1888 – 1982
Fiery, passionate Dame Marie Rambert, best known as one of the “Mothers” of English ballet, led an extraordinarily creative life, beginning with early works influenced by Isadora Duncan (1878–1927) and study under Emile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865–1950), through her work with Vaslav Nijinsky, to her ultimate triumph as the founder of what is now the oldest professional dance company in Britain, a company that bears her name to this day. Rambert brought her passion for movement and her eye for developing raw talent, particularly choreographic talent, to bear on launching the careers of many luminaries of the twentieth century British dance scene, including Frederick Ashton (1904–1988) and Antony Tudor (1908–1987). Her passion came with a temper and lack of tact which were known to leave emotional scars, but even her critics recognized that it came out of her devotion to dance.
She was born Cyvia Ramberg in Warsaw, Poland, on February 20, 1888, to Ya’akov Ramberg, a bookseller of Polish Jewish descent, and Yevguenia Alapina. The original family name was Rambam; her father and his brothers changed their surnames to appear to the authorities as only sons, thereby avoiding conscription into the Imperial Russian Army. The third of six children, Cyvia, known as Cesia, grew up in middle-class comfort with her three sisters and two brothers in a household with servants. Early on, Cesia developed both a love of literature and poetry and a penchant for turning cartwheels, both of which would be lifelong. Her nurse nicknamed her “quicksilver” (zywe srebro in Polish), reflecting her boundless energy and curious mind. The nickname suited her and she later used it as the title for her autobiography.
Rambert had her first dance lessons as a schoolgirl in Warsaw, but did not begin serious training until her young adulthood in Paris, where her parents sent her in 1905 after she had shown an interest in revolutionary activities at home. Inspired by Isadora Duncan and encouraged by Raymond Duncan (Isadora’s brother), she became a “barefoot dancer,” performing in Raymond’s works. She then started creating and performing her own dances and studied ballet under Madame Rat at the Paris Opera. During this time she adopted the name Myriam (Mim, to friends), suggested by her friend Edmée Delebeque, who said she danced with the joy of the Old Testament prophet. In 1907, she was baptized as a Christian as Cyvia Myriam Boleslass Emmanuele; Rambert never
spoke or wrote publicly about her Jewishness, her decision to convert, or the role of religion in her life.
In 1909 Rambert met Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, the famed inventor and teacher of eurhythmics, a system for using specific movements to teach rhythm. After three years with Dalcroze, first as a student and later as a teacher and demonstrator, she joined Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in late 1912 to train the dancers in eurhythmics and assist Nijinsky in using the technique to create his ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, with its complex score by Igor Stravinsky.
Rambert’s time with the Ballet Russes was brief (barely one year) but noteworthy. She worked closely with Nijinsky in his prime, one of ballet’s legendary dancers and choreographic innovators. She studied ballet under the great teacher Enrico Cecchetti (1850–1928) and learned by example by watching Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina and the many famous dancers in the company. She performed in Sacre and other ballets. Perhaps most importantly, she came to love ballet. She absorbed Diaghilev’s aesthetic of bringing together the best artists in dance, music and design to create innovative new ballets as well as re-vivify the classics. She also made lifelong friendships and artistic contacts that served her well in establishing her own company later on, when several dancers, including Karsavina, appeared with her group
Upon leaving the Ballet Russes, she initially returned to her solo career in France. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, she left for London. Adapting her name to Marie Rambert (which she thought “more elegant,” though she remained Mim to intimates), she supported herself by teaching and performing as a dancer and actress. In 1917 she met the playwright and critic Ashley Dukes (1885–1959); they married in March 1918, thus making her a British citizen. After completing teacher training with Cecchetti (who had also relocated to London), she opened her own school in 1920.
The school eventually led to a company, originally known as Marie Rambert Dancers (1926–1931), then successively as the Ballet Club (1931–1935), Ballet Rambert (1935–1987) and Rambert Dance Company (1987–present). Rambert realized early on that her greatest strength and pleasure lay in cultivating talent. The work that had launched the company in 1926, A Tragedy of Fashion, was choreographed by the young Ashton, her first discovery. Other early notables include Andrée Howard (1910–1968) and Walter Gore (1910–1979).
Rambert’s life revolved around the company, which became a family affair. Her two daughters, Angela (b. 1920) and Helena (b. 1923, later known as Lulu), both studied and danced with the company. Lulu went on to a career in musicals and Angela eventually took over the school. Her husband’s theatrical successes provided the company with its first home in 1931 in the Mercury Theatre, a former church that he purchased and renovated for dance and theatre. The tiny stage (5.5 x 3.35 meters) held numerous premières that laid the foundation for the development of English ballet. Rambert said that Dukes actually came to hate ballet after being so engulfed by it, but he always supported her, up to his death in 1959.
The company has had many ups and downs, but Rambert’s determination and willingness to embrace change helped it survive and thrive till today. She retired from active leadership of the company in 1966, but still gave support and feedback to succeeding directors and remained its guiding spirit. Rambert received many honors in her long career, including the Chevalier, Legion d’Honneur from France in 1957, Dame of the British Empire in 1962 and the Gold Medal of the Order of Merit from her native Poland in 1979. She died in London on June 12, 1982, survived by her daughters and four grandchildren.
One of The Four in Le Sacre du Printemps (Nijinsky), Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev, Paris (1913); Corps de Ballet in Swan Lake (Petipa), Ballet Russes de Serge Diaghilev (1913); Corps de Ballet in Giselle (Perrot), Ballet Russes de Serge Diaghilev (1913)
One of the Shah’s Wives in Schéherazade (Fokine), Ballet Russes de Serge Diaghilev (1913); Corps de Ballet in Thamar (?), Ballet Russes de Serge Diaghilev (1913); Polovtsian Girl in Prince Igor (?), Ballet Russes de Serge Diaghilev (1913); Bacchante in Cléopatre (?), Ballet Russes de Serge Diaghilev (1913); Orchidé in A Tragedy of Fashion (Ashton), in Riverside Nights (Revue), London (1926); Gavotte Sentimentale in Les Petits Riens (Ashton), Marie Rambert Dancers, London (1930); The Virgin in Our Lady’s Juggler (Salaman), Marie Rambert Dancers, London (1930); The Madonna in A Florentine Picture (Ashton), Marie Rambert Dancers, London (1930).
La Pomme d’Or (with Vera Donnet; music by Corelli), Stage Society, London (1917); Fetes Galantes (with Vera Donnet; music by Rameau, Lully, Bach, Mozart), Stage Society, London (1918); Ballet Philosophique (music by Franck), Stage Society, London (1918); The Fairy Queen (with Frederick Ashton; music by Purcell), Purcell Opera Society and Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Society, London (1927); Leda (with Frederick Ashton: music by Gluck), Marie Rambert Dancers, London (1928).
Blanch, Lesley, and Marie Rambert. “Some Impressions of the Ballet in Russia, 1934.” In Playtime in Russia, edited by Hubert Freeling Griffith. London: 1935; Dolin, Anton, and Marie Rambert, fwd. Olga Spessivtzeva: The Sleeping Ballerina. London: 1966, rev. 1974; Guest, Ivor Forbes, and Marie Rambert, fwd. A Gallery Of Romantic Ballet: A Catalogue of the Collection of Dance Prints at the Mercury Theatre. London: 1965; “Movement Is My Element.” Interview in Crisp, Clement, Anya Sainsbury, and Peter Williams (eds). 50 years of Ballet Rambert. Ilkley: 1976.
Note: Revised edition published as Ballet Rambert: 50 Years and On. England: 1981. Both include complete listing of repertory from 1926 on and listing of artists and staff who have worked with the company.
Quicksilver: The Autobiography of Marie Rambert. London: 1972; Rambert, Marie, trans. M. I. Sizova. Ulanova: Her Childhood and School Days. London: 1962; “The Art of the Choreographer.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts (September 1962); “Mercury Rising?” [An Interview with Marie Rambert] Dance and Dancers 29 (April 1962); “The Value of Intimate Ballet.” The Dancing Times (December 1940);
Bradley, Lionel, and Hugh Stevenson. Sixteen years of Ballet Rambert. London: 1946.
Clarke, Mary. Dancers of Mercury: The Story of Ballet Rambert. London: 1962.
Davidson, Gladys. “Marie Rambert.” In Ballet Biographies, 240–247. London: 1954.
Haskell, Arnold L., and Tamara Karsavina, fwd. The Marie Rambert Ballet. London: 1930. Vol. six in the series Artists of the Dance.
Pritchard, Jane, and Sarah Rubidge, comps. Rambert Dance Company : An Illustrated History Through Its Choreographers. London : 1991.
Pritchard, Jane, comp. Rambert: A Celebration, A Survey of the Company’s First Seventy Years. London: 1996.
Note: An excellent comprehensive history including timelines and essays on the company’s important phases and figures.
Kane, Angela. “Rambert: Doubling Back to the Sixties.” Dance Theatre Journal 8/3 (Autumn 1990): 34–37.
Idem. “Rambert Moving Forward to the Seventies.” Dance Theatre Journal, 8/4 (Spring 1991): 36–39.
Pritchard, Jane. “The Correspondence Between Walter Gore and Marie Rambert.” Dance Research, 16/2 (winter 1998): 3–28.
Pritchard, Jane. “Marie Rambert On Stage: The Midwife Of British Ballet.” Dance Theatre Journal, 8/2: (1990): 40–44, 25.
Sawyer, Elizabeth. “That Englishman Abroad: A Tribute to Antony Tudor.” Dance Chronicle, Volume 20, number 3 (1997), 226–273.
Note: Article includes discussion of Tudor’s time with Rambert.
Dougill, David. “The amazing greats of British ballet.” Sunday Times Magazine: The Dance Boom (special issue), April 13, 1980, 57–58.
Barnes, Clive. “Are We Looking To The Future?” New York Times, Aug 22, 1976.
Acocella, Joan Ross. “A Visit with Marie Rambert.” Dance Magazine, September 1982, 102.
Ashton, Sir Frederick. “Marie Rambert: A Tribute.” The Dancing Times, January 1945, 151–152.
Barnes, Clive. “Marie Rambert: Midwife to The Muses.” Dance Magazine, March 1963, 42–43, 73.
Barnes, Clive. “Phoenix Most Frequent.” Dance and Dancers, October 1953, 10–11.
Bland, Alexander. “Marie Rambert.” The Ballet Annual, Volume 9, 1955, 58–63.
Clarke, Mary. “Marie Rambert, Maker of Artists.” Dance Magazine, August 1955, 26–29.
Clarke, Mary. “Nijinsky.” [The second Anna Pavlova memorial lecture, Royal Opera House, January 28, 1968.] About the House, August 1968, 4–11.
Lecture by Marie Rambert as reported by Mary Clarke.
Clarke, Mary. “Obituary: Dame Marie Rambert.” The Dancing Times, July 1982, 737.
Coton, A. V. “The Matrix of English Ballet ... Marie Rambert.” Dance Magazine, October 1949, 9, 40–42.
Crisp, Clement. “Mercuria: Dame Marie Rambert.” Ballet News, October 1982, 26–28, 45.
Glasstone, Richard. “The Rambert School Forty Years On.” The Dancing Times, November 1998, 124–125.
Hunt, Marilyn. “A Conversation with Maude Lloyd.” Ballet Review, Fall 1983, 5–26.
Lloyd, Maude. “Marie Rambert,” Ballet, April 1951, 10–11.
Maude Lloyd danced with the Ballet Club and Ballet Rambert early on.
Inglesby, Mona. “From the Cradle of British Ballet.” Dance Now, Spring 1995, 35–45.
Ingelsby discusses her career, including early work with Rambert.
Manchester, P. W. “Rambert Remembered.” Ballet Review, Spring 1983, 62–67.
“Marius Petipas [sic], Choreographer.” The Dancing Times, April 1930, 49–51.
This is a report on a lecture given by Rambert before the Faculty of Arts.
Miller, Harry Tatlock. “Story of Ballet Rambert [Parts 1–2].” Dance and Dancers, March 1950, 17, 21 (Part 1), April 1950, 11–12 (Part 2).
Ostlere, Hilary. “Old School Tights.” [An interview with Marie Rambert] Dance Magazine, February 1973, 56–58.
Percival, John. “Ballet Rambert: The Company That Changed Its Mind.” Dance Magazine, February 1973, 43–56.
Pritchard, Jane. “School History” [Letter to the Editor]. The Dancing Times, June 1998, 5.
“Rambert's Achievement: A Tribute to ‘The Midwife of British Ballet.’” Dance and Dancers, August 1982, 20–25.
Setterfield, Valda. “A Passion For Dance.” Ballet Review, Summer 1983, 30–34.
Stone, Pat. “Dancing under the bombs, part IV.” Ballet Review, Spring 1986, 90–97.
On the company’s performances in England during WW II.
Idem. “Dancing under the bombs, part V.” Ballet Review, Spring 1987, 78–90.
On the company’s performances in England during WW II.
Walker, Kathrine Sorley. “Ballet Rambert.” Dance Gazette, June 1980, 5–11.
Williams, Peter. “The Making Of A Muse: The Life And Achievement Of Dame Marie Rambert.” Dance Gazette, October 1982, 3–5.
Wilson, G. B. L. “On the deaths of Eugene Loring, Teiji Ito and Marie Rambert,” Dance News, October 1982: 4, 7.
Gruen, John and Marie Rambert. Interview with Dame Marie Rambert conducted by John Gruen. London, England, July 30, 1974 [At the Dance Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts].