Barbara Goodwin obituary

Other lives: Pioneering teacher of movement and dance in the theatre

My cousin Barbara Goodwin, who has died aged 95, was a pioneering teacher of movement and dance in the theatre. She was particularly respected for her work in the 1950s with the celebrated French theatre director Michel Saint-Denis in London and Strasbourg, and was a key figure in the implementation of his theories on acting and actor training. For her work she was appointed to the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award.

Born the only child of Bernard, an architect, and Roberta (nee Taylor), Barbara was brought up in Bromley, Kent, and trained initially as a PE teacher. She moved into dance, her first love, when the Ballet Jooss, a German company, spent the second world war years in exile at Dartington Hall in Devon, where she had family connections. The company’s founder, Kurt Jooss, felt that dance should communicate character and emotions as well as tell a story, an expressive style that did not find favour with the Nazis. Barbara trained with Ballet Jooss and her experiences there became the foundation of her career.

Saint-Denis was also in Britain at the time, directing daily wartime broadcasts for the BBC French Service under the alias Jacques Duchesne, and was in contact with a number of performers at Dartington. As a director he felt that actors should communicate not just with their voices but with their movements and expressions – “a physical approach in which the body is trained to become a fully expressive instrument”. The Ballet Jooss approach meshed perfectly with these principles and once Barbara met Saint-Denis she became an essential member of his team.

In London in 1946, Saint-Denis created the Old Vic Centre, based in the bomb-damaged Old Vic theatre, as a theatre school and drama company. Barbara worked with him, teaching movement and creating dances when they were required for the production. In 1953 Saint-Denis returned to France to set up a theatre company and associated drama school, which became the Centre Dramatique de l’Est in Strasbourg.

Many of his team from the Old Vic, including Barbara, went with him, and the centre soon became highly regarded. Although her students found her a demanding teacher, she was also approachable, and would often spend evenings with a group of them, discussing their work informally.

She returned to Britain in the 60s to teach at Rada, working with some of Britain’s best known actors, including Timothy Spall, whose career she followed with interest. She was especially pleased that Spall received such acclaim for his lead role in the film Mr Turner (2014) – a performance she felt embodied many of the Saint-Denis principles about expressive movement.

She retired in the early 80s to Corfe, Dorset, where her parents had lived since the war. In her later years she took a great interest in handicrafts and possessed a loom on which she wove lovely wall hangings. She also created beautiful knitwear.

Elizabeth Twining

The GuardianTramp

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