Sally Gilmour: the fey and foxy lady of the Ballet Rambert

Just as every male ballet dancer was upstaged by Rudolf Nureyev in the 1960s, so did female dancers suffer from the extraordinary fame of Margot Fonteyn from the 1940s to the late 1960s.

While Fonteyn’s name is still widely known, the name of one of her most talented contemporaries, Sally Gilmour, has most likely been forgotten by all but her family, friends and dance historians.

Gilmour was the leading ballerina of Ballet Rambert, the English company whose tour to Australia from 1947 to 1949 featured her in many of her most acclaimed roles in the ballets Lady Into Fox, Façade, Giselle, The Sailor’s Return, The Mermaid, Jardin aux lilas and The Descent of Hebe.

I recently bought a Ballet Rambert program from that tour – not the better known souvenir program featuring the artwork of Loudon Sainthill – but a more modest eight page program for the Princess Theatre season, Melbourne in December 1947, with only two photos, one of the ballet Façade and the other of Gilmour (left), and some sketches by Bernard Lawson (no relation) who was an Archibald Prize finalist in 1944.

The Rambert tour of Australia was longer than any of the Ballets Russes’ tours that preceded it but there were many similarities – idolisation of the dancers, recruitment of many local dancers, the way in which some dancers were used as glamour girls for products, and how some dancers from the touring party remained in Australia, among them Gilmour, Joyce Graeme, and Margaret Scott, the first director of the Australian Ballet School.

Gilmour was born in Malaya in 1921 where her father, Colin, was a medical officer.

She spent much of her childhood isolated from her family, at a London boarding school, beginning her ballet training at the age of 9 with the London-based former ballerina, Tamara Karsavina, before joining the Rambert Ballet school aged only 12. Her ballet career came only four years later when she became a member of the Ballet Rambert, and created her most famous role, Mrs Tebrick, in Lady and the Fox aged only 18, in 1939.

Brigitte Kelly, in her biography of Marie Rambert, the founder of Ballet Rambert, described Gilmour as “by no means a brilliant technician, [but she] had a strange quality that everyone called fey even in her everyday life and it was this quality that gave an intensity to her portrayals of dramatic roles”.

As the author, Peter Robb, recalls, in his article written for The Monthly, in the war years, Gilmour shared an apartment in Knightsbridge with her friend Margaret Scott, and Gilmour’s boyfriend, the dancer, Walter Gore, before he was called into the navy.

Jill Sykes, in her obituary of Gilmour, quotes Scott recalling that Gilmour was “a most sought-after lady. Every man who saw her fell in love with her. She was fey (that word again) and wistful, and she always longed for security”.

Five years before Ballet Rambert toured Australia, Gilmour’s life took a tragic turn. Her mother was killed when the Japanese invaded Singapore and her father was taken prisoner in Changi.

During the Rambert tour of Australia, Gilmour met a young doctor, Allan Wynn, son of the winemaker, Samuel Wynn, and they married in Melbourne in 1948, Gilmour wearing a wedding dress created by the theatre designer, Kenneth Rowell.

Scott believed that Gilmour was attracted to Wynn because he offered her the security she needed and lacked due to her lonely childhood.

Wynn, who worked at three hospitals in Melbourne, moved to London to undertake postgraduate work in cardiology.

After their first child, Simon, was born, Gilmour returned to the stage to dance with the Rambert company in 1950, then in the musical, Carousel, and she made her farewell performance in 1952 in the ballet, Confessional.

With her family, she returned to Melbourne. Wynn died in 1987 and Gilmour in 2004. She was survived by their three children, Simon, Sabina and Toby.

Sabina worked in the film industry for 25 years before taking up her job as executive director of the Australian Law Reform Commission.

The three offspring of Sally Gilmour may have few memories of her dancing days but I hope they have many souvenirs, scrapbooks and photographs of their beautiful mother to remind them of her impact on audiences from London to Australia more than 50 years ago.