,' said Marion Gough, a senior colleague at the centre. 'But her particular contribution was teaching Leeder technique, especially appropriate to the centre over her whole period here.' For myself watching her teach I saw also an artist in performance. It was a bit like going to their house in north London. Everywhere were images and shapes through which dance and sculpture came together in the human figure, and a sense of art, British-based but drawing on a European tradition.
There is an unfinished book of her teaching which the centre will complete and publish just as it will mark her achievements in the autumn with a special celebration of the generations she taught not only in Britain but abroad. She was in demand frequently, most recently in China where only ill-health prevented a third visit.
Simone Michelle would never have seen her departure as a loss to more than family and friends. In fact a whole community and tradition are deprived. She had, like her husband, an artist's humility towards her work. In the history of British dance, though, she will remain significant, a VIP.