The Blue Bird and the Princess of Monaco

Ballet and the ruling Grimaldi family of Monaco have danced cheek to cheek for a century. But the death last month of Princess Antoinette of Monaco marked the end to one special episode in this long love affair.

The eccentric Antoinette – sister of Prince Rainier III – died on March 18 aged 90 – a very long time after the death of her third husband, the good looking English premier danseur, John Gilpin, who died back in 1983, aged only 53.

The couple had met in the late 1940s, when he danced with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in Monte Carlo. But soon afterwards, Gilpin returned to London where he joined the newly formed Festival Ballet founded by Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. This began Gilpin’s close, lifelong relationship with Dolin. The couple lived together and wrote the forewords to one another’s autobiographies.*

In 1959, Gilpin won the Anton Dolin Award for dancer of the year, presented in London by Princess Antoinette, and the following year, Dolin escorted Antoinette to Gilpin’s first wedding, when he married the dancer, Sally Judd, in London. Gilpin and Judd were divorced in 1970 but the marriage had broken down long before then.

Gilpin’s marriage to Princess Antoinette might have been a happy and companionable one, but he died of a heart attack only six weeks after their wedding.

Antoinette was not the first Grimaldi princess to love dance. Her mother, Princess Charlotte, was “an ardent balletomane”, wrote Lynn Garafola (in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes). She had lessons with Lubov Tchernicheva and sat in on the daily class of the Ballets Russes when it was based in Monte Carlo from 1922. (The company had performed there from 1911.)

Charlotte, in turn was the illegitimate daughter of the ruling monarch, Louis II but she became legitimised as Hereditary Princess of Monaco and then married Comte Pierre de Polignac, who “cultivated a reputation as a lover of culture, and took up the role of Diaghilev’s guardian angel”, wrote Diaghilev’s biographer, Sjeng Scheijen. It was “a problematic union that was not helped by his being homosexual”, according to the recent obituary of Antoinette in The Telegraph, London.

“Their unhappy marriage blighted the early lives of their children, Antoinette and Rainier, who became pawns in the bitter struggles between their parents. Pierre and Charlotte finally separated in 1930 and were divorced in 1933”.

As for Gilpin, his spectacular career had begun early when he joined Ballet Rambert in London, and at 17 was part of the Rambert company’s tour of Australia from 1947-49.

During the tour, a reporter from The Advertiser in Adelaide wrote: “In the Ballet Rambert, the accent has always been on youth. The average age of the present company on the feminine side is 20. Sally Gilmour, prima ballerina, is 26.

Belinda Wright, one of the principal dancers, whom English critics regard as one of the most promising dancers of the day is just 19. John Gilpin, the youngest male dancer, had to be adopted as a minor by the manager of the company, John Dowey because he was only 17 when the company left England”. (15 October, 1948).

Even at 17, Gilpin was attracting admiring notices in Australia for his “unusual elevation and technical finesse, which already enable him to dance a very fine Blue Bird, and should qualify him for Spectre [de la Rose]”. (The Argus, 8 November, 1947).

Many years later he went on to dance Spectre de la Rose with Margot Fonteyn. Gilpin was both a principal dancer and artistic director of Festival Ballet but in the end, he suffered serious problems with thrombosis in one of his legs and retired from dancing in the mid 1970s.

Meanwhile, the close embrace of dance and the Grimaldis goes on. Caroline, the daughter of the late Rainier and his wife, the former Grace Kelly, established Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in 1985.

* Last words: a final autobiography, by Anton Dolin; foreword by John Gilpin
A dance with life, by John Gilpin; foreword by Anton Dolin.

Valerie Lawson 2011

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