Vale Bryan Lawrence, the English dancer handpicked for the Australian Ballet by Peggy van Praagh and Robert Helpmann

When Bryan Lawrence was a ballet student training in London, he once jumped so high that he felt “wonderful – as if I was flying”.

Bryan’s future was clear. He bounded from the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, then the Royal Ballet and eventually the Australian Ballet.

He may never have come to Australia had it not been for Peggy van Praagh, the foundation artistic director of the Australian Ballet.

When she saw him dance in London van Praagh suggested he might like to be a guest dancer with the company.

Instead he joined the company as a principal dancer and was cast as the Leader, one of the main roles in Robert Helpmann’s 1964 ballet, The Display.

Bryan told me: “I was at a reception at Covent Garden and he [Helpmann] came up to me and said ‘I’ve got just the role for you in Australia’. The funny thing is, fresh out of England, here was I doing a role as a typical Australian. I think he saw me as real male. People called me a strong dancer before they would call me a purely classical dancer.

“I think he saw something in me, some potential for various things that others didn’t see. When people heard I was going to Australia, Freddie Ashton said ‘we were thinking of making you principal dancer of the touring company’. I said, ‘sorry, it’s too late’”.

(Frederick Ashton succeeded Ninette de Valois as director of the Royal Ballet after her retirement in 1963).

Born Brian Lawrence Palethorpe in Birmingham in 1936 he moved to London to train at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School in Baron’s Court, and in 1954 joined the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, then the touring company of the Royal Ballet.

He was promoted to the rank of soloist the next year.

After a stint in the Royal Air Force he joined the main company, the Royal Ballet, in 1959 and became a soloist in 1961.

Towards the end of his dance career in London he wasn’t happy with the roles he was given.

“I got to this stage where I was doing the same roles”, he said, “soloist roles, Bluebird, and the pas de trois (in The Sleeping Beauty) and understudying principal roles”.

As a principal with the Australian Ballet, Bryan danced in many ballets, among them Melbourne Cup, Raymonda, Le Conservatoire, Giselle and Les Sylphides. He toured with the company to Europe, where, for the first time he worked with Rudolf Nureyev in his production of Raymonda.

At the end of 1967 Bryan left the company partly due to the problem he had with his knees ever since he moved to Australia.

“I blamed Rudi because I tried to imitate him, with perfect fifth positions, perfect turnout, which my body didn’t have. I’m prone to arthritis anyway. Sometimes I was fine, other times I’d be hobbling around, falling over on my knee”.

In 1968 he co-founded the Bryan Lawrence School of Ballet in Canberra with his first wife, the Australian Ballet dancer, Janet Karin. They trained many dancers who went on to illustrious careers, among them the former artistic director of the Australian Ballet, the late Ross Stretton.

Bryan and Janet had two children, Nicholas and Isobel, who predeceased her parents.

The couple separated in 1986, and, three years later, Bryan married Lyn Rogers.

They lived in Sydney before moving to the Blue Mountains in 2004, first to Wentworth Falls and later to Mount Victoria.

Bryan died of heart failure on 8 July at Katoomba Hospital.

His funeral will be held at Leura on 14 July.

He is survived by his son, Nicholas, Lyn and her five children from an earlier marriage.

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Bryan Lawrence, Melbourne Cup, Australian Ballet, 1967, photo © Keith Byron

Garth Welch, Bryan Lawrence and Kathleen Gorham, The Display, Australian Ballet, 1964

Barbara Chambers, Bryan Lawrence and Elaine Fifield, Le Conservatoire, Australian Ballet, 1965