Alexandra

John Percival

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I have the very sad news to report that noted British ballet critic John Percival died yesterday (June 20) at his home in London. (I have this news from his wife Judith. John wrote for danceviewtimes for several years, I am very proud to say, and I had kept in touch during his final illness.)

John Percival was the main critic for the Times of London for decades. Here's a very nice interview with him on Ballet.co:

http://www.ballet.co.uk/magazines/yr_02/dec02/cruickshank_int_percival.htm

Percival was one of the finest critics writing in recent years. He was one of my teachers by example. When I first became interested in ballet, I'd read his daily reviews in The Times and marvel at how he could pack so much detail into six lines yet still keep the writing individual and vivid. I realized after I'd been writing for a few years that I'd subconsciously been using the structure of his full length reviews in Dance and Dancers, where he was a mainstay until that magazine ceased publication.

What I think he had that no one else had, though, was a love of dance as keen as his eye, and an openness to all genres of dance that was rare in those days. I went to see Paul Taylor and Martha Graham because John Percival did. He also had a way of being honest about a new struggling choreographer's work without pulverizing him with wit. I'll also always value how he remained a strong voice in support of Ashton's work.

I never met John, though I spoke with him several times over the phone. I was extremely happy that he agreed to write for danceviewtimes, and if you read the reviews he wrote for us you'll see that his skills as a critic did not diminish with age.

My most sincere condolences to Judith, as well as all who knew him, whether as a friend, or as their window on dance.

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So sorry to hear this. I always enjoyed his writing in danceviewtimes and back when he wrote for The Independent, and his Nureyev bio is on my bookshelf. RIP.

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Thanks so much Alexandra for sharing the article from Ballet Co. -- it is a great "read". It is a pleasure to read his candid comments---and I especially enjoyed reading his opinion of Kaye and Alonso in their early careers. As his contemporary (in age, if nothing else!) we were both doing the same thing on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

RIP

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Thanks dirac and atm. Glad you two were also fans :) One thing John shared with others of his generation was an insatiable appetite for seeing dance. Soon after I got to know him, he was very excited because he had seen two productions of "La Fille Mal Gardee," a matinee in Birmingham and the evening performance in Covent Garden, on the same day. Very good for someone then in his late 70s, I'd say (and a terrific review of both, too).

I envied him for having seen so much. As the ballet.co article tells us, he began watching dance in 1943. This generation is dying off now. Horst Koegler (a close friend of John Percival's) died a few weeks ago. Between the two of them they'd probably seen every even mildly important production of a ballet, every choreographer, and every dancer of any note. We've lost a lot of cultural memory.

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Thanks dirac and atm. Glad you two were also fans smile.png One thing John shared with others of his generation was an insatiable appetite for seeing dance. Soon after I got to know him, he was very excited because he had seen two productions of "La Fille Mal Gardee," a matinee in Birmingham and the evening performance in Covent Garden, on the same day. Very good for someone then in his late 70s, I'd say (and a terrific review of both, too).

I envied him for having seen so much. As the ballet.co article tells us, he began watching dance in 1943. This generation is dying off now. Horst Koegler (a close friend of John Percival's) died a few weeks ago. Between the two of them they'd probably seen every even mildly important production of a ballet, every choreographer, and every dancer of any note. We've lost a lot of cultural memory.

I'm sorry for this news as well--I remember rushing to the library to find his review of Kirkland's first Juliet with the Royal Ballet.

Inevitable of course, but we are losing a lot of cultural--ballet--memory that I know means a lot to me.

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This is such sad news. I had the honor to meet him a few years ago, and I think his writing shows not only the brilliant observer and writer, but also the humanity and the mensch.

My condolences to his wife, Judith, who also writes for danceviewtimes, and to the world's ballet community.

Rest in peace, Mr. Percival.

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Oh this is sad -- Alexandra hits it direct when she says that we're losing this generation of critics. Which means we are losing a generation of skilled witnesses, to a period in dance that was incredibly fertile.

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Quotes of Mr. Percival-(along with Mr. Haskell's)- were often used in gala performances offered to Alonso in Cuba. I have never read his literature, but I will definitely, always in owe of those lucky people who witnessed the fertility of America's mi-century dancing.

RIP, Mr. Percival.

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This is sad news indeed. Though I have always read John's writings, I've only recently became acquainted with him; through his wife Judith. This friendship has been entirely through the internet by way of emails. Johnn was a termendous source of dance knowledge, as is Judith and happy to share. I send my condolences to Judith.. John will surely be missed.

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I loved his writing.

Read him all the time, for the report itself but also for the sense that he subtly cultivated of where the pleasures really lay; he always gave plenty of context, but hte great thing was, you could believe he was telling you what he really thought and how he really felt and responded to the ballet itself -- to the dancers, the dancing, the music, the choreography, the mis en scene, the phrasing, the look and feel of the whole thing.

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Thanks, Alexandra, for the Link to the Dec. 2002 Ballet.co interview. I hope everyone gets the chance to read it.

The art of ballet is transmitted, in the studio and on the stage, from one dancer to another. I have the feeling that our experience as audience members is also transmitted, and very much influenced, by audience members who came before us. Writers like Mr. Percival carry ballet history in their visual and emotional memory. I learn so much from such writers. I will miss his voice.

The ballet.co interview is full of delightful nuggets of what it was like growing up at ballet performances during the Second World War and the post-War era. I was intrigued to learn that Mr. Percival was a conscientious objector during the War, performing his alternative service as a hospital worker. It was fun to read his account of competing with an equally young Clive Barnes for "my" favorite cheap seat in the galleries at Covent Garden. (Later, Percival replaced Barnes as the ballet critic of the Times, when Barnes left for the U.S. to join the New York Times.)

Also: it's amazing to be reminded of a time before Margot Fonteyn before she had developed fully, a time when Percival felt that she might have something to learn from Alicia Alonso and Nora Kaye during Ballet Theater's first London season. I was delighted to read him say, of his years at Oxford, "The biggest thing was the visit of New York City Ballet to Covent Garden in 1950." Also, his appreciation of Jean Babillee (whom I never saw on stage) and John Gilpin (whom I did see), as well as his conviction that Ulanova was

the greatest ballerina I've ever seen. And I can be dogmatic about that on the strength of seeing her in only very few roles, notably Juliet and Giselle.

The following is a Percival insight which I hope will get many members of the ballet audience thinking:

Lately a certain number of technical tricks have been elaborated, most successfully by one or two exceptional virtuoso dancers. .... ut formerly there were far more dancers with a real commitment to communicating the meaning of what they did. That's something which has been largely lost. It wasn't only a question of acting but of dancing expressively and with commitment to what they were doing. You still see a few dancers with that quality; Sylvie Guillem and Tamara Rojo at Covent Garden and Nicholas Le Riche in Paris spring to mind immediately. But I think it used to be more prevalent. It's that concern for expression, rather than his amazing technique, which makes Carlos Acosta so special. And this expressiveness can be in plotless ballets as well as those with a narrative.

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it's amazing to be reminded of a time before Margot Fonteyn before she had developed fully, a time when Percival felt that she might have something to learn from Alicia Alonso and Nora Kaye during Ballet Theater's first London season.

I was happy to read this observation too, bart. I don't feel that Ballet Theater's weight and importance in mid-century's America's dancing has been fully discussed and exposed in literature the way Balanchine's company has, or even BRdMC with that wonderful documentary. I have always been under the impression that the dancers that didn't make the experimental trip to City Ballet when it was first created-(Alonso, Youskevitch, etc..)-were somehow side lined by the audience who instead started focusing more in this other new, exciting AMERICAN company. Still, many older people I know still mention the trilogy of Markova/Alonso/Kaye as THE creme of mid-century America's female ballet dancing examples. Same with Youskevitch, whom I've heard was to be considered by many the greatest bailarin of his era. Maybe it could be due to that up until NYCB started, all this stars from Ballet Theatre-(pretty much as it is now)-were foreign dancers who had not been nurtured by a national educational system, unlike Balanchine's, and so people started seeing City Ballet as something more of their own. Still, even if Kaye tried briefly next door, or Alonso and Youskevitch were put on a barre at first far from NYC, it is a fact that they DID represent probably the best of what America had to offer in ballet matters at the time, at one point for two of them to even be compared in advantage to such a legend as Fonteyn.

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Jane writes,

And it was often through him that we first heard of new companies, new choreographers, new dancers, so that when someone like William Forsythe finally arrived in this country we already knew who he was and what he did and were agog to see him for ourselves. (That may sound commonplace in these days when the internet saturates us with publicity, but 20 or 30 years ago writing like John’s was our only information channel.)

Now that we can click a link to a YouTube video, it is so easy to forget that critics were often our only gateway to knowing what existed in the dance world, especially for those of us who have no or almost no personal connection to the dance world. To have had our eyes opened by John Percival is such a privilege.

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Sorry, I did not see this earlier. Mr. Percival was a wonderfully knowledgable dance critic. His contributions to the art of ballet will be missed. Sorry Alexandra for the loss of your friend. May his family find solice in knowing there are many in the world who learned so much about ballet through his writings. May he rest in peace.

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Thank you, vrs.

Here's an obituary that ran in the Guardian today. There was also one in the Times, but you can't see it unless you're a subscriber. (A friend wrote to say that the woman with her back to us in the photo is Queen Elizabeth.)

http://www.guardian..uary?MP=twt_fd

Editing to add: if it seems odd that an obituary is written by the subject's spouse, Judith Cruickshank is also a London dance critic, and, along with her husband, has long written the obituaries of major figures in dance.

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Thanks for the link, Alexandra, although it does reinforce how much we've lost.

I loved this observation at the end

"His last years were dogged by poor health, but he remained cheerful, writing frequently and reading an endless succession of thrillers, though he did develop a late passion for Jane Austen."

I'm so glad he got around to Austen. But yes, the first person nature of the obit makes this statement

"John is survived by me ..."

very poignant.

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I don't stop feeling sad about the death of John Percival. I owe him a lot, much more than I realized until I saw the obituaries, pieced together the information, and mapped it onto my life.

He lived a long, full, very productive life, and he's now with Ashton, Buckle, Balanchine, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky -- and Vsevelovsky and Petipa, too, probably -- so he should be happy up there -- but the loss to us is bruising. It was great to see him again when he started writing for Danceviewtimes, and to realize how much I'd missed reading him, since the days when he first introduced me to the idea that dancing was something you could think about.

I started reading him when I was at Oxford, roughly in 1969, in the daily paper. I looked in the Times for his reports as I looked for news of what was happening in Berkeley and Cambodia. I was country-come-to-town, this was my first exposure to ballet, I'd been the best rock-and-roll dancer in my high school, I was crazy about dancing -- as indeed is almost everybody in Mississippi, where I come from -- but it was new to me to think of it as something you could think about and not just DO. My first ballet was La Fille mal Gardee, Saturday matinee, and I was thrilled, I realized I'd understood every word of it. but I did not know HOW.

SO I looked for someone as interested as I was, none of my friends were, even the balletomanes struck me as not-tuned-in -- but there was Percival, and he got it. AND he saw everything, and he had the sanction of The Times behind him, and the paper was free to read in the Grad Common Room, every day. And he was in it nearly every day, it seemed.

So if I couldn't get to every performance -- I was a graduate student, and Covent Garden was an hour away by the fastest train, and there was no fast train back -- Percival became my window onto the performances I had not seen.

When I look at the programs I still have, it's amazing how rarely I actually made it to the ballet -- I've only got about 10 -- still, it seems like I would have died without ballet, and I wrote about it in letters home all the time. I remember running through the train stations, and that as I got closer to Covent Garden I ran across the street crossings and tossed myself with little jetes onto the curb (pointed feet, heel forward,) and didn't care who saw me, and I'd slice through crowds by putting my arms epaulee, in 4th arabesque, like Dowell running off-stage. I couldn't stop myself, I was so excited -- I noticed it at the time, and thought 'that's odd' but didn't try to stop it -- I'd also developed a florid British accent, like no-one spoke except the widows of brigadiers, and hadn't tried to stop that, from happening, either, except that I also noticed that I still said 'y'all' and 'fetch' and 'tomAYto' -- again, with no struggle, the change was not for particular words, it was systemic, and ballet similarly took me like a disease -- and Percival was my mentor in this induction.

Percival was like my daily feeding. His writing was direct -- without being conversational, like Pauline Kael, he made you feel like he was your friend, you had company in this. And for a Brit he was emotional without being [like the Americans] "overboard". He'd been a conscientious objector and knew his mind, and this can not be underestimated.

in 1969 I was myself in the process of becoming a conscientious objector [to the VietNam War], and I can testify, it's an isolating, difficult process, to go against the grain of a vast tide of public feeling, to wrench yourself out of the ethos you belong to. And he was objecting to World War 2!!

DH Lawrence, EM Forster have written tellingly about being COs, the difficulties of being out of step with your whole generation, and the sense that you have to pay back in your own coin, something commensurate with the sacrifices that the soldiers your age have made.

Still, the British prize their eccentrics and do not make pariahs of them; au contraire, perfectly thoughtless people contrive to have opinions and parade them; everybody does it, or did it,even Christ Church toffs ["Antelope, excellent word! -- it has such a 'woody sound"].

I'd venture to say that part of Percival's need to write so much, and to praise the dancers who'd fascinated him, and to respond to their epiphanic performances with his honest impressions, was to make this payback. When people have real emotions and responses to art and can articulate them fast and often and with unflagging gratitude, as Percival could, it's a tremendous gift to society as a whole. it's testimony he's giving. It's almost secondary, how clearly and succinctly he can say what he means, unmisunderstandably.

That's speculative, -- and memory is clouded by nostalgia, and an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude, and even more by my ignorance at the time when he was virtually the only person telling me what I should admire and how I should feel about what I'd seen. He made it seem reasonable that a "thinking man" would think about this extravagant subject and have plenty to say and not hesitate to report on this wordless art as if he knew with great certanty what the dancers had been saying with their bodies, He could distinguish fairly -- it seemed so to me, I'd seen the same dancers and felt much the same way -- between the singing tones of Anthony Dowell and Donald MacLeary, Sibley, Mason, Park, Collier, and Nureyev - the last of whom was then as intoxicating a performer as Mick Jagger. I think I saw Performance and Dances at a Gathering within a week of each other -- all the above-mentioned dancers were in DAAG [except MacLeary], AND Lynn Seymour (the girl in green) -- and each seemed one to be absolutely NOW.

I don't remember any of his particular opinions, nor what Percival said about DaaG, though I wish I did now.... but the point is, he was not discussing an esoteric art. He wrote plenty about non-academic dance -- which was not strange at the time (though maybe it was in England). in New YOrk, Croce [whom I had yet to read] was writing about ice-skating and Fred and Ginger and and Balanchine, Jill Johnson was pushing hte art of the personal essay into manifold voluptuous cul de sacs. I'd bet (though I don't know) that Percival was reading them. I wasn't yet -- I was reading HIM, grateful for the example of someone who clearly did not feel he was crazy to be so interested, and was skilled enough at reporting to give you an idea of what you'd missed.

On reflection, I can not remember in particular anything Percival said -- but I do know how strongly he affected me. it was the kind of attention he believed that dance deserved that emboldened me to think i could think about it, too. Whether or not I shared his opinions is secondary; the example he set was how much he made you feel he'd enjoy comparing notes with you, with anyone else who watched with as much desire as he did.

Now that i write about dancing myself, and know how panicked I feel if I have to write more than twice a month -- I feel like I'm disappearing if I can't get some solitude -- I wonder where he found the nerve to write so often. It poured through him, as if he were an Aeolian harp, responding to the spirit of the dance.

He saw, he felt, he wrote.

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On reflection, I can not remember in particular anything Percival said -- but I do know how strongly he affected me. it was the kind of attention he believed that dance deserved that emboldened me to think i could think about it, too. Whether or not I shared his opinions is secondary; the example he set was how much he made you feel he'd enjoy comparing notes with someone else who watched with as much desire as he did.

When you first are taken with something as powerful as dance, it's such a relief to find others who share that obsession. It sounds like Percival did that for you.

He saw, he felt, he wrote.

This is very, very nice

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Thanks Paul Parish for that deeply felt tribute...

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I really wish I could post a photo I have of a review he wrote of a performance I saw at Covent Garden, but I will content myself with this quote:

"The vision scene found her dancing with such soft movement as to draw the audience into extra alertness, like an actor compelling attention by whispering. The adagio, in which the prince falls in love with this vision, was almost transparent in its delicacy, but her solo generated a warmth that became incandescent."

RIP.

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For the first seven years of my ballet going I never had the temerity to approach the two groups of critics that formed in the old foyer and the Crush Bar of the Royal Opera House as they seemed to me to be to singularly austere. It later turned out that in several cases it proved not to be so.

Richard Buckle and John Percival were the only two critics that I spoke to thereafter and most occasionally to the affable but more serious John.

John Percival was not only knowledgeable he was entirely sincere in what he wrote. He did not cultivate foreign dance company impresarios, but remained entirely his own man.

Throughout that golden age of the 1960's one got to the newsagent to buy "The Times" on the way to work to see how last nights performance had inspired Mr Percival to reveal his often warm and sometimes cutting response, to the fare on offer. He was always able to directly point out comparisons in matters of historical performance in an open manner and was always generous in what he saw as excellence. He was a direct influence on my taste in the appreciation of both ballet productions and dancers.

By the 1970's I chatted to him more frequently and found him to be in possession of a somewhat reticent manner until, a spark of interest aroused his enthusiasm. Then John would expand on the how, why and when something was right or wrong.

His last few years I understand were not his best, but his best years were among the best of the best in London's ballet and dance criticism.

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The following is a Percival insight which I hope will get many members of the ballet audience thinking:

Lately a certain number of technical tricks have been elaborated, most successfully by one or two exceptional virtuoso dancers. .... ut formerly there were far more dancers with a real commitment to communicating the meaning of what they did. That's something which has been largely lost. It wasn't only a question of acting but of dancing expressively and with commitment to what they were doing. You still see a few dancers with that quality; Sylvie Guillem and Tamara Rojo at Covent Garden and Nicholas Le Riche in Paris spring to mind immediately. But I think it used to be more prevalent. It's that concern for expression, rather than his amazing technique, which makes Carlos Acosta so special. And this expressiveness can be in plotless ballets as well as those with a narrative.

This reminds me of that controversial final chapter/Afterward in "Apollo's Angels" where the author said much the same thing, though she cited Diana Vishneva, Angel Corella, and Alina Cojocaru as the examplars of those with "a wider vision" in addition to their stellar technique(s).

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My impression is that the-faceless-technicians-have-taken-over is a perennial complaint heard with every relatively recent generation. I don't doubt the sincerity of those who express the sentiment, and no doubt it's often accurate enough, but it's not exactly something that's never been said before.

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In my experience there have always been 'faceless-technicians' knocking around, the difference today is that the ratio of these types to true artists is significantly higher.

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