Rambert, Marie (1888–1982)

views updated

Rambert, Marie (1888–1982)

Polish dancer and teacher, especially remembered for her ability to recognize and develop brilliant choreographers, whose Ballet Rambert was a significant influence on British ballet. Name variations: Cyvia Rambam; Cesia Rambam; Miriam Ramberg; Miriam Rambert; Dame Marie Rambert. Born Cyvia Ramberg (or Rambam) on February 20, 1888, in Warsaw, Poland; died on June 12, 1982, in London, England; third daughter of a Warsaw bookseller who was registered as Ramberg, although his father's surname was Rambam; attended gymnasia in Warsaw until 1904; one-year course at Sorbonne, 1906 (Certificat d'Etudes Françaises); attended Jacques Dalcroze Institute, 1910; married Ashley Dukes (a playwright), on March 7, 1918; children: Angela Dukes; Helen (Lulu) Dukes.

Saw Isadora Duncan dance in Warsaw (1904); moved to Paris (1906); attended Jacques Dalcroze Institute (1910); joined Ballets Russes to work with Diaghilev and Nijinsky (1912); went to London (1914); gave first public performance (1917); opened a dancing school (1920); launched Frederick Ashton as a choreographer (1926); Ballet Club opened (1931); Ballet Rambert officially formed (1934); Australian tour (1947); named CBE (1953); toured China (1957); awarded Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur (1957); made first American tour (1959); named DBE (1962); published autobiography (1972).

Marie Rambert, whom Agnes de Mille once compared to Ninette de Valois in her influence on the world of dance, was born Cyvia Ramberg in 1888 into a large family living near the center of Warsaw, the capital city of Poland (her father was registered as Ramberg, although his father's surname was Rambam). As a child called Cesia, she was so lively that her nurse nicknamed her "Quicksilver." Rambert was also mischievous; one of her earliest memories was of herself, while very young, teasing her grandmother by alternately demanding and refusing a small new potato swimming in butter on a spoon.

Rambert's mother and father were middle-class intellectuals who introduced their children to literature and drama, although not to the visual arts. They were kind but undemonstrative parents. The Rambergs always employed a number of servants (when she grew older, she would deplore the thoughtless treatment they had received), and Rambert received more overt affection from these servants than from her parents. When she was a young woman living in Paris with her aunt and uncle, she would also consider them more affectionate than her mother and father. As children, Rambert and her siblings spent holidays in the country, where she enjoyed riding on top of peasants' haycarts and dancing to the music of fiddles at open-air fêtes lit by Chinese lanterns and enlivened by fireworks. She always felt a need to be active, and another of her nicknames was "Squirrel," because of her fondness for climbing trees.

Poland was then under the oppressive domination of Russia. Rambert recalled being taken out onto the balcony of her family's apartment to view the nighttime celebrations for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, in November 1894. She was educated at a gymnasia in Warsaw, a state school staffed by Russian civil servants where the lessons—even the Polish lessons—were conducted in Russian. School discipline was severe; pupils were expected to sit completely still in class, which was conducted by a teacher and overseen by a Klassnaya Dama who sat at a little table and made notes on each child's behavior and diligence. In charge of these women was a governess who secretly listened at classroom doors to make sure no rules were infringed upon, and whom the students nicknamed Catherine the Great and Madame Pompadour . At lunch time, which was also exercise time, the children ate their sandwiches while walking up and down a long corridor, pausing to curtsy to the head governess each time they passed her. Rambert enjoyed her lessons, particularly French, Russian, Polish, and literature, and was good at them without having to work hard. She found it easy to memorize long passages in any language she understood, a gift that she would carry with her into old age. Her favorite lesson, however, was dancing, which included ballet and the complicated ballroom dances of the time. Rambert showed such promise that the school's dancing teacher, Waslaw Slowacki, who came from the Warsaw Opera where Enrico Cecchetti was ballet master, asked the governess to allow her to have extra lessons. His request was refused, as dancing was considered nothing more than a necessary middle-class accomplishment.

Although Rambert was a good scholar, she was so high spirited that her conduct often let her down. She recalled several acts of devilment in her autobiography, Quicksilver, and it is perhaps not surprising that when she left school at 16 her academic marks were excellent, but her conduct marks were very poor. That same year, in 1904, Rambert first saw Isadora Duncan dance. The experience would have a profound effect on her future, although it did not then fire her with enthusiasm. She had seen her first ballet as a child, but did not prefer it over the plays, concerts, and operas she also enjoyed while growing up. (She also loved going to balls, relishing one particular occasion when her partner, an army officer, clicked his heels and said, "With your eyes, Mademoiselle, I could light my cigarette.") She was nonetheless offered the opportunity to travel to St. Petersburg as Duncan's companion, but her political involvement intervened.

Movement, perpetual movement was my element.

—Marie Rambert

Rambert had first become caught up with the political unrest that was sweeping Poland while she was still at school. With friends, she visited a 16-year-old working girl who had been hospitalized after being severely wounded during a demonstration. When the girl died, Rambert accompanied the bereaved mother to arrange the funeral, which was paid for by funds she and her fellow students had secretly collected. As she was the same size and build as the dead girl, Rambert was measured for the coffin and the burial clothes. She also helped deliver illegal propaganda leaflets, and joined a social studies group that met at a different member's home each week. One evening while the group was meeting at Rambert's home, the apartment was raided by the police, who searched for subversive literature, apparently without success. Another day, following a demonstration, Rambert came across the badly mutilated bodies of three workers. Such experiences fanned her enthusiasm for revolution and the overthrow of the tsarist regime, and on May 1, 1905, she took part in a massive political demonstration in Warsaw. When the demonstrators were attacked by mounted Cossacks, Rambert narrowly escaped being injured by a sabre. Her parents, who did not share her revolutionary zeal, determined to get her away from danger. Rather than accompanying Isadora Duncan to Russia, Rambert was sent to live with her maternal aunt and uncle in Paris.

Both her aunt and her uncle, a Frenchman named Marc Pierrot, were doctors working in a poor district of Paris where they were much loved. While Rambert was ostensibly in Paris to study medicine, she instead took the one-year course at the Sorbonne for the Certificat d'Etudes Françaises and threw herself into the social whirl of student life. During the day, she attended lectures, visited museums and art galleries, and took up cycling (a daring activity); in the evening, she went to theaters, cabarets, cafés and balls. At one of the latter, she met Isadora Duncan's brother Raymond Duncan, and was befriended by him and his wife. With their help, she began to make a name for herself as a dancer, and for a long time she always danced in the short tunic they had given her.

Rambert returned to Warsaw when she heard that Isadora Duncan was to dance there again. After the performance, she forced her way into the dancer's dressing room and was summarily ejected. Undeterred, she went the next day to see her at her hotel. Rambert particularly admired Duncan's spontaneity, her innovative choice of music, and her ability to project her feelings to the audience. Before returning to Paris, Rambert spent several months with a friend in the south of France, working on dance routines and training with an acrobatics teacher in Cannes. She also spent some time practicing her dancing with other friends in Normandy. Finally back in Paris, she began to make a reasonable living by charging 100 francs to dance at private soirées. To improve her status as a dancer, she also began to take proper ballet lessons from Madame Rat at the Paris Opera, and was bitterly disappointed when appendicitis prevented her from dancing at the opening of the annual exhibition of new paintings at the Salon d'Automne.

In 1910, Rambert went to the Jacques Dalcroze Institute in Geneva for what she thought would be a ten-day summer holiday course. Émile-Jacques Dalcroze had invented what was known as the "gymnastique rhythmique" movement as a way to study rhythm, and many influential musicians attended his school. While she was no musician, Rambert proved so proficient that she remained there for over two years, initially as a student, and then as a teacher. In later years, she would credit Dalcroze with teaching her how to work hard. The institute had moved to Hellerau by November 1912, when Sergei Diaghilev, director of the famous Ballets Russes, and his principal male dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, paid a visit. They were so impressed with Rambert that Diaghilev engaged her as a member of his company. She was specifically charged with helping the dancers learn their roles in the new ballet being choreographed by Nijinsky, Le Sacré du Printemps, a task made difficult because the music by Stravinsky had virtually no melody.

Rambert remained with the Ballets Russes for two years. She was taught by the brilliant ballet master Enrico Cecchetti, and on occasion danced with the company. She also became close friends with Nijinsky, realizing she was in love with him only when he announced his engagement to Romola de Pulski (Romola Nijinska ), also a friend of hers, while the company was traveling by boat to a South American tour in 1913. Diaghilev, too, had been in love with Nijinsky, and he terminated both Nijinsky's and Rambert's contracts after the company's return to Paris. (She continued to have intermittent contact with Diaghilev until his death in 1929.) Rambert again began supporting herself by dancing in private houses, but left Paris for London after the outbreak of World War I in September 1914.

She had been known as Miriam Ramberg in Paris and now took the name Marie Rambert. Those first years in London, she taught the technique of movement at the London School of Eurythmics and studied ballet with Serafima Astafieva . At the Garrick Theater on February 25, 1917, she gave her first performance of La Pomme d'Or, a ballet created for her by Vera Donnet. The following August, Rambert met her future husband, Ashley Dukes, a playwright who was serving as a captain in the army. In true wartime style, they were married on March 7, 1918, after seven months of letter-writing and only four days of actually seeing each other face to face. Rambert continued to live with friends until Dukes was demobilized. They then rented a first-floor apartment in Campden Hill Gardens, where their two daughters would be born. Eventually, they took over the entire house.

Rambert opened her own dancing school in 1920, and found her life's work. She was an excellent teacher of dance, but her true forté lay in discovering and encouraging choreographers. She believed she achieved this by being so unyielding in her insistence on classical correctness that dancers with creative flair rebelled against the rigidity and so developed their own individual styles. Her earliest success was Frederick Ashton, whose ballet A Tragedy of Fashion was first produced at the Lyric Theater in Hammersmith on June 15, 1926.

Her husband, meanwhile, had had great success in 1925 with his play The Man with a Load of Mischief, and they had begun working towards acquiring a theater of their own. In 1927, with plans to establish both dance studios and a theater, they bought the freehold of a large church hall in Notting Hill Gate. The school boasted a small professional company by 1930 (Tamara Karsavina was a guest artist that season), and the Ballet Club was opened on February 15, 1931. Membership was select, and performances were given on Sunday nights in Dukes' and Rambert's new theater, which in 1933 was named the Mercury Theater. In the years leading up to World War II, Rambert's school and the Ballet Club flourished, and many famous dancers and choreographers spent time working there. In 1934, in readiness for a four-week season at the Duke of York's Theater in London, the company adopted the name Ballet Rambert. Two of the performances in this season were attended by the duke and duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon ), and Rambert was presented to them in the Royal Box.

During the war years, the company entertained the troops and helped to keep up morale by giving programs in the provinces and at the Arts Theater in London. In 1943, Ballet Rambert received its first public funding, with a grant from the newly formed Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (later renamed the Arts Council). After the war, the company toured Germany for two months, dancing in the garrison theaters of the occupying army. Ballet Rambert set off in August 1947 for a six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand that in reality lasted a year and a half. While in New Zealand, Rambert was introduced to Helen Keller , whom she later described as "the greatest woman I have ever met." Although the tour itself was a great success, Rambert returned to England with little money. Some dancers had left the company while overseas, and others decamped after their arrival back home. Sets and costumes were in poor condition, and only one booking awaited them.

The Arts Council came to the rescue with a grant of £500, and Rambert set about rebuilding Ballet Rambert. The company toured extensively in Europe over the next few years, during which time Rambert appointed as associate director David Ellis, who was married to her elder daughter Angela Dukes . In 1957, the company was invited to China, where Rambert was met by a former pupil who had returned there to teach in 1939 and had progressed to become director of the National School of Ballet. Rambert was impressed by the work she saw at the school and not a little envious of its resources. When Ballet Rambert performed Giselle, they were puzzled at the lack of applause after the first act until informed of the Chinese custom of never applauding when there was a corpse on stage. Two years later, Ballet Rambert visited the United States for the first time, achieving their greatest success there with Two Brothers, choreographed by Norman Morrice. When Ellis resigned as associate director several years later, Morrice took over the position. By that time, it was proving too costly to support a corps de ballet, and so the company became a group of soloists, enabling them to concentrate more fully on new works while still presenting some of their original repertoire.

Rambert's contribution to British ballet had first been acknowledged in 1953, when she was made a Commander of the British Empire. France awarded her the Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur in 1957, and in 1962, she was made a Dame of the British Empire. (She also appeared that year on "This is Your Life," a British television program which featured famous celebrities.) Two years later, she received a doctorate from the University of Sussex. Although she relied increasingly on co- and associate directors, Marie Rambert continued to be involved with Ballet Rambert until her death in 1982. In 1987, reflecting its wide range of dance forms, Ballet Rambert was renamed the Rambert Dance Company. Christopher Bruce, recognized as the last choreographer to have actually trained with Rambert, has been its artistic director since April 1994. Rambert Dance Company continues to enjoy an international reputation, and on October 12, 1998, opened the newly rebuilt Sadler's Wells Theater in London with Bruce's Four Scenes, a ballet commissioned for the occasion.


Crisp, Clement, Anya Sainsbury, and Peter Williams, eds. Ballet Rambert: 50 Years On and On. London: Scolar Press, 1976.

Rambert, Marie. Quicksilver: The Autobiography of Marie Rambert. London: Macmillan, 1972.


The Rambert Archive in London, England.

Barbara Evans , Research Associate in Women's Studies, University College Northampton, England