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|About the Change|
Anthony Dowell is remembered by many as the perfect English dancer. His understated elegance seemed to personify all that we think of as our national virtues, and in particular he looked almost uniquely 'right' in the Ashton repertoire. From his first appearance, in a solo in the Napoli Variations, he was clearly headed for the top, and even without his famous partnership with Antoinette Sibley he would be assured of a permanent place in the pantheon of British ballet.
Dowell's early training (his first teacher was Susan Hampshire's mother) covered tap and musical comedy as well as ballet, and he kept for ever a slight yen to appear in a musical and dance like his idol Gene Kelly. At the Royal Ballet School he was soon identified as potentially special - people used to come and watch him in class, through the curtains so he wouldn't notice - but his career nearly came to a premature end at his graduation performance, where the double tours in the Swan Lake pas de six defeated him at rehearsal, and only encouragement and coaching from Michael Somes got him through. He was taken into the London Royal Ballet in 1961, after a year's apprenticeship in the Covent Garden Opera Ballet, and within three years was launched on the road to stardom when Ashton chose him to create the role of Oberon in his Dream, showing for the first time his speed and unique ability to change direction apparently instantaneously.
In Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet in 1965 he created the role of Benvolio, and it was at Sibley's request that he moved up to Romeo when she came back from a long illness to dance Juliet. Although he turned out - rather to MacMillan's surprise - to have the stamina for such a long role, many of the critics thought his acting lagged a long way behind his already wonderful dancing. This perceived shortcoming dogged his for years, and it was perhaps not until he created another MacMillan lead in Manon, years later, that his acting was generally appreciated. He was soon dancing all the classics, usually with Sibley (although there were those who actually thought him better partnered with Merle Park), and in a string of new roles by both Ashton and MacMillan. In 1967 he was honoured by having Antony Tudor create for him the only ballet he ever made for the London company, Shadowplay, an experience which taught him a huge amount about interpretation.
Dowell and David Wall led the company through some of its greatest days in the late sixties and seventies; but by 1978 Dowell was running out of new things to do, and took a year off to dance with American Ballet Theatre. He was already a favourite in New York from the Royal Ballet's tours, and this season confirmed his status as an international star; when he came back it was with a new confidence and assurance. His stage personality up till then could seem introverted, with a feeling that he was holding something back, and it was this seeming unwillingness to give himself entirely to the dance that perhaps held him back from reaching the greatest heights. But this is to cavil: he was one of the finest classical dancers of our time.