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John Percival, 1927 – 2012: A personal appreciation

John Percival interview, from 2002,
a very full account of his life in dance.

It’s a fortunate dance-goer who can discover a critic whose opinions she can trust – doubly fortunate if it’s a critic who sees and reports on more performances than any of the rest. It’s more than fifty years since I first found that I was turning to John Percival’s reviews before anyone else’s, and I have never been able to work out if I’ve agreed with him so often because I naturally shared his taste or because he’d actually formed my  own. A bit of both, probably; either way, there were times – especially in the 1970s and 80s – when I thought he and I were the only sane people in the ballet audience.

John wrote for The Times for over 30 years, covering tiny experimental groups with the same interest and attention that he gave to the grandest and most famous companies: I’ve heard it said that when he left the paper, the press coverage of events at The Place dropped by 25%. It was from his writing in Dance and Dancers, though, that I learned the most. He was truly indefatigable, not just in catching every cast change at the Covent Garden Royal Ballet – that’s the easy bit – but also for instance in chasing round the country, weekend after weekend (and always by train as he never learned to drive) to catch up with the company’s touring section, which has never had anything like such coverage since. And it was often through him that we first heard of new companies, new choreographers, new dancers, so that when someone like William Forsythe finally arrived in this country we already knew who he was and what he did and were agog to see him for ourselves. (That may sound commonplace in these days when the internet saturates us with publicity, but 20 or 30 years ago writing like John’s was our only information channel.)

What I enjoyed about his writing, even on the occasions when I disagreed with his conclusions, was its complete straightforwardness: a touch of mischief now and then, the occasional fit of grumpiness, but no purple prose, no personality cult, no hidden agendas (he did have agendas but they were always very obvious), no esoteric references to show off his knowledge – just ‘I went to the theatre and this is what I saw and this is what I thought of it’. He didn’t live in the past, either – of course he’d seen the greatest dancers of our time but he was very happy to recognise new stars as they rose: only a few years ago, after the debut of a young Royal Ballet Aurora, I said to him I thought she was the best since Antoinette Sibley, to which he replied emphatically, ‘No, she was better than Sibley – more spirit’.

Over the last 20 years or so I gradually got to know John and his wife, Judith Cruickshank, as friends and occasional advisers, and also used both of them unscrupulously as  wonderful sources of information. John had a phenomenal memory for what he’d seen – I once took him a ballet quiz book to amuse him when he was in hospital for a time, and he opened it at a photo of a not particularly well-known American dancer and instantly could tell me when and where he’d last seen her, 40 years earlier – and was always very happy to talk at length about anything to do with dance, as well as relishing a good gossip. (He seemed to have known everyone and I eventually got used to him clinching some point with the likes of ‘Well, that’s what Fred told me’. There’s no answer to that.) At first I was rather nervous about offering my own so much less well-founded opinions, but he was (mostly) kind about it and I quickly learned that his mildly interrogative ‘Mm?’ was another man’s ‘You CANNOT be serious!’ and indicated that I needed  a bit more evidence to convince him. More testing was the time I met him immediately after we’d both just seen a new Paul Taylor piece for the first time, and all he said was, ‘Well?’ Fortunately, ‘He’s a genius’, seemed to be an acceptable answer.

By coincidence, the night after John died I was actually watching the Taylor company dancing Roses, a joy I might never have discovered without him: just one of the many reasons I will remember him with such gratitude.

About the author

Jane Simpson

Jane Simpson has written for DanceTabs/ Balletco since its very early days in 1997. She contributed regularly to Dance Now for its last 10 years and wrote for the Yearbook of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2000 - 2009); she writes a 'London Letter' for the Washington-based quarterly, Dance View. She is based in London and also makes several trips to Copenhagen each season.

Update: In June 2014 Jane decided to retire from writing - see more on this page.

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