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Elaine McDonald

After three years at the Royal Ballet School, Elaine McDonald was told 'you'll never make a classical dancer', and sent off to find her own way to a career in dance. Not one of the School's greatest decisions: she went on to become the prima ballerina of Scottish Ballet, and - for a time in the 1980s - certainly the best classical ballerina in the country; and on the way she also blossomed as a dramatic dancer of the highest order, and became the muse of Peter Darrell, probably the best choreographer outside the Royal Ballet in the last half century.

Born in Leeds in 1943, McDonald had her first dancing lessons when she was three. She was trained by Olivia Morley in Scarborough, and then by Louise Browne in York, and at fifteen won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. Her first company after leaving the school was Walter Gore's short-lived but influential London Ballet, famous for its dramatic works, and when that company folded, she joined Western Theatre Ballet, a tiny company based in Bristol. In 1969 director Peter Darrell took the company to Glasgow, where it became the basis of what is now Scottish Ballet: McDonald was a founder member and spent the rest of her career there, finding complete artistic fulfilment in the roles Darrell made for her and in the leading roles of the classical repertoire.

 Darrell was one of the generation that included Cranko and MacMillan, and like them made ballets with strongly dramatic themes, giving outstanding opportunities to his interpreters. McDonald created a whole range of leading roles in ballets like Mary Queen of Scots, The Tales of Hoffmann, Cinderella, and - her favourite - 5 Ruckert Songs (seen in the photograph). She also danced the leads in La Sylphide, Giselle and Darrell's version of Swan Lake, and it was in these roles she was most familiar outside Scotland, giving guest appearances with London Festival Ballet and other companies as well as appearing on tour with Scottish Ballet.

In 1986 Darrell decided he wanted to give up the directorship of the company, and McDonald was on the short list of possible successors; but before an appointment could be made, Darrell died, and eventually McDonald was made 'artistic controller'; later she was for a time Associate Artistic Director of Northern Ballet Theatre. She was never a virtuoso dancer, but she had lyricism and musicality, and a dramatic instinct which illuminated everything she danced and made her the equal of many much better known ballerinas. She could probably have moved to a higher-profile company whenever she liked, but she chose to remain loyal to Darrell and his commitment to ballet as theatre. Her accomplishment was recognised by the award of an OBE in 1983, a rare distinction for a dancer outside the Royal Ballet organisation.

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