Alexander Grant: “The marvellous day when Frederick arrived”

Alexander Grant, one of the outstanding dancers of his generation, has died at the age of 86.

The muse and lover of Frederick Ashton, he created 22 roles in Ashton’s ballets, among them the bumbling yet sweetly innocent farmer’s son, Alain, in Fille mal Gardee, Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Jester in Cinderella.

Grant’s career flourished at a time when dancers were more often categorised into types than they are today. His destiny was to be a demi character dancer who excelled at mime but Grant also had a fine classical technique, excelling at allegro.

One role he never danced, but wished he had, was Mercutio. It would have suited him perfectly.

Ashton bequeathed Grant two of his ballets, Fille and Façade, the latter a ballet in which he was cast while still a student.

New Zealand was especially proud of Grant, acknowledging his long and successful career with an Arts Foundation Icon Award in 2005.

Grant was born in Wellington, but spent most of his life in the United Kingdom where he lived for more than 50 years with his partner, Jean-Pierre Gasquet.

He belonged to that generation of antipodean ballet dancers who had to go overseas to further their careers.

Along with many of his contemporaries in the 1930s to 1950s, Grant sailed to London with the help of a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Dance.

Trained by Kathleen O’Brien then Jean Horne, he won the RAD scholarship in the late 1930s but the outbreak of the Second World War meant he had to remain at home until 1946.

In New Zealand, he joined a wartime concert party that entertained the troops, singing as well as dancing. One of his specialty numbers was By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea.

At an Ashton conference in London in 1994, Ashton’s biographer, Julie Kavanagh, asked Grant about his early days in London and his casting in Façade as one of the Popular Song boys.

“I arrived on 1 February, after seven weeks at sea in a cargo boat around Cape Horn, which was quite an adventure. There was no school because all the older members of my age had been put into the newly formed company at Sadler’s Wells – the old company had been transferred to Covent Garden and a new company to take its place had been formed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

“As there was no school I was asked to do my classes with them and stand at the back during rehearsals, to watch what was going on and learn whatever I could. Then came the marvellous day when Frederick arrived to cast Façade, which was to be one of the first ballets to be performed by the newly formed company. I was standing at the barre with a boy called Donald Britton.

“We were similar in height and physique, and I could see Frederick sitting with Peggy van Praagh, the new director, pointing to us and Peggy van Praagh saying ‘No, no, no, he’s only a student, he’s not in the company, you can’t really have him.’ But Sir Frederick got his way and I found myself learning the Popular Song with Donald Britton. So that was my first glimpse of Frederick and his work”.

But it was Leonide Massine that launched Grant into the major league when he cast him as A Barber in Mam’zelle Angot in 1947. The role typecast him for the rest of his life, but, as Grant said, later, “I don’t regret it.”

At the Royal Ballet, where Grant was a soloist from 1949, Ashton created many roles on him, including Cinderella, Daphnis and Chloe, The Dream and Fille.

Thanks to Kavanagh, we can see Ashton through Grant’s eyes and vice versa.

In her biography of Ashton, she writes that for Ashton, Grant was Someone to Watch Over Me (Ashton’s favourite song).

Kavanagh wrote of “a tender complicity” that existed between them, one that “superseded any words”.

They spent much time together at Ashton’s Suffolk house where Grant would cook, help with the gardening, move the furniture around, as requested, and coax Ashton out of his melancholy spells.

The couple went for bicycle rides and searched the local junkshop for jugs to add to Ashton’s collection. Ashton taught Grant how to mix a vinaigrette and “to time perfectly the boiling of quails eggs”.

Grant liked to recite a ditty he once wrote about Ashton:

Ever ready Freddie
Always entre nous
In any situation
Knew exactly what to do

Grant left the Royal Ballet in 1976 to take up the artistic directorship of the National Ballet of Canada.

In 1982, he was told that his contract would not be extended beyond its expiry date, June 1983. The board expected he would resign but Grant served out his full contract period.

From the mid 1980s, he worked as a coach at London Festival Ballet and, well into his 80s, he continued to set revivals of Fille on ballet companies around the world.

Grant died on 30 September, having been in hospital with complications after a hip operation eight months previously.

He is survived by Jean-Pierre Gasquet, his partner for 54 years, and a younger brother, Garry, who was also a dancer with the Royal Ballet.