Anthony Dowell’s final performance as Director of the Royal Ballet was marked by the presence of the Queen Mother at Covent Garden on the evening of her 101st birthday. The Queen and Princess Margaret joined her in the Royal Box. The presence of three members of the Royal Family was a quite exceptional tribute to Sir Anthony. This was the real leave-taking. There was a wellspring of feeling and nostalgia in the House that had been notably absent at the “Knight at the Ballet” gala in May.
A delighted audience rose to its feet when the Queen Mother first appeared. After the National Anthem there was an enthusiastic chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’. The Queen Mother is a long time friend of the Company. She, together with her two daughters and the entire Royal Family, had been at the gala in Covent Garden in February 1946 that marked the arrival of the future Royal Ballet in its new home. Her presence at this Saturday’s performance could also be seen as a homage to her late friend Frederick Ashton, whose work dominated the programme.
It was good too to see the Queen and Princess Margaret, the Company’s President. The Princess has not been well and was in a wheelchair. Her patronage, and that of the Royal Family, was important to the Royal Ballet in the 1960s. Their presence at Sir Anthony’s farewell, together with the choice of programme, was an eloquent reminder of the part the company played in the flowering of the arts in Britain in the late 1960s.
There were several fine casts; Wildor and Acosta in Ashton’s The Dream and Guillem, Cojocaru and Cope in A Month in the Country. Benjamin and Kobborg were electrifying in the pas-de-deux from Act I of Manon. Yanowsky, Marriott and Vodegel-Matzen caught beautifully the inner stillness of Monotones II. Their performances were a collective act of love and farewell.
At the end of the evening the curtain rose. Sir Anthony was centre stage, behind him more than a hundred members of the company, past and present. Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, the Chairman of the Royal Ballet’s governors paid warm tribute.
“All will remember Anthony as a superb dancer, indeed the finest male dancer this country has produced. A true and noble prince in the classics, and a marvellous creator and a marvellous interpreter of many Ashton and Macmillan roles. When Kenneth Macmillan was asked one day how he would describe Anthony, he answered simply: “All the superlatives”. And he’s right. Tonight is a moment to record that during the last 15 years as director Anthony has led the company through some of the most critical years of its history. The season that ends tonight is a perfect measure of his achievement as our Director. The sheer quality and brilliance of the dancing, from the corps de ballets to the principals, the wonderful new talent that is emerging, and the great diversity of programmes, represents what we should thank Anthony for. As we express our appreciation of all he has done for the Royal Ballet over these many years, let us also wish him a long, happy and fulfilling retirement”
As a cascade of flowers rained on to the stage, Sir Anthony stepped forward. His voice cracked with emotion as he acknowledged the audience’s enthusiastic applause.
“This is an extraordinary evening for me, charged highly with emotion. Many ghosts and spirits of my past have seemed present here tonight. It has been made so special by the presence of Your Majesty. And it has been made special too by the fact that Your Majesty has chosen to spend the evening of your great birthday with us. I and all the Royal Ballet wish you many many happy returns. It is another great honour to welcome back Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret. She has shown great interest in our affairs as our President over many years. She has opened many doors in many countries for us to achieve success in our tours. From a personal point of view, during my directorship she has been of enormous support to me and given me courage. And she has shown an interest for which I will be forever grateful”.
He went on thank Lord Sainsbury for his interest in and love of the company and his overwhelmingly generous support. And he thanked the Hochhausers, who had presented the Royal Ballet at the Coliseum and twice at the Opera House.
“It now comes to the hardest part, to the company of which I’m so proud. I can’t actually at this moment turn and face them, purely because the ever-growing lump in my throat threatens to reduce me to jelly. They have stood by me and I have watched them develop over this last 15 years. Some of them have only known me as Director, and I have chosen them from the School. Although there are many headaches with this job, I have had the pleasure of watching young talent come up from the ranks and developed into great artists and I’m thrilled to have witnessed that. It is a family, not only the company, but also everyone behind the scenes at this Opera House. They’re very special”.
"This is difficult. But I’ve lived with it for two years. It’s been a countdown, rather like notching days at school. And now it has come. I don’t think I will disappear. But I don’t know completely what is going to happen. Fred has fixed some of it for me by leaving me two of his ballets. I can’t leave the ballet world and I can’t be forever away from the company. Because these ballets will remain in the repertoire and I will watch over them. So although I won’t be here in the next few years much, I’m sort of cutting the chord, but really the whole of my heart remains here with you”.
The audience stood in ovation, their applause ringing through the Covent Garden night. On-stage the members of the Royal Ballet saluted their departing Director – and doubtless wondered at what the months ahead would bring.