Memories: Clement Crisp

Remembering Peter Darrell, and remembering his ballets, I started to think about what has been missing from our dance-world in the ten years since he died. My immediate feeling was about a loss of that special sense of adventure that touched so much of Peter's work.

Darrell knew that the theatre was an exciting and dangerous place. From his earliest years as a creator, he believed, and showed, that the ballet could not tread water. He certainly wasn't going to do that himself as an artist, and a company with which he was associated must swim with the tide - and possibly against the tide - and make waves. And that is what, essentially, he did for the whole of his creative life.

The conventional classical training he received as a dancer, the conventional work in which he first appeared, was all very nice and very valuable as an education, but it was merest preparation. I recall that even in his early apprentice choreographies for Ballet Workshop in the 1950's, there was a hint of something sharply theatrical waiting to surface. And surface it did when he joined forces with Elizabeth West to help make Western Theatre Ballet ("WTB"). "Theatre" Ballet, please note. For Liz West, and for Darrell, it was how dance could be seen, and seen clearly, as a branch of the theatre, how drama could shape a dance piece and colour every step, that really mattered. This is a commonplace today; Darrell's contemporary and friend, Kenneth MacMillan, was at one with Darrell in this quest for a new relevance in the 1950's and early 1960's, for dance's acceptance of the modern ideas which were so richly evident in the cinema and theatre, and so unlikely in the official ballet world in Britain of that time. (Jerome Robbins, Roland Petit were the standard bearers of the new for the dance world. Elsewhere fairies reigned.)

"The Prisoners" in 1957 was Darrell's first mature statement about his dancetheatre, and what a superb, haunting and haunted piece it was. (After 40 years I can still see Suzanne Musitz's dominating performance in my mind's eye, and the awful cardigan she wore as The Woman. I can also recall a later performance by Paula Hinton at a matinee in Bath, of chilling power. Darrell's ballets inspired and enhanced every artist who appeared in them.) What I also remember about these early WTB years is the indomitable courage shown by Liz West and Darrell in the face of fearful financial problems - there were never artistic problems but funding was a nightmare, which offers an exact and, I think, flattering portrait of the young company. One morning I met Liz West on the steps of the Albert Hall, and she told me that she couldn't pay the company's shoe-bill for the week. She had just been to see a huge and hugely rich corporation to ask for cash to tide things over. She had been offered ú10, which she very rightly told them to keep. Life may have been hand to mouth at this time - and splendid artists like Brenda Last have tales to tell of the jobs the dancers accepted in order to survive - but WTB was held together by faith in what they were doing, belief in Liz West and Peter Darrell, and by a determination that what they were doing must be continued. Disaster struck with the death of Elizabeth West in a climbing accident in 1962, but Darrell accepted his further responsibility to be sole artistic director, and the company flourished, artistically and in the esteem of its public. I think that those of us on the outside of the company - whether as audience or as critics - felt the same loyalty as the dancers, and the same sense of dogged determination that ballet as good as this should not be allowed to be ignored, and must be encouraged.

So, through the 1950's and 1960's, Darrell went on making dances of our time and for our time. There were obviously "daring" pieces, like A Wedding Present, which dealt with homosexuality, and brilliant teases, like Jeux, with its tennis party given added zip by the presence of (we supposed) poison and a revolver shot (I nagged at Darrell once to explain it: he was much too canny to give anything away!). There was Mods and Rockers, a social comment exactly and absolutely of its time (1963) and the infinitely touching Home made for Nadia Nerina as a guest of the company, which told of love blossoming in a mental hospital. (The vulnerability of Nerina's performance absolutely heart-rending.) There was Darrell's first full-length piece, Sun into Darkness, a tough and tautly erotic drama with a story by David Rudkin and a score by Malcolm Williamson - here was that collaboration of contemporary theatre artists which was so central to WTB's heart - and then Darrell's second full-length ballet, the poetic Beauty and the Beast, which marked the transformation of WTB into Scottish Theatre Ballet and had a superb score by Thea Musgrave. Darrell, characteristically, sought out Scotland's leading contemporary composer to make ballet music for Scotland's new Ballet.

The move to Scotland, the recognition of Darrell's work and of the value of his company and his dancers, of course delighted WTB's admirers. (Urban and southern snob that I was, I recall thinking that "it was a long way away", especially when my view of Glasgow was coloured by Robert Helpmann's wartime ballet, Miracle in the Gorbals with its stunning Edward Burra designs. Some years later I walked though the now eminently proper Gorbals with Darrell and we fantasised about finding Helpmann standing there as the Christ-like "Stranger", and seeing Celia Franca, great dramatic dancer, glowing with her red dress in a doorway as the Magdalen figure!)

Once installed and established in Scotland, Darrell rose to new opportunities and new challenges with tremendous vigour. He was entering his `forties', full of energy and master of his craft. He had, naturally enough, to judge his new public and win them over to the idea of a national ballet for Scotland, and then the kind of ballets which he wished to create. Not that Darrell was selfish as a creator, or hide-bound by taste.

The catalogue of work he made over the next 17 years tells of his realisation that there must be proper foundations - the classics, in Darrell's own fresh and imaginatively apt versions, and also superbly authentic Bournonville stagings (La Sylphide and Napoli were impeccable as versions of masterpieces, and danced with splendid understanding). Darrell also knew that he must produce crowd-pleasers: from Tales of Hoffmann to his grand vehicle for Dame Margot Fonteyn, The Scarlet Pastorale and the powerful Mary Queen of Scots and Cinderella.

In everything, in short and "occasional" pieces, in the new work he produced with such fluency, in his readiness to make dances for a variety of theatrical spaces, Darrell showed an easy and seemingly tireless craftsmanship (I say `seemingly' because such craft is the fruit of long and laboured study and training). Darrell loved the theatre elements in his ballets, loved sudden coups de theatre and tricks, loved the power of a star to transform a work and seduce an audience, and he encouraged his artists. He was blessed with devoted and gifted dancers - I think, inevitably and gratefully, of Elaine McDonald, as typifying everything that Darrell hoped for in the theatre in matter of sensitivity as well as of technical grace - and he had the trust of his public. By the late 1980's he could know what he had achieved for Scotland, and could also see the problems that still dogged the heels of a ballet company, no matter how good. I think he was still optimistic about the future - if a little wary!

With his death, I suspect that audiences quite as much as his dancers, felt bereft. Not that he hogged any limelight, or sought for applause, but his presence was, inescapably, everywhere in the life of his company. His legacy was not just ballets, but an attitude to ballet itself, a belief in ballet as an art of today. Not for Darrell the museum approach! The life of his work and his company was the life of the time in which he lived, and his ballets are true and fascinating mirrors of their age. Like everyone who knew him, however slightly, I miss him. But when we see his ballets, he is still with us: serious but not pompous, dedicated, loving his art and full of laughter.

Thank you, dear Peter.