Jane Nicholas obituary | Colin Nears

Dancer and arts administrator who became a champion of modern dance at the Arts Council

As dance officer and then dance and mime director at the Arts Council in the 1970s and 80s, Jane Nicholas, who has died aged 89, played a crucial role in establishing the art of modern dance in the UK. The funding she helped to steer towards a new generation of companies and dancers transformed the fortunes of outfits such as the London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) and events such as the London International Mime festival, as well as the profiles of individual dancers such as Richard Alston, Siobhan Davies and Shobana Jeyasingh.

Before Jane’s arrival on the scene, contemporary dance was a minority pursuit in the UK and was to be found largely in other countries – mainly the US, Germany, the Netherlands and in Scandinavia. What little activity there was in Britain attracted no financial support from the government, and in the 60s the two main centres of modern dance, the London Contemporary Dance School and the LCDT, were essentially funded through philanthropy. Ballet ruled the roost.

Jane joined the Arts Council in 1970 as a dance officer. As a former ballerina she had the advantage of knowing the classical world, which had dominated the council’s dance and music panel up to that point. This meant she could successfully campaign for contemporary dance to get a bite of the cherry.

That process began in the early 70s, when she took advantage of a one-year standstill in the funding of the big ballet companies to get money released for contemporary dance. The first beneficiaries were the LCDT (with 20-odd dancers) and Ballet Rambert (now a modern dance company), while over a longer period she also persuaded the council to release cash to smaller companies such as Extemporary and Strider – which were based in London but toured the country – as well as to independent dancers. As a result of her efforts, small-scale dance mushroomed all over the country with the creation of companies such as Emma Dance (in the East Midlands), Cycles (West Midlands) and Spiral (Liverpool).

Eventually, at her behest, in 1979 the Arts Council established an independent dance and mime department with Jane as its head, and in that role she became a formidable champion of modern dance, supporting regional companies and the development of the dance and mime animateur movement.

Her energy, drive and vision led her to commission a 10-year strategy for the art form, which prompted the creation of dance agencies such as DanceEast, Dance City and Birmingham DanceXchange. There was always a battle for Arts Council funding, and Jane was a tough fighter; plainspoken and down to earth, she was tough, efficient and a fine leader. On her watch the Arts Council’s dance and mime budget grew from £1.5m to more than £11m.

Jane was born in London to Olive (nee Udale) and her husband, Bernard Shore, who was principal viola in the BBC Symphony orchestra. She went to the Rambert School of Ballet under Angela Dukes, daughter of Dame Marie Rambert, and then to Arts Educational Schools in London, both of them evacuated until the end of the second world war. In 1945 she joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet School and was a founder member of Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet (which under different names ultimately became the Birmingham Royal Ballet).

Under her maiden name of Jane Shore she had leading roles as a demi-character dancer and was also a muse for the choreographer John Cranko, before moving to the main Sadler’s Wells company (later to become the Royal Ballet), touring with them in the US during the 1950s. She left in 1952 to become principal dancer with the revue show London Laughs, starring Vera Lynn, Jimmy Edwards and Tony Hancock at the Adelphi theatre in London.

Jane Nicholas as a young dancer
Jane Nicholas attended the Rambert School of Ballet Photograph: none

She met her first husband, the psychoanalyst Masud Khan, while working on that show, but after a distressing divorce in 1956 suffered a breakdown, followed by periods out of work. She did, however, take on some theatrical roles, including as a dancer in the disastrous 1959 John Osborne musical The World of Paul Slickey at the Palace theatre in London, which was so badly received that after the first night Jane and other members of the cast were chased up Charing Cross Road by an angry crowd of classical ballet enthusiasts.

Eventually, in 1964, she moved into arts administration at the British Council as their dance and drama officer, and six years later joined the Arts Council as a dance officer within its music department. When a separate dance department came into being, she was appointed its first director of dance. She retired in 1989 and was appointed OBE the following year. Alas, since those days all dance companies have suffered from a series of swingeing cuts and have increasingly had to return to a reliance on public donations and philanthropic sources.

Jane and her second husband, Bill Nicholas, an antiques dealer whom she married in 1964, lived in Stamford Brook, west London, in an old cottage crammed with books, antiques and a large collection of 18th-century glass. In retirement she was a vice-chair of Dance UK, was on the board of Birmingham Royal Ballet, and was a familiar presence at almost every dance first night. She was also a volunteer for the Hammersmith Labour party.

Bill died in 2014. She is survived by his two daughters from a previous marriage, Hester and Anthea.

• Jane Nicholas, dancer and arts administrator, born 14 June 1929; died 3 April 2019

• This article was amended on 5 May 2019. Jane Nicholas joined the Arts Council in 1970, rather than 1964. Though she did so as a dance officer, she was not the organisation’s first holder of such a post.


Colin Nears

The GuardianTramp

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