Aimed at a general audience and published by David Leonard, former owner of Dance Books, Dynamo: Michael Somes A Life In The Royal Ballet is a long-overdue look at an underrated and perhaps now largely forgotten principal dancer.
Michael Somes was a pivotal figure in the foundation of what is now The Royal Ballet and one of the virtues of Sarah Woodcock’s research is that she scotches some of the foundation myths that abound about that company.
Somes was, in many ways, Margot Fonteyn’s first main partner and was unfortunate in being eclipsed, not only by the arrival of Rudolf Nureyev, but by the fact that she continued to dance just as he was relinquishing his performing career. Woodcock quite rightly portrays Fonteyn, and indeed Frederick Ashton, as the flawed humans that they were, in spite of later lionising. Not that Somes was a saint either.
It would be easy to characterise Somes as the solidly dependable but less than exciting partner, but the few video clips that remain of the later years of his partnership with Fonteyn belie that. As Woodcock notes, his partnering technique required that he not hide the faults of his partner but use his own self-effacing support to show her off to best advantage. In particular, his support of pirouettes was minimal and utterly different to that taught today, his hands acting as a brake rather than an accelerator.
Photographs of him partnering Alicia Markova as Giselle and Nadia Nerina as the Firebird expose just one supporting hand visible to the audience which makes both look as if he has arrested them in mid flight.
Unfortunately, whilst images of Somes from his earliest dancing days are plentiful, personal details are not. His first marriage to Deidre Dixon is sprung upon the reader and not at all fleshed out, perhaps because there is a dearth of primary sources, although this is made up for in his later marriages. His later years are rather galloped through, however.
Perhaps another reason that Somes is now overlooked was the disgraceful way that he was shunted out of the back door of the company to which he had given his life. Whilst he would have probably been embarrassed by a fussy gala, happy though he was to organise and participate in them for his colleagues, he was treated shabbily.
Somes’ life and career spanned many changes in the landscape of British ballet. He was one of the dancers who piloted the then Sadler’s Wells Ballet from one night stands and provincial tours, through the gruelling slog of gaining international recognition, to becoming the resident company at Covent Garden.
His later work has been characterised by younger dancers as being old-fashioned and rather hammy whilst simultaneously being damned with the faint praise of being understated and self-effacing. His perfectionism led him to relinquish leading roles earlier rather than later.
As conscientious and meticulous as he was as a repetiteur and coach, there was something of a generational clash in his last years with the company. In a way it is illustrated in his personal relationship with Antoinette Sibley who was not content with devoting 100% of her life to The Royal Ballet nor entirely able to reconcile her private and professional lives.
Dynamo: Michael Somes A Life In The Royal Ballet may not entirely satisfy those who still remember him as a performer nor sate the curiosity of those totally unfamiliar with him but it is a valuable window on the life of a major figure in British dance history.
I do have to take issue with Woodcock’s last chapter title, ‘The Method,’ however. This is a reference to Somes’ role in preserving what he saw as the English style. ‘The Method’ is a term that is commonly used to refer to the Cecchetti Method from which he greatly benefitted but it in no way describes his teaching methods. This is not only misleading but inappropriate as there is no detailed technical breakdown of exactly what he saw as the English style.
Dynamo: Michael Somes A Life In The Royal Ballet
Author: Sarah Woodcock
Publisher: David Leonard
Publication date: 21 September 2023
Hardcover, 358 pages
Cover price: £21.99