Obituary; Peter Williams

John Gregory
Friday 06 October 1995 23:02

Peter Williams, the ballet critic, journalist, founder editor of Dance and Dancers magazine, and committee man, was tall, shy and enigmatic. Somewhat aloof and mannered, he smoked cigarettes through a long cigarette- holder and when confronted with an impressive spectacle would drawl "Awfully pretty". It became a stock phrase for anything that pleased him.

He was born in 1914 at Burton Joyce, in Cornwall. After Harrow School he studied design at the Central School of Art and Design, which led to a dress-design business until, seeing a performance of the Diaghilev ballet, he became infected with a passion for dance, an art that appeared to him full of glamour but for which he was not equipped to be a participant.

He followed the ballet and in 1948 designed for Metropolitan Ballet, in New York, a work by John Taras, Designs with Strings. In 1949, he designed Andree Howard's Selina for Sadler's Wells Ballet, in London, but designing for the ballet was a penurious, spasmodic existence. He turned to writing and became assistant editor of Richard Buckle's magazine Ballet.

Leaving Buckle's employ in 1950, Williams established his own magazine, Dance and Dancers, which became part of the Dosse empire of Books and Bookmen, Films and Filming, etc. Laid-back and secretive, he spent little time at the office, preferring to edit the magazine from his home in Eaton Square.

Despite his shyness, Williams liked to socialise with dancers, many of whom he wrote about. He became a friend of Anton Dolin and spent a great deal of time with Festival Ballet, giving them lavish publicity.

Dance and Dancers grew in popularity and he drew together a group of regular contributors. During the 1950s Williams was an occasional visitor to my School of Russian Ballet, in Chelsea, west London, to watch class. He was keen to learn all he could about classical dance. Once, when he was becoming bored, I whisked him home to lunch on wild duck and a bottle of Moselle, which seemed to lift his spirits. It led to a commission for me to write a series of articles for his magazine, entitled "Steps of the Dance", based on the Russian School.

Williams became ballet critic of the Daily Mail and deputy critic of the Observer, a post he held for many years. Migrating to the Crush Bar set at Covent Garden changed his outlook. There he became enmeshed with a coterie of critics who took a specific line to praise or to damn, and spent their ink in denigrating foreign companies and in praising the rapidly growing establishment of English ballet.

When Williams dismissed the works of the great Leonide Massine, it seemed that he had transferred his stance from balletomane and connoisseur to the realms of politician. His change of heart, however, secured for him a certain security and a future that journalism could not give him. He became an esteemed committee man whose gentle art of diplomacy earned him new friends.

From 1965 he served on the music panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Advisory Committee on Dance under the chairmanship of Ninette de Valois (1965-72).

Williams went on to become chairman of the drama and dance advisory committee of the British Council. Since 1975 he had been chairman of the Dancers' Pensions and Resettlement Fund. In this capacity he did much to improve the dancer's lot, and this was probably his greatest contribution to what had previously been a very insecure world.

On Williams's retirement after three decades in harness, the editorship of Dance and Dancers was taken over by John Percival, ballet critic of the Times.

Williams's strongest subject was decor and his book Masterpieces of Ballet Design was published in 1980. Williams was as a writer inclined to sail with the prevailing wind. But in spite of his vacillations he did maintain a quiet dignity, a measure of good taste, an ability to write tidily, and a consistent love of the ballet.

John Gregory

Peter Lancelot Williams, writer, editor, ballet designer: born Burton Joyce, Cornwall 12 June 1914; editor, Dance & Dancers 1950-80; OBE 1971; died Cornwall 10 August 1995.

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