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From the music hall to ballet royalty: A British tale

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A 1972 photograph of young girls about to dance the party polka taken by Margot Fonteyn's brother, Felix. The footage, which had been stored in the Royal Academy of Dance's archives in canisters marked "Children's Syllabus", was only recently discovered.

EDOUARD Espinosa, a London dance teacher, once said in 1916 that "it is absolute nonsense to say that the English temperament is not suited for dancing". It was only a lack of skilled teaching, he added, that prevented the emergence of "perfect dancers". Mr Espinosa was speaking to a reporter from Lady's Pictorial about a furor that he had caused in the dance world with this idea: Dance instructors, he insisted, should adhere to standards and be examined on their work.

Four years later, in 1920, a teaching organisation that would become the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) was founded by Mr Espinosa and several others, including Danish-born Adeline Genée and Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Today, the academy is one of the major ballet training programmes in the world, with students in 92 countries following syllabuses and taking its exams governed by the organisation. And, as the exhibition On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100 - at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London - shows, its history is synonymous with the history of ballet in Britain.

"A lot of British dance's legacy started with the RAD," said Darcey Bussell, a former Royal Ballet ballerina who has been the president of the academy since 2012. "It's important that dance training and teaching are kept entwined with the professional world, and the RAD has done that from the start."

There wasn't yet a national ballet company in Britain when the Royal Academy was formed. But there was plenty of ballet, said Jane Pritchard, curator of dance, theatre and performance at the Victoria and Albert museum. She curated the exhibition with Eleanor Fitzpatrick, archives and records manager at the Royal Academy of Dance. "The Ballets Russes were there, Pavlova was performing in London, and there were excellent émigré teachers arriving," Ms Pritchard said.

World's greatest dancer

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"So the RAD came into existence at just the right moment, taking the best of the Italian, French and Russian schools and bringing it together to create a British style, which it then sent out into the world again."

The exhibition, which runs through September 2021, had its scheduled May opening delayed by Covid-19 restrictions. It opened on Dec 2 but was shut down again when Britain reimposed restrictions in mid-December. While we wait for the museum to reopen, here is a tour of some of the exhibition's photographs, designs and objects, which touch on some of the most important figures in 20th-century ballet history.

Adeline Genée (1878-1970), who spent much of her career in England, reigned for a decade as the prima ballerina at the Empire Theatre, where she appeared in variety programmes. She was both revered as a classical dancer and hugely popular with the public; Florenz Ziegfeld billed her as "The World's Greatest Dancer" when she performed in the United States in 1907. Ms Genée became the first president of the Royal Academy of Dance, and her connections to royalty and her popularity with the public made her an excellent figurehead.

Jumping Joan was one of three characters danced by Tamara Karsavina in Nursery Rhymes, which she choreographed, to music by Franz Schubert, for an evening at the London Coliseum in 1921. Unusually for ballet at the time in London, it was a stand-alone show rather than part of a variety programme. Karsavina and her company performed it twice a day for two weeks.

"People associate Karsavina with the Ballets Russes, but she also had her own group of dancers, which performed regularly at the Coliseum," Ms Pritchard said. "She was really an independent artist in a way we think is very modern, working with a major company but also having an independent existence." Karsavina, vice president of the Royal Academy of Dance until 1955, developed a teachers' training course syllabus as well as other sections of the advanced exams. As a dancer, she created the title role in Mikhail Fokine's The Firebird, with music by Igor Stravinsky, when the Ballets Russes first performed the ballet at the Paris Opera in 1910. In a photo she is shown coaching Margot Fonteyn, when the Royal Ballet first staged the ballet, in 1954, the year that Fonteyn took over from Ms Genée as president of the Royal Academy of Dance.

Fonteyn and Nureyev

"Karsavina had first-hand knowledge of what the choreographer and composer wanted, and is passing it on," Ms Fitzpatrick said. ("I never was one to count," Karsavina says in a film clip about learning The Firebird; "Stravinsky was very kind.")

A relaxed moment from a 1963 rehearsal shows the ease and rapport between Ms Fonteyn and the youthful Rudolf Nureyev, who had defected from Russia two years earlier. They were rehearsing for the annual Royal Academy of Dance gala, which Ms Fonteyn established to raise funds for the organisation. Her fame enabled her to bring together international guests, British dancers and even contemporary dance choreographers such as Paul Taylor. "The gala was also an opportunity for Fonteyn and Nureyev to try things that they perhaps wouldn't have danced with the Royal Ballet," Ms Pritchard said.

A 1972 photograph of young girls about to begin a sequence called the "party polka" was taken by Fonteyn's brother, Felix, who also filmed the demonstration being given by a group of primary school students for Ms Fonteyn and other teachers. The footage, which had been stored in the Royal Academy of Dance's archives in canisters marked "Children's Syllabus", was only recently discovered by Ms Fitzpatrick.

The film offers a rare glimpse of Ms Fonteyn in her offstage role at the Royal Academy of Dance, Ms Fitzpatrick said, and it reflects an important change that the ballerina made during her presidency. "People really think about Fonteyn as a dancer, but she was very involved with teaching and syllabus development," Ms Fitzpatrick said. Earlier syllabuses, she explained, had included mime, drama and history, but when a panel, including Ms Fonteyn, revised the programme in 1968, they did away with much of this.

"They wanted to streamline everything and make it more enjoyable for the children, and just focus on the movement," Ms Fitzpatrick said. "The party polka is a good example of that, with a great sense for the children of whirling around the room and really dancing." NYTIMES

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