Obituary: John Gregory

Gregor Koenig
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:35

John Gregory's love of dance was central to his life. In a rare and fruitful career he was a leading dancer, choreographer and teacher, as well as the author of many books on ballet. A prolific writer, he was a regular contributor to this page from 1991.

He began his artistic career not as a dancer, however, but as an actor, turned to painting and only then to dancing - strongly influenced by meeting the love of his life, later his dancing partner and his wife, Barbara Vernon. In 1949 they created the School of Russian Classical Ballet in Chelsea, and ten years later founded and ran the Harlequin Ballet, with the support of illustrious patrons from the ballet and theatrical world, among them Alicia Markova, Diana Menuhin, Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Romola Nijinsky and Anton Dolin.

In its ten-year existence the Harlequin Ballet Company fulfilled John Gregory's aim of taking ballet to the people, delighting audiences in remote and humble venues throughout the country. This was pioneering work, and was recognised by the Arts Council and aided until the powerful opposition of the national ballet establish-ment cut off its funding and effectively caused its closure. As a passionate champion of the Russian style, Gregory fought opposition and reaction throughout his ballet career, and never gave up fighting to the end.

He was born in Norwich in 1914. At the age of 12 he won a ticket to the Norwich Triennial Music Festival for writing an essay, and the following year left school to work in an auctioneer's office. Here he wrote down the price of cattle in the market - initially befuddled by the drinks pressed on him by the farmers. His acting career, in the 1930s, centred for nearly five years on the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, as a member of the Norwich Players, under the tulelage of their producer, Nugent Monck.

He worked his way up from walk-ons and bit-parts to some important roles in plays by Shaw, such as Eugene Marchbanks in Candida and, significantly, the Rev Phosphor Hummingtap in Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles. This title became a symbol for Gregory in later years of his own character, and he designated his autobiographical series with the subtitle "Simpleton of the Unexpected". The second volume, Days with Ted, published in 1995, was dedicated to the period in his life in the late 1930s in which the painter Edward Seago ("Ted") played a major part. (It can be seen at the Seago exhibition on at Spink & Son in London till the end of November.)

Recruited from the Maddermarket by Seago, who had seen him acting, Gregory commenced work as his personal assistant, though he kept the artist at a cautious distance due to his disapproval of his complicated private life. During their association, Gregory sat for Seago on several occasions, and prized his portrait among the handful of Seago's pictures he managed to collect. He learned much in the area of artistic expression and technique from the older man, expanding a burgeoning talent for oils.

Often they would paint together, and Gregory subsequently derived great pleasure and relaxation from painting throughout his life.

Prior to Gregory's arrival, Seago's favourite subject had been the circus and the outdoor life of travelling people and their horses. As with Degas, his interests now switched to dance for a series of ballet paintings and dancers' portraits.

John Gregory's initiation into the world of dance began when they were taken by one of Ted's circus friends to a first night of de Basil's Ballet Russe at Covent Garden where he experienced magical performances by Tatiana Riabouchinska and Roman Jasinsky in Les Sylphides. His interest was kindled, and fanned into a perpetual flame. Drawn into the dance world, he made many friends among the dancers.

In 1938 Seago's success in society and royal portraiture brought him an exhibition at the Carrol Carstairs Gallery in New York, and invitations to paint the Virginian equestrian society set, which required Gregory's presence as his secretary. While in New York they saw Alicia Markova and Serge Lifar in Giselle and Leonid Massine in Gaiete Parisienne. Markova and Mikhail Fokine were both painted by Seago and turned up for the exhibition's opening, adding to its fashionable success.

The painting tour of Virginia was cut short, however, by Seago's heart condition and the hunting-set gossip centring on his homosexuality, which unjustly cast a suspicious shadow over his and Gregory's professional relationship and caused a strategic separation to allow the scandal to subside.

Back in London, Seago helped Gregory obtain work as an understudy in T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion, starring Michael Redgrave and Catherine Lacy, at the Westminster Theatre. Gregory found lodgings and Ted and he parted more or less amicably, continuing an irregular correspondence until the artist's death from cancer in 1974.

Meanwhile, Gregory relieved the tedium of understudying with an evening class under the Russian-American dancer Igor Schwezoff. He spent much of his spare time among the dancers in the Schwezoff studio.

Also in 1938 came an acting highlight, the part of the Ambassador to Norway in Gielgud's Hamlet at the New Theatre for the four days prior to the production's tour to Elsinore. Gregory had been thrilled by Gielgud's 1935 production, and now he had the pleasure of working with him.

After some repertory work John Gregory's dance training continued. When the Second World War broke out he embraced a conscientious objection and toured with the Carl Rosa ballet company, then was accepted into the Anglo- Polish Ballet where he met his future wife, Barbara Vernon.

Nurturing his talent, she revolutionised his training in the method of her late teacher, Nicolai Legat, the inspired master of traditional Russian ballet. Later they appeared in a spectacular Russian Revue at the London Coliseum produced by Legat's widow, Nadine Nicolaeva-Legat who had also taught Barbara.

Attempting to avoid call-up, Gregory hid for five years behind a Russian alias, dancing as Serge Ivanoff, but was eventually forced into uniform, and after six months of touring France and Belgium in the London Ballet Group with ENSA, he and Barbara emerged from the war unscathed.

When Barbara's dance career was interrupted by the arrival of their son Steve, Gregory was engaged to play an acting-dancing role in a musical play, Under the Counter, with Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge. Soon afterwards the de Basil company returned to London and Gregory was invited to dance with them, but he was disappointed by its decline and turned the offer down. The family then travelled to New York for a season of Under the Counter which received 14 curtain calls on the opening night, but was destroyed by the critics.

Back in London, Gregory took a small part in a musical, Carissima, which ran for a year at the Palace Theatre. During a television variety show, he shared a dressing room with Bob Monkhouse. After another show with the Hulberts, he began planning his School of Russian Ballet, in association with Nicolaeva-Legat, who persuaded Vaslav Nijinsky to be the godfather of the Gregorys' second child, Paula. (By the age of 15 Paula had become an accomplished dancer in the company.)

The Gregorys' School of Russian Ballet was opened by Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin in December 1949, grew into the Harlequin Ballet ten years later, and created a worldwide fraternity of trained dancers who have passed on the Legat tradition to their pupils. Contributions of choreography and teaching were made by visiting luminaries such as the great Maryinsky ballerinas Princesse Romanovsky-Krasinsky (Mathilde Kschesinska) and Tamara Karsavina.

Gregory was a superb teacher and performer, possessing polished skills in character dancing, acting and mime. He was also a prolific choreographer for the company. His Ukrainian traditional ballet, Harovad (1959), became a popular finishing item with a tour de force from the male dancers. His production skills were exercised when he took his production of West Side Story to the Szeged Festival in Hungary where his supplemented company of 40 performed in the open air to an audience of 7,500 including the Prime Minister.

After the demise of Harlequin in 1968, John and Barbara Gregory were much in demand for lecturing, teaching and adjudicating in the many countries where their former pupils and company members drew them. They even travelled to Russia, where they were warmly received , and a number of ballet books ensued from the contacts made on the trip.

Gregory's writing abilities were well exercised in a steady stream of ballet titles and countless journalistic contributions - to the Dancing Times, Ballet Today, Dance and Dancers, New York Dance Observer and Australian Dance Magazine. His Legat Saga (1992) is a comprehensive study of the life and times of Nicolai Legat (1869-1937), illustrated from a vast collection of Legat photographs and caricatures which demonstrate the depths of his artistry.

In 1995 the Gregorys inaugurated the Legat Foundation as a charitable organisation devoted to perpetuating the legacy of Legat's teaching genius. John Gregory refused to allow illness over the last few years to prevent him working. At the time of his death, he was preparing two further books: Heroic Harlequin, the story of his groundbreaking ballet company, and Christian Johansson - Methuselah of the Dance, on a 19th-century architect of the Russian school of dancing.

Gregor Koenig

John Gregory, actor, dancer, choreographer, teacher and writer: born Norwich 15 April 1914; married 1945 Barbara Vernon (one son, one daughter); died London 27 October 1996.

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