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|About the Change|
Ashton's inspiration, Fonteyn's partner, fierce guardian of tradition: Michael Somes may never have hit the headlines, but his influence on the Royal Ballet was profound. As a dancer he was the archetypal Royal Ballet prince, noble and mature, and although never the most brilliant of technicians, his stage presence and authority gave a weight to the classical roles rarely seen nowadays.
Somes was the first boy to be given a scholarship to the Sadler's Wells Ballet School, starting there in 1934 when he was 17. He was first noticed in the première of Ashton's Les Patineurs, 'jumping right out of the corps de ballet', and apparently making such an impression that Robert Helpmann decided then and there that Somes would replace him one day, and started seriously establishing his second career as an actor! Somes was to create 24 roles for Ashton altogether, and Ashton's biography reveals for the first time how deep and lasting was his feeling for the young dancer. His first leading role was in Horoscope - lost when the company had to flee from Holland at the beginning of the war - and of the others, perhaps the best were in Dante Sonata, Symphonic Variations and Daphnis and Chloe.
Given his later reputation, it is surprising to know that as a young man, Somes was not the most reliable of partners. Hard work changed that; and although his partnership with Fonteyn is best remembered, he danced with every ballerina in the company, often being happy to give a young débutante the immense benefit of his calm and unobtrusive help. He danced with Fonteyn through the greatest years of her career, his physique, looks and temperament providing a perfect foil for her: there is a film of Act 2 of Swan Lake which wonderfully shows the sympathy between them and the strength of his support.
Outside the classics/Ashton repertoire, Somes made an unforgettable impression in the Royal Ballet's revival of Fokine's Firebird as the slightly simple Prince Ivan; and perhaps his most famous moment of all came in a Balanchine ballet: his walk off the stage at the end of the second movement of Ballet Imperial is always quoted as the supreme example of simplicity and dignity. He tried his hand at choreography only once, with a slight but pleasing piece called Summer Interlude for the smaller Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet - many people have built successful careers on much less promising beginnings, but for some reason Somes never made another ballet.
Somes's retirement from leading roles more or less coincided with the arrival of Nureyev. He still appeared often on stage in character roles - indeed a whole generation will remember him principally as Juliet's father; but his main energies were turned to the preservation of the Ashton repertoire. He was a hard taskmaster, insisting that the dancers went on working until every detail was right, and the works gained immeasurably. Apart from a short period in the 80s, when he left the company after an argument in which he knocked Kenneth Macmillan down, his entire career was spent with the Royal Ballet. His last work was the immensely successful revival of Enigma Variations for the Birmingham RB. He died, of a brain tumour, in 1994; his loyalty and dedication are an irreplaceable loss to the company.