A tablet in Westminster Abbey commemorates four of the founders of the Royal Ballet – director Ninette de Valois, choreographer Frederick Ashton, ballerina Margot Fonteyn and music director Constant Lambert. All have received extensive attention from biographers. But another name vies for inclusion, that of Michael Somes, whose half-century of service as dancer and teacher, keeper of the flame and éminence grise, had a formative influence on the company.
Somes was a complex character whose mercurial temperament became increasingly problematic as he got older. In this sympathetic and scrupulously researched study, Sarah Woodcock has been, I think, tactful on several aspects of his personality, but she certainly provides frank and vivid evidence of his behaviour as a ruthless taskmaster and martinet in the rehearsal room. Nothing and nobody would be spared in the cause of the art for which he lived. Chairs were thrown, insults screamed, reputations trashed and 99 per cent of what he saw was branded as miserable. But the dancers knew they needed his brutal honesty because, as his second wife, Antoinette Sibley, put it, ‘he knew you could do it.’ Lynn Seymour remembered being taken through Swan Lake by him and thinking, ‘he’ll kill me and it’ll be tears and everything but that’s the only way I’ll get through it.’ He cared passionately about purity of style and he cherished the value of the smallest detail. As one observer put it, ‘if Fonteyn was the heart of the Royal Ballet, Somes was its soul and moral centre.’
Off-stage he was a mild-mannered, decent, tolerant and charming man, blessed with matinée-idol good looks. He came from a family that had once enjoyed public position and considerable wealth, but all that had gone by the time he was born in Somerset in 1917. His mother was a teacher,