Lynn Seymour, an excitingly expressive ballerina, dies aged 83

Lynn Seymour, a Canadian-born ballerina who brought an exciting expressiveness to mid-century dance, started a parade of outstanding roles while working with choreographers Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton at the Royal Ballet in London, died on March 7, just before her 84th birthday.

Her death was confirmed by the Royal Ballet, which did not say where or how she died.

For many ballet critics, Seymour was perhaps the greatest dance actress of her generation, with a fluid, naturalistic style and an uncanny ability to disappear into a part. “Above all,” dance critic David Vaughan once wrote, “what makes Seymour so rare and valuable as an artist is that, both by intuition and intelligence, she approaches all dance in a ‘modern’ way, using the whole body, the ability to convey drama through movement, the sense of engagement.”

Seymour also taught dance, choreographed and directed companies in Munich and Athens, including during a stint in the late 1970s at the Bavarian State Opera Ballet. On stage, she appeared in classics such as “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty” – “as a good girl should,” she joked – but was happiest in new roles, which gave her a chance to find or create meaning in her steps , rather than learning a series of established movements.

Raised in rural Alberta, which she described as “wheat, oil and cow country,” she studied dance in Vancouver before coming under the wing of Ashton, a classical choreographer and director known for his work with the Royal Ballet . He addressed Ms. Seymour to start roles including the lovestruck Young Girl in “The Two Pigeons” (1961), the bored housewife Natalia Petrovna in “A Month in the Country” (1976) and the modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, whose down-to-earth, free-flowing technique inspired his solo work “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan” (1975-76 ).

Seymour was also a muse for MacMillan, who cast the dancer as mysterious, seductive or independent women such as Mary Vetsera in “Mayerling” (1978), about an apparent murder-suicide in 19th-century Vienna, and Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter, in “Anastasia,” which premiered as a one-act play in 1967 and was later expanded into a full-length ballet.

“We thought we were going somewhere and breaking new ground all the time,” she told the Sunday Times of London in 2017, looking back on her collaboration with MacMillan. “Kenneth wanted us to come up with ideas. He filled the stage like a theater director, and then gave us a lot of responsibility to find our way. … One of the pieces of advice he gave me was, don’t be afraid to be ugly. The other was that you have to find your light, otherwise there is no point in continuing.”

For “The Invitation” (1960), one of her first collaborations with MacMillan, she played a young woman who is seduced and raped on stage. The cast included Christopher Gable, whom she later selected to play in MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1965), a production that featured music by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev and, with another leading role, became a box office sensation.

The production “broke hearts and broke my life,” Seymour recalled.

In her 1984 autobiography, “Lynn,” written with journalist Paul Gardner, she said she had an abortion in the run-up to the ballet so she could continue practicing. “We could have other children, I reasoned. Juliet was mine,” she wrote, adding that the role “was a priceless gift from Kenneth, glazed especially for me. Juliet, the classical heroine of the theater, was the culmination of all my fantasy dancing roles .”

But shortly before the premiere, the Royal Ballet’s American impresario, Sol Hurok, pushed for bigger stars. Seymour and Gable were dropped from the main cast, and the ballet opened with Rudolf Nureyev and prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, whom she was forced to teach the steps.

Relegated to second cast, Seymour was devastated. Her marriage to dancer-turned-photographer Colin Jones soon collapsed. Yet she also found some of the success she had wanted, delivering a raw, sensual performance that thrilled critics and shocked audiences.

“Where other Juliets on the balcony would gaze longingly up at the stars, she used to writhe like a cat in heat, brushing her arms, shoulders, neck against the balcony itself, her whole body needing friction,” dances the New York Times. critic Alastair Macaulay recalled decades later. “That’s not Juliet, that’s a whore,” I remember some fans saying. I was beaten.”

Seymour returned to the role a few years later, playing Juliet to Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Romeo. She also maintained a friendship with the show’s original male lead, Nureyev, collaborating with him on projects that included a 1979 film version of “Giselle.” The Russian dancer was smitten, according to “Nureyev,” a biography by Julie Kavanagh; once he described Ms. Seymour’s dance as a kind of artistic aphrodisiac. “Heaven descends into your lap,” he said.

Not all of Seymour’s fellow dancers were so enthused by her personality.

“I think I was quite the stranger,” she told the New York Times in 1989, looking back on her years at the Royal Ballet. “I was really kind of a North American in what to me was kind of a foreign situation. It was a culture shock. I must have seemed quite tired and probably rather too eager. You had to be cool there, at all costs, which was an art I didn’t have an ounce of.”

As she told it, the actual act of performing was not completely natural to her. She felt more at home in the rehearsal room than facing “the terrifying flood of shimmering white and blue and gold stage lights” in a place like the Royal Opera House.

“The stage is not magic to me,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I always felt that the audience was waiting to see the first drop of blood.”

Berta Lynn Springbett—by her account, it was MacMillan who suggested she change her name—was born in Wainwright, Alberta, on March 8, 1939. Her father was a dentist, her mother a homemaker. She began studying dance after seeing the Powell and Pressburger film “The Red Shoes” (1948) and seeing a performance of the ballet “Coppélia”, and at 15 she auditioned for Ashton, who was touring Canada with Sadler’s Wells Ballet.

Seymour won a scholarship to study at what is now the Royal Ballet School, and in 1956 she joined the Covent Garden Opera Ballet. She was soon dancing with the Royal Ballet Touring Company, and in 1958 she starred in MacMillan’s “The Burrow,” a claustrophobic drama that reminded some critics of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The following year she was appointed principal dancer for the Royal Ballet.

Her connection with the company was severed for a few years after the premiere of “Romeo and Juliet,” when she moved to West Berlin to join MacMillan at the Deutsche Oper, working as prima ballerina while he acted as director. After MacMillan obtained that position at the Royal Ballet in 1970, Seymour returned to the company as well, this time as a guest artist.

Seymour worked with a number of choreographers, including Jerome Robbins (“Dances at a Gathering”), Glen Tetley (“Voluntaries”), John Cranko (“Onegin”) and Alvin Ailey, for whom she played a troubled rock star in “Flowers” ( 1971), inspired by the life of Janis Joplin. She announced her retirement from the stage in 1981.

Partly she was physically exhausted, tired of the toll dancing took on her body. “I don’t have much use for anything the next day – or the day after that,” she told Britain’s Observer newspaper.

Still, she found it difficult to quit completely, coming out of retirement for roles that included the origin of the wicked stepmother in Matthew Bourne’s “Cinderella,” which premiered in 1997 in London’s West End.

Seymour’s marriages to Jones, Philip Pace and Vanya Hackel all ended in divorce. Survivors include twin sons from a relationship with Deutsche Oper dancer Eike Waltz, Jerszy and Adrian Seymour; a son from her second marriage, Demian Pace; a brother; and four grandchildren.

For all the difficulty of her footwork, Seymour admitted that she could hardly see what she was doing much of the time. Nearsighted, she said she had to remember the set-up on stage, moving from place to place through a technique she called “semi-blind Braille”.

When the Times of London asked in 1997 why she didn’t just wear contact lenses during performances, she explained that she “tried them once, but it was a disaster.

“Not only was I able to see the audience, I couldn’t find my balance because they gave me a false sense of where the floor was, so I never used them again. I found being able to see really awfully invasive. I prefer to be in my own world, which is far better – and far safer.”

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