On your toes

Life in a fairly remote part of North Yorkshire seems an unlikely place for a little girl to start what turned out to be a (fairly short) dancing career.  But the truth eventually became apparent that much as I loved riding on my pony Judy, I was allergic to horses and I lived in a family of horse lovers.  It finally dawned on my parents that the constant streaming of eyes and nose, the incessant sneezing, needed to have something done about it.   So I was whisked off to our doctor who immediately diagnosed the awful truth.  And to alleviate all these respiratory problems he suggested that I should ‘expand my lungs by taking dancing lessons’.   I was immediately enrolled in Miss Beadell’s School of Dance in Darlington.  I took to it like a duck to water (not Swan Lake yet) and actually turned out to be quite good.  We had a Nanny who was mad keen on ballet and sat through the classes taking down notes.  The Aga rail in the kitchen was perfect for practising my barre work at home.

Soon one lesson a week became two then three.  I am now so ashamed that I didn’t show sufficient gratitude to my mother or either older sister to whom fell the job of being chauffeur for a 15 mile drive there, one hour wait, then 15 miles home again.  I was about nine but even so.

Then came all the Royal Academy of Dancing exams which had to be taken in Newcastle.  I have to say I was Miss Beadell’s star pupil.  So much so that finally one of the examiners suggested that I should take things further and go for an audition at one of the London ballet schools.  Marie Rambert, or Mim, as we called her, was Polish and coincidentally so was my grandmother.  It therefore seemed that was the place for me if I passed an audition.  I did and so in 1957 off I went, aged almost 13.  I cannot but marvel at my parents’ relaxed attitude in letting such a young sheltered girl leave her day convent for the wilds of Notting Hill – and it was wild in those days!  I do think that they had an erroneous idea that all male dancers were quite safe in taxis but I am everlastingly grateful to them.

Fortuitously, a friend of my mother’s had a sister who lived in Ladbroke Square, all of five minutes’ walk from Rambert and this is where I lived for the next seven years, going home for holidays which were shorter than ordinary school holidays.  Rambert had a (surprisingly very good) educational establishment as well with some exceptionally impressive teachers in all subjects.

The day started at 8.30 with a class, ½ hour of barre work, then centre work.  This work was as devised by the Italian ballet master Enrico Cecchetti (1850–1928). The training method seeks to develop essential skills in dancers as well as strength and elasticity and this is what even the greatest ballerinas do every day.  No system has ever been bettered and many sportspeople including footballers follow this programme.  After that back we went to the school, just round the corner, for lessons until lunchtime.  A short rest lying on the floor then lessons until four.  And then until six o’clock as I remember, another class which might have been character dancing, classical or modern dance, or pointe work.

We had different teachers for different classes; most terrifying of all was when Mim, who was a tiny dynamic figure given to turning cartwheels as she entered the studio, was taking one.  If she ignored you that was terrible as it meant you weren’t worthy of her notice.  The alternative was to be noticed by her and screamed at.  She could flay you with her fairly heavily accented tongue and it didn’t take long before you were reduced to a wobbling jelly.  But most of us loved it, though one or two fell by the wayside and were seen no more.  My best friend was Zoe Wanamaker who went on to become a successful actress.  Christopher Bruce started the same time as me and is now one of our most respected choreographers.

And so it went on until having passed my ‘O’ levels, I became a full time ballet student.  We could all tell who were the dancers with real talent.  But you had to have stamina as well as the right physique which in those days meant you couldn’t be over about 5’4” for a girl and no unsightly bulges.  That didn’t affect the boys, but never think that dancers of either sex are namby-pamby.  You have to be tough.

The Rambert Company had started in England in 1926 and was the first ballet company in the UK, preceding the Royal Ballet by several years.  Many famous people were members of her company, Frederick Ashton, Audrey Hepburn;   Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn danced with it.

After two years as a student Madame invited me to join the Company.  It meant a lot of touring as well as dancing in London.  Hard work but if you enjoyed it worthwhile.  However after two years or so I decided that although I was certainly corps de ballet material I was never going to reach soloist standard.  I went to have a chat with Mim as I knew she would give me a straight answer, and she agreed.  So that was that.  I decided that if I was never going to be first class I would stop.

I have certainly never regretted my training, the occasional leap across the tennis court, winning races at the children’s Mothers’ Races, and appreciation of all things to do with the Arts, all stem from that demanding training.  And by the way, I am no longer allergic to horses.  I was able to hack half way across Afghanistan before flooded rivers made us turn back.  But that was in 1969.

Mary Cochrane

June-July 2021