Obituary: Laura Wilson

Gavin Roebuck
Monday 31 May 1999 23:02

PERHAPS THE most revolutionary of all dance companies was Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (1909-29), with its explosion of creative talent. His use of the greatest composers and painters has been well documented. Laura Wilson was one of the first English girls to be engaged by Diaghilev when the Ballets Russes came to Britain from Spain towards the end of the First World War, in August 1918.

She took the name "Olkhina", a corruption of her nickname "Orla", and appeared in over 14 ballets including, in 1919, the first performances of Leonide Massine's Boutique Fantasque, with decor by Andre Derain, and Le Tricorne, designed by a young Picasso.

It was while she was with the Diaghilev company that she absorbed the teaching of the great ballet master Enrico Cecchetti whose method forms the basis of what is now termed the English School of ballet. In 1920, she was engaged to choreograph and teach dancing at the Glastonbury Festival School by its founder, the composer and conductor Rutland Boughton.

Her performing career was not confined to ballet and when she was forced by ill-health to leave the Ballets Russes she appeared as an actress, as well as arranging the dances and movement, in many of Nigel Playfair's productions at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in the 1920s and 1930s. Her choreography also made it to the West End stage, in A.P. Herbert's play Tantivy Towers.

She had not given up performing as a dancer and in the 1930s she appeared with some of the Camargo Society ballets which gave the first British productions of abbreviated versions of works like Swan Lake and Giselle with Alicia Markova at the Savoy Theatre.

Wilson's importance to British ballet came from her teaching. She founded her school in Drayton Gardens, south-west London, some time before Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet, started teaching in the next road. The basis of Wilson's success as a teacher lay in her own experience of ballet and her knowledge of Cecchetti's teaching. She taught in her own studios and toured many countries passing on her teaching of classical ballet to children and professional dancers. It is partly as a result of her work that the Cecchetti method of ballet is now taught in so many countries.

She was one of the earliest members and an examiner of the Cecchetti Society, and received the Cecchetti Society gold medal in 1966.

Those who met Laura Wilson were struck by her modesty, which is perhaps why she is less well known than some of her contemporaries. She was independently minded and surprisingly erudite for one with little formal education. She saw through hangers-on and had little time for amateurs. Although in poor physical health for some time she was always entertaining company to her friends and gave me her last private lesson a week before her death.

She was married to the painter Eric Munro Agnew, by whom she had a son and a daughter.

Laura Emma Elizabeth Jenner Wilson, dancer, actress and ballet teacher: born Sydney, New South Wales 9 February 1901; married Eric Munro Agnew (one son, one daughter); died London 14 May 1999.

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