Tribute and performances in aid of the Motor Neurone Disease Association
Annette Page: Tribute to a Ballerina
London, Linbury Theatre
12 March 2019
The tribute to Annette Page (1932 – 2017) was organised by her friend, Anya Linden (Lady Sainsbury) and daughter Louise, together with her husband of 60 years, Ronald Hynd, and the Royal Ballet’s director, Kevin O’Hare. The programme celebrated her career with the Royal Ballet and supported the Motor Neurone Disease Association. She died at the age of 84 of MND, a cruel disease for a former dancer and an articulate, witty woman.
I had seen her dance a few years before her early retirement in 1967 and had interviewed her and Ronald for the biography of Kenneth MacMillan, Different Drummer. Both had known MacMillan well. Annette had been in the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School with him as a youngster before joining him in the junior touring company, the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet.
She had been only 11 when she was accepted into the School during World War II, and was still a shrimp of a girl when she was taken into the touring company in 1950. She danced in early ballets by John Cranko and MacMillan before being invited by Ninette de Valois to join the resident company in Covent Garden in 1955. There she was often paired with Ronald Hynd, and they married in 1957.
The tribute evening was compered by Sarah Crompton, who introduced films and photographs of Annette in performance, as well as onstage vignettes by current members of the Royal Ballet. Thanks to documentary-maker Lynne Wake’s retrieval of archive footage and interviews with former dancers, we were able to see and hear Annette in action. She soared through the Les Sylphides mazurka, accomplished the demanding solo made for Beryl Grey in Ashton’s Birthday Offering and Margot Fonteyn’s solo in Scènes de ballet. The film footage was a reminder of how Ashton’s choreography used to be performed by dancers he coached.
Annette, who was made a principal in 1959, danced leading roles in Ashton’s ballets – particularly Cinderella and La Fille male gardée – as well as in the classics. However, she had to take second place to Fonteyn, whom she resembled with similar dark eyes and hair. She told me how she was privileged to watch, as second cast, Fonteyn being taught the role of the Firebird by Tamara Karsavina.
She remembered, laughing, how hard it was in performance as the Firebird to grip a foam apple between her teeth when she was gasping for air after all those leaps.
On the Linbury stage, Itziar Mendizabal performed the opening solo from Fokine’s Firebird, with Ryochi Hirano as the Tsarevich in the pas de deux. No apple and no heavy breathing – Mendizabal’s stamina was impressive. So was Marianela Nunez’s in the Fanny Elssler solo from La Fille mal gardée, with its twists, turns and jumps. The role of Lise was Annette’s last performance before her retirement at the age of 34 in 1967.
She decided to leave soon after she had danced an intensive period of leading roles, often replacing another ballerina. “I’d better go’, she said. ‘It can’t get better than this’. She was being squeezed out of performances by Fonteyn’s renewed career with Rudolf Nureyev. There were too many resident principal dancers whose own futures were being stifled by Fonteyn’s continued presence as a guest – a public demand that the Royal Ballet couldn’t resist.
Annette gave birth to her daughter, Louise – Lulu – who became a dancer with Festival Ballet before pursuing other options. Ronald became known as a choreographer, as well as directing the Bavarian State Ballet, with his wife as ballet mistress. His three-act ballets and productions are in the repertoires of companies around the world. A pas de deux from The Merry Widow, which he created for the Australian Ballet in 1975, was performed in the Linbury by Gary Avis and Marianela Nunez, who had recently danced the ballet in Buenos Aires. It’s an incredibly glamorous role (once danced by Fonteyn in her fifties with the Australian Ballet), with champagne being sipped at improbable angles by the Widow in her partner’s arms.
The tribute programme included the Balcony pas de de deux from MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, danced by Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Ball. Annette had been scheduled as second cast Juliet in its original season, after Fonteyn but before Lynn Seymour, Merle Park and Antoinette Sibley. She had injured her ankle, however, and had to wait for the ballet’s revival to give her interpretation of Juliet.
The evening ended with a pas de deux created for the tribute by Andrew McNicol, who is forging a career as a talented choreographer. Ever After, performed by Olivia Cowley and Nicol Edmunds to music by Mendelssohn, evoked a woman whose strength was fading. She was supported by her partner in a danced dialogue of understanding and acceptance that was very moving. An appeal was made for the MNDA’s research Project Ambrosia, to which the Linbury Trust has donated £200,000.
The theatre foyer then filled with people reminiscing about the glory days of the Royal Ballet when Annette Page and her generation of dancers and dance-makers were in their prime.