Ismene Brown

Ballet critics are not writing for dancers

Some fans of Jonathan Ollivier, the fine dancer who was killed on his motorbike recently on the day he was to perform one of his best roles, the brooding sexpot in Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, have been mourning that he wasn’t alive to see his glowing obituaries.

Separately, I see that last week Rupert Pennefather of the Royal Ballet suddenly decided to leave ballet, aged 34. Next month he was due to open the new Covent Garden season in Romeo and Juliet. Again, fans have been commenting, this time noting that he never got a particularly enthusiastic press from the critics, and querying whether it might have been a factor in his quitting this young.

I did twice feel happily surprised by Pennefather a number of years ago (in La Sylphide after some brilliant coaching by Johan Kobborg, and as a refreshingly breezy Beliaev in Ashton’s A Month in the Country opposite the docile Darcey Bussell), but otherwise I’ve been one of those reviewers who fill their pens with lemon juice when they feel disappointed at another shiny golden British hope buffed up by the marketing department, but dulling to matte.

Ollivier didn’t always have such a great press, either. A decade ago he seemed to me a hapless leading performer at Northern Ballet saddled with of shelf-loads of stagey frock-coat and breeches roles. It wasn’t until in his thirties he found superior material — by Matthew Bourne, in particular — that he seemed remarkably transformed into an impressive and rewarding dancer of complex emotions. (His Speight in Bourne’s masterpiece about Sixties London high society, Play Without Words, was awesomely naughty and strange.)

But would either Ollivier or Pennefather really give a damn what I or anyone else wrote about them, alive or dead? The coverage isn’t meant for them to steer their careers by.

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