Creativity and innovation were watchwords for Dame Marie Rambert
Petite, energetic, and white-haired, the 93-year-old legend looked penetratingly at me and said, ''I toast my new Russian friend.'' The legend was Dame Marie Rambert, and we met last year at a gathering of ballet luminaries in London for the launching of a new book on Anna Pavlova.
It was my introduction to the English ballet world after 41/4 years in Moscow -- and an opportunity to meet an important and impressive woman whose lifetime of energy and persistence had such a profound impact on British ballet over the last six decades. She was the most enthusiastic person in the room, calling ''Bravo!'' during a film on Pavlova, and chatting freely.
Dame Marie, who passed on in London June 12, was one of the two women who founded British ballet and developed it in the 1920s and '30s. Dame Ninette de Valois concentrated on classical ballet, and her pioneering work led to the Royal Ballet Company as we know it today. Dame Marie experimented with contemporary dance, and her Rambert company and ballet school are known the world over.
At 90 she could recite 40 Shakespearean sonnets. She spoke five or six languages fluently, and took exercise classes until she was 70.
Rambert, born in 1888 in Warsaw of mixed Polish and Russian ancestry, saw Isadora Duncan perform in Warsaw, but had no thought of dancing then. She studied medicine in Paris and there discovered a natural talent for composing and choreographing dances. For three years she studied dance with Emile Jacques-Dalcroze in Switzerland, and was there when Sergei Diaghilev came to find someone to help Vaslav Nijinsky count the difficult rhythms in Stravinsky's ballet ''Le Sacre du Printemps.''
She went on tour to South America with the Diaghilev company as a member of the corps de ballet. On the way back to Europe in 1913 she was deeply impressed by the dedication and technique of ballerina Tamara Karsavina as Karsavina rehearsed daily on board ship.
In England in 1914, Rambert began to teach and give dancing lessons in private homes, while taking classes herself from Ceccetti and Astafieva. From the start she fostered new talent. One of her first discoveries was a young man named Frederick Ashton, who went on to become Sir Frederick, a leading choreographer and a mainstay of British ballet himself.
It was hard going at first. There was no money. Dancers earned only between 1 shilling and 10 shillings sixpence per performance. When Alicia Markova danced leading roles with the fledgling Rambert Ballet Club -- which last year marked its 50th anniversary -- it was on a postage-stamp-size stage, and she had to buy her own ballet shoes. Since the curtain fell after her last train home, she had to hail and pay for taxis herself.
With the passing first of Diaghilev and then of Anna Pavlova, with their companies dissolved, it fell to Rambert to keep alive their style of dance, thus making British ballet in the 1930s the best, creatively speaking, in the world. Creativity and innovation were her watchwords, and caught up with her were such names as Antony Tudor, Peggy van Praagh, Margot Fonteyn, Agnes de Mille, Kyra Nijinsky, Alexis Racine, Robert Helpmann, and more.
Financially, she had to scrabble to make ends meet -- until 1966, when choreographer Norman Morris changed the direction of her Rambert company. He stopped doing the classics as well as modern works. This allowed the company to tour without a large corps de ballet. He kept only soloists -- no stars, no corps.
From then on Morris ran the slimmer, more profitable company, while Dame Marie (she became a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1962) remained director and symbolic figure.
The company will be in the United States later this year. In October it will perform in New York; Madison, Wis.; St. Louis; Iowa City, Iowa; and Los Angeles.