Obituary: William Chappell
Tuesday 04 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.
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