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Michael Holmes

Michael Holmes

3 April 2013

A tribute to Michael Holmes by Nicola Gaines and Harry Haythorne
8th January 1927 – 6th August 2012

I first met Michael, a Fellow of the ISTD, around 1991 when the Historical Dance Branch of the ISTD was being restructured by Belinda Quirey to become the Dance Research Committee. Michael and Belinda had danced and worked together on numerous occasions, notably for the English Bach Festival. Michael soon joined the Administrative Committee (with Phrosso Pfister as Chair) and became a key player in the newly activated workshops and lecture demonstrations.

It soon became evident that Michael, like Belinda, was one of those people who knew a lot about a range of different things and, aside from his wide knowledge of dance, music, theatre and the visual arts, he was also a good cook, a raconteur and enjoyed fine wine.

Michael first trained as a classical dancer with Marie Rambert and became one of the youngest members of her company. He also trained with Olga Preobrazhenska and Stanislas Idzikovsky and as both a dancer and an actor he worked with Leonide Massine. Michael was also a gifted teacher and was well known for his teaching of the Cecchetti method at various schools, namely Nesta Brooking’s school (where he taught the young Monica Mason) and the Arts Educational Schools, as well as the New Zealand Ballet School and Rotterdamse Dans Academie.

Michael also made historical dance the focus of his interest and following an initial training with Melusine Wood, he became a noted teacher, choreographer and rehearsal director. Michael was particularly well versed in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. In the former, he was able to combine his wide contextual knowledge with a grasp of the poetic dance descriptions of 15th century dance while, in Baroque dance, his talent in reading and interpreting Feuillet notation enabled him to brilliantly combine the steps and style to suit the dancer for whom he was choreographing. Michael went on to work extensively in Holland with one of the pioneers of the Early Music movement, Gustav Leonhardt. 

Michael became a close friend who regularly stayed here in Charing, and he and my late husband became good companions, both enjoying fine wine and early landed brandy.

Nicola Gaines


Harry Haythorne MBE shares his memories of Michael Holmes

I first met Michael in 1949. Arriving in Britain from Australia and hoping to further my Ballet training and if possible gain some experience as a dancer, I was fortunate to be taken on as an extra dancer by the Metropolitan Ballet who needed to enlarge its corps de ballet for a mid-year season featuring Alexandra Danilova, Leonide Massine and Frederic Franklin.

Rehearsals started and it quickly became obvious that, although I had a solid music hall background, that my experience of professional Ballet was, at best, meager. Had male dancers at the time not been in short supply, it is doubtful that I would have been engaged as a supernumerary let alone corps de ballet. Michael, himself an established corps de ballet member, almost immediately set about ‘showing me the ropes’; not only how to behave in the dressing room and what make-up would be suitable for a dancer in Ballet, but also began making sure that I acquired some of that extra knowledge about painting, literature, music and theatre which enriches a dancer's performance and abilities. 

I soon became aware that there was more to Michael's skills than required of a corps de ballet dancer when he was entrusted with the choreography of a new Ballet Trio Detruit (music by John Lanchbery) – a very promising start. As Caryl Brahms, one of the theatre critics of the time wrote: "Michael Holmes has something to say although he did not quite manage to say it." Michael's skills were not confined to choreography, he was also a character mime of considerable power. 

Before the demise of the Metropolitan Ballet, its dancers were seen on television in Celia Franca's Dance of Salome. I can still see Michael as a rag-clad ‘John the Baptist’ emerging from an underground cistern to damn with fiery gaze Salome and the sycophantic crowd around her. The Metropolitan Ballet, privately sponsored, was unfortunately unable to continue and so professionally Michael and I pursued different paths. I returned to revue and he continued with whatever Ballet contracts he could obtain. However, by now our friendship was strong and we met whenever we were in London at the same time. 

At one of these meetings he told me he had started to prepare a piece for Ballet Workshop which Angela and David Ellis had formed to show new choreography at the Mercury Theatre. Performances were on Sunday nights, thereby enabling dancers in West End shows and Ballet companies to participate if they wished. The piece Michael was preparing was The Dong with the Luminous Nose. The leading roles were danced by Paula Hinton and Michel de Lutry. I was invited to dance as Paula's ‘brother’. At that time I was in a revue at the Victoria Palace and welcomed the chance to work on more demanding choreography. It was a delightful comedy based on the poem by Hilaire Belloc. 

It was obvious that Michael had become a choreographer of considerable talent and was soon to produce a series of diverse works at Ballet Workshop and as I moved from one musical or revue to another, was able to appear in most of them during the next couple of years. Palisades, Common Ground, and Magic spring to mind – no two alike – and often dealing with subject matter which only years later would be explored by other choreographers. For example, Palisades dealt with the effect of solitary confinement on a political prisoner, and Common Ground dealt with meaningless violence by youth gangs.

Around this time, I danced for Michael in a West End production at the Arts Theatre as a ‘breeze’ in Listen to the Wind, a delightful children's musical play by Vivian Ellis. This was an exciting event as the cast was studded with stars or soon-to-become stars all crammed into this tiny theatre.

Shortly after that, I became more deeply involved in revues and musicals, consequently meeting with Michael professionally less often, but still our friendship persisted and whenever our times in London coincided, there were always plays to be seen or exhibitions to be visited. The next time we actually worked together was in Holland in 1962 where Michael had been engaged for some time as Rehearsal Director of Het Amsterdams Ballet and I was to join as Ballet Master.

We worked happily together in a stimulating environment for about six months, however, there were difficulties (not of our making), as on the horizon, ‘political’ moves were being made to combine the three major Dutch companies. All kinds of administrative difficulties arose and it was obvious that a fruitful working atmosphere could no longer be sustained. I returned to London and Michael went to Rotterdam where he was accepted with open arms as a distinguished teacher.             

We of course continued our friendship and met whenever I was in London. I feel very strongly that my tastes were greatly influenced by knowledge that I gained from and with Michael. Our frequent visits to theatres and exhibitions would always be mulled over and discussed in great detail until we thought we had looked at every facet of the experience. I am grateful for everything that I learned from Michael and cherish every moment of our near 70 years of friendship.

Thank you Michael.

Harry Haythorne MBE



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