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Antoinette Sibley

Antoinette Sibley was the first ballerina to have come right through both divisions of the Royal Ballet School. She was also the last - so far - of the Royal Ballet's great classical ballerinas, and a wonderful interpreter of the Ashton repertoire, both in created roles and in those she inherited from Fonteyn. Add to that her famous partnership with Anthony Dowell, and the unexpected glories of her late career, and you can see Sibley as the ultimate Royal Ballet dancer - certainly the finest to emerge in the second half of the century.

 Sibley was born in 1939, and studied at the Cone Ripman school before joining the then Sadler's Wells Ballet School. Given her later image, it's surprising to learn that she was something of a rebel at school, constantly in trouble - just the sort of girl, in fact, to catch the eye of Ninette de Valois, who liked dancers with spirit rather than meek conformers. Her quality was obvious from the start - even when she was still in the Lower School, rumours of a future Aurora were to be heard. She joined the company in 1956, making her mark very soon in classical solos, and hit the headlines for the first time in 1959, when she was cast as Swanilda in Coppélia at the Royal Ballet School's first ever performance - de Valois thought that for their first try they should have young graduates in the lead roles. She became a soloist that year, and in October attracted huge publicity when she went on as Odette/Odile as a last minute replacement - not her first performance, as it happened, but then as now it was the 'unknown leaps to overnight stardom' angle that attracted the press. By 1960 she was a Principal, and gradually taking over all the great classic roles and making them her own.

The next milestone was 1964, when Ashton made the role of Titania in his lovely Dream for her, and by casting the relatively unknown Anthony Dowell as Oberon, launched the second-most-famous partnership in the company's history. It's impossible to write of Sibley without writing of Dowell as well: they were so ideally matched, in appearance, line and musicality that their already great individual talents seemed even greater when they appeared together. They went on to do all the classics, as well as Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet and many other contemporary works - including, for me most memorable of all, Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. It was Ashton, though, who best exploited the partnership, and if you want to see what Sibley and Dowell really were, you need to find a video of the 'Awakening' pas de deux he wrote for them in a production of Sleeping Beauty. It didn't last long in the repertoire - it was generally thought too 'romantic' for Beauty - but it was a perfect embodiment of the essence of the two dancers.

To the audience, Sibley's rise to stardom seemed easy and inevitable: but in fact her career was constantly interrupted by illness and injury. A long bout of glandular fever took years to recover from, and she had an almost permanent problem with one of her knees. It was this that almost kept her out of one of her most famous - and perhaps least likely - creations, when Kenneth Macmillan cast her quite against her usual persona as Manon. Only her role in Ashton's Jazz Calendar, which cast her equally against type in a sexy pas de deux with Nureyev, had prepared her admirers for the sensuous portrayal of the grasping heroine, but she triumphed in it and was seen in a rather different light from then on. Within five years, though, her knee problem had escalated to a stage where she could no longer carry on, and she announced her retirement in 1979, retreating into private life and motherhood.

However... preparing for a gala a couple of years later, at which Dowell had persuaded her to read some poetry whilst more or less walking through a new piece by Ashton, she discovered that she was in fact stronger and better than she had felt for years, and we were treated to a wonderful Indian summer in which she returned, if not to the classics, to many of her most famous roles, even including Manon. These days she continues her involvement with dance as President of the Royal Academy of Dancing, and as a coach to aspiring ballerinas. As Aurora, Cinderella, Chloe, in Scènes de Ballet and Dances at a Gathering she was unforgettable. A dream of a dancer, she had musicality, a sense of humour, the authority to dominate the great classics, and a very human presence.


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