Elaine McDonald obituary

Ballerina who helped build a bridge between classical ballet and the contemporary world

Elaine McDonald, who has died aged 75, was one of Britain’s most distinctive ballerinas. Her role as muse to the groundbreaking choreographer Peter Darrell at Scottish Ballet helped build a bridge between classical ballet and the contemporary world of the 1960s and 70s. Although McDonald excelled in his productions of classics, it was her performances in a repertory of narrative ballets on modern themes that made theirs one of the great artistic relationships.

It was an equal partnership. Tiny and red-haired, but with a compelling dramatic presence, McDonald put all her filigree artistry and technical mastery at Darrell’s disposal. She was often compared to world-class dancers such as Galina Ulanova, Margot Fonteyn and Lynn Seymour, and her abilities lent lustre to his pioneering ideas.

Lyrical and intensely musical, she was also blessed with a strong dramatic presence. The critic John Percival pointed out that her characterisation of the betrayed peasant girl in Giselle was “carried off with such unerringly right detail and danced with such sweet grace, that you can never point to one aspect and say ‘that’ is how she does it”.

She made a similar impact in The Nutcracker, Beauty and the Beast and Swan Lake. So, too, as Lea in Cheri (1980), in which she conveyed the pathos of a woman watching her young lover leave her; Mary Queen of Scots (1976), whom she played as a woman of simplicity and charm; and the courtesan Giulietta in Tales of Hoffman (1977). In Such Sweet Thunder, from 1979, the Telegraph critic described her as managing “to look both funny and sinister as Lady Macbeth interpreted by Rita Hayworth”.

Lyrical and intensely musical, Elaine McDonald was also blessed with a strong dramatic presence.
Lyrical and intensely musical, Elaine McDonald was also blessed with a strong dramatic presence. Photograph: TSPL

Her sylph in La Sylphide, which used all her lyricism, the lightness of her jump and her flowing line, was reckoned by the critic David Dougill to be one of the finest. He said: “She brings the character to life: gentle, graceful and radiant.” She performed it not only with Scottish Ballet, but also as a guest artist opposite Rudolf Nureyev in Madrid and at the London Coliseum. In Darrell’s Five Rückert Songs, which she performed from 1980 (with Janet Baker singing the songs at the premiere), she seemed to embody the emotions of Mahler’s passionate score. “It is perfect for her weightless, fluent, expressive style,” said the Guardian critic Cordelia Oliver, “her movements merging with the music like wind, and sunlight and shadow on water.”

Born in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, Elaine was the daughter of Wilfred McDonald, a police officer, and Ellen (nee Hogan), a civil servant. The family moved to Scarborough after the war, where they ran a small hotel. From the age of four, Elaine went to the local dance school, learning tap, modern, Greek and folk dancing as well as ballet.

When she was 11, auditioning in a red swimsuit, she won a ballet scholarship run by the Royal Academy of Dancing (now the Royal Academy of Dance) and Girl magazine, which entitled her to two free classes a week at Louise Browne’s dance school in Leeds, then York (it moved in her third year), while simultaneously attending the Convent of the Ladies of Mary grammar school in Scarborough. Four years later she auditioned for the Royal Ballet School and joined the upper school at the age of 16. “It was like a dream working in the same building as all the famous ballerinas and being taught by the same teachers,” she wrote years later.

She made her professional stage debut in a pantomime called The Sleeping Princess, then joined the corps de ballet of Walter Gore’s London Ballet on two British tours. When that company folded, she joined the 14-strong Western Theatre Ballet, based in Bristol and then under Darrell’s directorship. “I did not know much about the company, but I had heard and read that it was young, vital and very forward-looking,” she wrote.

It was indeed. The company was breaking vital new ground, with a repertory that included Mods and Rockers, danced to the music of the Beatles. “It was considered one of the most modern companies in Britain,” she said. “Not because the basic steps were different – we still use the steps I have known since I was a child. But because the stories which some of our ballets tell are stories of everyday life.”

She fell in love with Darrell’s work instantly, creating roles in many new productions, including one as a diabolically possessed mother in Sun Into Darkness (1966). “The most important feature for me is that the company never stands still,” she said. When it moved to Glasgow in 1969, becoming Scottish Ballet five years later, McDonald unhesitatingly went with it. She was only 26 but her loyalty to Darrell’s vision was absolute. “I thought, this is what it’s all about, really; it’s complete. There wasn’t just a worry about straight legs and pointed feet … the steps and the body and everything were put to use to say what you were feeling.”

As well as touring Scottish cities and towns, the company also performed at church halls and community centres on Scottish Arts Council tours to bring ballet to all, and to schools, where she loved talking to the students, dressed in her tutu.

Despite her commitment to Scottish Ballet, and working with Darrell for most of her career, McDonald also established an international reputation, touring with a group of dancers assembled by Fonteyn. She was a devout Catholic, and one of the highlights of her life was performing The Dying Swan for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in the mid-80s.

When Darrell died suddenly in 1987, at the age of 58, McDonald took on the role of artistic controller of Scottish Ballet. It was not a happy time; she left less than two years later. In succeeding years, she worked as an associate director of Northern Ballet in Leeds and served on the Scottish Arts Council. She built a career staging ballets across Europe and teaching in London, where she remained living in the flat in Earl’s Court that had been her home when she was a student at the Royal Ballet School.

A stroke in 1999 left her severely disabled, but her crusading spirit lived on. In 2011, with the backing of Age UK, she took Kensington and Chelsea council to the European court of human rights, claiming their decision to deprive her of night-time assistance breached her right to dignity. She did not win, but the case established a precedent in the role dignity has to play in human rights.

In 1983 she was made OBE, and she was made an honorary DLitt by the University of Strathclyde in 1990.

She is survived by her husband, the lighting designer Donald McLeish, and her siblings, Margaret and Phillip.

Elaine Maria McDonald, ballerina, born 2 May 1943; died 8 December 2018


Sarah Crompton

The GuardianTramp

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