Marie Rambert – The Quicksilver Dancer
small, Marie Rambert training, Rambert Ballet, photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images, center, marie_rambertgettyimages54.jpg
The oldest British dance company bears the name of a Pole who taught Churchill’s daughter to dance. Marie Rambert was an alchemist of choreography and a dance architect who co-created one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of this art.
Under Isadora’s charm
Rambert is born in a Jewish family as Cywia Ramberg. In her hometown of Warsaw she takes her first ballet classes, but performs only during informal meetings. A breakthrough appears when Rambert sees Isadora Duncan dancing at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw. The performance keeps Rambert awake at night, she is hugely impressed by the great American dancer. Young Cywia perhaps does not even dare to dream that their paths might cross one day. However, fate will surprise her!
In 1905 she leaves to Paris to study medicine, or rather she is sent there by her parents, anxious about her conspirational activity (Cywia takes part in demonstrations and distributed illegal flyers). However, the city of love pushes her in another direction: she meets Isadora Duncan’s brother, Raymond, at a party, and decides to dedicade herself to dance. In France she ceases to be Cywia (this name is unpronouncable to the French) and introduces herself first as Miriam and later as Marie. She also changes her surname to the French-sounding ‘Rambert’.
Marie Rambert and Sally Gilmour during rehearsal at Ballet Rambert, 1943, photo: Ministry of Information Photo Division
She goes to acrobatics classes and learns eurhythmics at the school established by the famous French composer and teacher Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, who chooses her as his assistant. Rambert also works with Wacław Niżyński on the legendary ballet The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky which premieres in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Rambert is fascinated with Niżyński: both as an artist and as a man. In her memoirs she writes of ‘an amazing reflection of his depth’ which she sees in his choreography.
The Paris scandal
Paris is shaken: the outraged audience reacts to the groundbreaking performance with whistling. The wild, dynamic, ‘angular’ choreography of The Rite of Spring bewilders the Paris audience and their elegant taste. However, Rambert has the opportunity to make history as a part of one of the most important events in the history of dance.
The Rite of Spring is so revolutionary that even dancers are unsure whether Stravinsky did not commit a mistake in the notations. Rambert, adored by the team, explains the disoriented artists the intricacies of choreography which was then considered ‘bizzare’ and ‘arrhythmic’. She can be compared to a midwife serving at the birth of a new phenomenon: modern dance.
Rambert Dance Company
When the Great War breaks out, Marie leaves for London. She teaches the children of the British upper crust during private lessons. Winston Churchill’s daughter is one of her students. In 1920 she establishes her first school in which she consequently conjoins ballet and modern dance. Interestingly, the oldest British dance school still operates and still bears Rambert’s name. Rambert is the teacher of the greatest British ballet artists. Marie’s student, Frederick Ashton, débuts in 1926 with the short A Tragedy of Fashion. He would later become a distinguished choreographer and one of the most important figures in ballet’s history. Christopher Bruce, Antony Tudor, Norman Morrice… The impressive list of famous alumni of Rambert Dance Company goes on and on.
In the 1940s Rambert goes on a world tour which comprises Australia, New Zealand, China and the United States. And then comes the revolution: the artist resigns from leading the ballet company and decides to cooperate with soloists who have modern taste and technique.
The autobiography of the choreographer, released in 1972, is titled Quicksilver. This is what young Cywia was called in her family home: as a kid, she was very energetic. Perhaps this why dance suits her so well. The name of the theatre established by Rambert and her husband, the playwright Ashley Dukes, also refers to her childhood nickname: the building in Notting Hill is dubbed Mercury Theatre (‘mercury’ is another name for ‘quicksilver’).
Queen Elizabeth II has twice rewarded Rambert with the Order of the British Empire for her impact on British culture. Rambert was also bestowed with a damehood. She dies in London at 94. Rambert remains one of the most signifcant figures of world dance and her name appears in virtually all British dance lexicons.
Translated by Natalia Sajewicz