Ballet News Reviews | A Dancer in Wartime | Gillian Lynne
I received this book to review, before Christmas last year. What with one thing and another : a ferocious workload before the holidays and then Christmas itself, I never even had the chance to pick it up. Until yesterday. I can only say what a mistake that was. Despite how often you’ve heard it said, it’s quite rare to literally be unable to put a book down – life has a habit of getting in the way! But in this case, it’s 100% the best way to describe the experience of delving between this book’s covers.
One of the most well written autobiographies; descriptive to the point of pithy but with such humour and throughout, the impeccable manners that mark out a dancer. Lynne begins the Prologue with “to me a dancer’s life is an amalgam of three crucial elements : the Impossible and the Spiritual all wrapped up with a ribbon of Passion.”
As the title conveys, this dancer’s training and early performances were peppered with visits to the Andersen shelters, belting up and down stairs to reach safer havens, with, all the while, mirror in hand to finish pre-performance make-up. Lynne often cites her youth as the reason for her lack of fear during the war, despite being evacuated countless times, separated from her family, the Doodlebugs and other horrors all around her, but the way she conveys these experiences in matter-of-fact terms is nothing short of miraculous. Her effervescence gives the pages an almost infectious sense of wonder and hope; always looking on the bright side (even when her trains were frequently stopped and bombs heard during the war) and always considering herself unbelievably lucky. And this, despite losing her treasured Mother at a very young age, seeing her Father broken before her and trying to be strong, not to cry, for him, and to mend him back together as he took on a momentous wartime challenge of his own.
There is fun too – a recollection of the ‘Radio Doctor’ during the war – “Remember that wonderful little brown-coated worker – the Prune – he should be with you as often as possible!”
The highlights of Lynne’s career (her name was changed from Jill Pyrke as it was deemed too easy to mis-spell in notices) include winning the RAD Solo Seal with Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, coveted roles, praise (and punishing corrections) from ‘Madam’ Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton among others, touring to Europe during the war to entertain the battle-weary troops, taking class with Margot Fonteyn, who was helpful and charming and on the brink of greatness; the highlights are many and the stories surrounding them very well told.
There’s the ‘knickers’ episode, resulting in a situation to this day where Lynne finds herself with more underwear than anyone else! Then there’s the moment when she describes herself as like an electrified twig after a storm, and the turtle shell propped against a wall which turned out to contain a dancer who had fainted.
You will be entertained – all the way from Lynne’s first dancing steps to her 20th birthday which just happened to be on 20th February 1946 – the very same day that the Sadlers Wells Ballet premiered The Sleeping Beauty in their new home – the Royal Opera House – or, as the dancers called it ‘the Garden.’ Explaining how the lead-up to the big night consumed London, and how Lynne forgot even her own birthday, she writes, “… rumours were emerging, creeping out of cracks, slithering under stylish doorways, being whispered from bedroom to hall to kitchen to mews that England’s high society was busy preparing itself. Smoothing out its slips and embroidered silks; shaking out its fur jackets and boas; lifting out its dazzling tiaras (dimly glinting from lack of use and needing care); pulling out its satin slippers; edging out its necklaces and earrings; which had been hidden away during the bombing and for fear of invasion; shaking out its sleekly tailored suits; discovering whether it’s stylishly patterned shirts would fit; removing mothballs from elegant jackets and nicely woven socks; unearthing gold and diamond cufflinks. Women and men alike were determined that the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty at Covent Garden would declare English society was intact and unharmed by the war, and that the country had picked itself up, dusted itself down and was emerging triumphant after the hideous conflict.”