Obituary: William Chappell

William Chappell, dancer, theatre designer and producer: born Wolverhampton 27 September 1907; dancer, Ballet Rambert and Vic-Wells (later Sadler's Wells) Ballet 1930-39; military service 1939-45; books include Studies in Ballet 1948, Fonteyn: impressions of a ballerina 1951, Edward Burra: a painter remembered by his friend 1982, Well Dearie: The Letters of Edward Burra 1985; died Rye, East Sussex 1 January 1994.

IN A FABULOUS exhibition of 20th-century set and costume designs for dance at Central St Martin's College of Art and Design, in London, last May, two costume designs by William Chappell were placed alongside work by Benois, Oliver Messel, Picasso, John Piper, Bakst, David Hockney and Sophie Fedorovitch. One was for Frederick Ashton's Capriol Suite in 1930, revived in 1983, the other was for High Yellow by Buddy Bradley and Ashton in 1932.

In this way the exhibition placed Chappell justly among those who have stamped their designer's taste upon British ballet since 1930. The two designs illustrated also the wide range of a personal contribution which, in the 1930s, also included important roles as a dancer.

Chappell was educated first at Chelsea Arts School and had an early interest in dance; but he began serious dance study with Marie Rambert only at 17, too late ever to become a virtuoso dancer. In any case a dreamy, diffident temperament inclined him towards roles of a lyrical, less flamboyant nature. Through Rambert he became one of the founding dancers of British ballet alongside others in the Rambert and Vic-Wells companies. They formed a group of artists whose maturity looked wider than dance. In their company Chappell's ability as a designer was encouraged by Rambert, and it exceeded even his worth as a dancer.

After a brief professional engagement with the Ida Rubenstein Company in Paris in 1929 Chappell returned to London to dance with Rambert's newly formed Ballet Club (later Ballet Rambert), then with the Camargo Society and Ninette de Valois's Vic-Wells Ballet. Only by taking jobs with as many companies as possible could ballet dancers in those days earn the beginnings of a living.

Between 1930 and the outbreak of war in 1939, when he was the first male dancer to join up, Chappell created more than 40 widely different roles for Rambert and Vic- Wells. Among them were the Rake's friend in de Valois's The Rake's Progress, the popular song in Ashton's Facade, the title-role in Ashton's The Lord of Burleigh and the re-creation of two Nijinsky roles, Le Spectre de la rose and the faun in L'Apres-midi d'un faune.

I never saw Chappell dance except on a snippet of film in the Rambert collection from Ballet Club days. As the faun he moved with an astonishing grace and indolent sensuality which has stayed in my mind. When she showed me the film Marie Rambert said it was Chappell's self-confessed indolence and sense of style which led her to choose him for so difficult a re-creation.

Still, it is as a designer that he will be most remembered. During the 1930s Chappell designed more than 40 ballets or revues, including many of the early works of Ashton and de Valois. Among them were Tudor's Lysistrata, de Valois's The Wise and Foolish Virgins and Bar aux Folies-Bergere and Ashton's Les Rendezvous and Les Patineurs, as well as productions of Giselle and Coppelia for the Sadler's Wells Company. Designs for Les Patineurs remain in the repertory today as he created them. Les Rendezvous, although many times revised, continues essentially his conception. His designs captured visually particular lyrical and celebratory qualities in Ashton's choreography.

I met Chappell first only in 1959, climbing many stairs to his flat, in Thurloe Square, opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum. By then he had extended his work to include opera, musical theatre, revues and drama, often as director as well as designer. To these productions he brought a vast experience from his share in the creation of British ballet.

I asked him to join others, similarly eminent, in a series of extramural lectures on 'The Ballet in Britain' at Oxford, the first time ballet was considered seriously at the university. He talked about problems of ballet design with a knowledge, modesty and throwaway humour which won over within 10 minutes a sticky audience of academics and students, few of whom knew much about dance. Later, he illustrated the book which followed the lectures.

In our meetings he talked often about the curious balance in his career between self-confidence and self-doubt. I learnt that he wrote as he spoke with enviable fluency and imagery. His book Studies in Ballet (1948) has a wonderful description of Tamara Karsavina in the role of Gautier's heroine Mlle de Maupin. Later he edited two valuable books about his close friend the artist Edward Burra.

We lost touch as emphysema claimed him and he retreated to his home in Rye. The British theatre world, though, should not lose touch. His was a creative spirit which helped to found the national ballet we have today.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own