Born: March 15, 1946; Died: June 18, 2013.
David Wall, who has died aged 67, was one of the outstanding British ballet dancers of his generation. An outpouring of remarkable tributes and fond personal memories from colleagues and critics, from those he mentored and from members of the public, acknowledge the legacy of his career onstage as a dancer and off-stage as a teacher, repetiteur and as a director of the Royal Academy of Dance.
But what also emerges is a sense of Wall as one of ballet's nice guys: a dancer whose talent was matched by a total commitment to hard work and an absence of temperamental ego. In a milieu where backstage backbiting is not unknown, Wall's popularity – even among those who undoubtedly coveted the landmark roles that were created for him – is, itself, worthy of note. Quite simply, the realm of British dance has lost more than a valuable influence, it has lost a much-loved friend.
It might, however, have been a different story. Wall wasn't at all certain, as a youngster, that he even wanted to dance professionally. A sharp-eyed teacher at his primary school in Windsor noticed his grace and aptitude during compulsory ballroom dancing lessons. His (adoptive) mother was persuaded to let the 10-year-old audition for the Royal Ballet school where – still, apparently, without any burning ambition to make dance his career – Wall stayed for the next six years.
It was then, with his training completed, that the 16-year-old took stock of how the ballet repertoire had been changing. Choreographers seemed increasingly interested in bringing the male dancer out from the shadow of the ballerina while Nureyev's defection to the West had opened everyone's eyes – even those of the non-dance community – to the prowess and artistic potential of the male as a solo force in ballet.
Despite his youth, Wall's qualities – not just as a fine technician, but also as a persuasively expressive actor – were already in evidence. So you can imagine the hurrahs behind closed doors when Wall, on graduating in 1963, joined the Royal Ballet's touring wing (now Birmingham Royal Ballet).
At 17 he danced with Margot Fonteyn for the first time. He would subsequently become a caringly supportive partner to the ageing prima ballerina in many of her last performances – she later expressed a heartfelt appreciation of his sensitivity and reliability. At 20 he was promoted to the rank of soloist and a year later he became the Royal Ballet's youngest-ever male principal.
Wherever the touring wing performed, audiences started to look out for the handsome young dancer with flaming red hair. Their attention was caught by more than Wall's striking good looks. There was an energy to him that spoke appealingly of a masculinity tinged with sensuality: it infused a fresh, you could even say tougher, dynamic into some of the great classic roles but it also hinted at the physical range and emotional diversity that Wall could offer to the new generation of British choreographers who would transform the Royal Ballet repertoire and the face of British ballet.
In 1970, as a result of re-organisations, Wall found himself at the Royal Ballet's home base in Covent Garden where, as one of the company's leading men, he was often centre-stage in new productions and in much demand by resident and visiting choreographers. Kenneth MacMillan, now director of the company, especially relished Wall's ability to imbue even the most physically demanding steps with a sense of character and motivation – he created the two roles that Wall is most closely associated with: Lescaut in Manon (1974) and Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling (1978)
Lescaut, the titular heroine's depraved and manipulative brother, sounds – on paper anyway – a far from attractive proposition. But Wall transcended predictable sleaze, bringing a casually amoral, relaxed charm to the half-comic/half-sinister persona that MacMillan had choreographed. But that all changed when the casts switched over their roles and Wall took on Des Grieux, the hapless innocent who falls in love with the fickle, whoring Manon. Wall danced him just as superbly, charting the fall from grace that sees a serious divinity student become a frantic killer without ever jeopardising our understanding or our sympathy.
Perhaps this depth of emotional intelligence, allied to a technical vigour that so readily responded to MacMillan's intensely demanding movement, led to Wall inhabiting what is probably the most arduous male lead in the Royal Ballet's repertoire: Rudolf, the tragic real-life figure at the dramatic heart of Mayerling. There are seven significant pas-de-deux in Mayerling, each one reflecting both the social and personal histories that lead inexorably to Rudolf – the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire – killing his young mistress and then himself at the remote hunting lodge of Mayerling. If the physical demands were, in Wall's own words "a back-breaker, in every sense" the internal maelstrom that coloured Rudolf's relationships with family, friends and women was every bit as nuanced and challenging. Wall turned this Everest of choreography into a memorable triumph, still seen as the definitive interpretation though sadly never fully filmed.
Such career highpoints do take their toll, however. And in 1984, Wall decided that rather than shift gears – relinquishing leading roles for character parts – he would retire from the Royal Ballet altogether. The same year he was awarded the CBE.He did not turn his back on dance, but channelled his experience, his insight and his generosity into teaching, advising and overseeing the education of future generations at the Royal Academy of Dance.
His death, aged 67 from cancer, has shocked and saddened the whole dance community, not only in Britain but beyond. Beyond words, there is a wonderful witness to David Wall's glorious beauty in motion: Enza Plazotta's statue, Jete (1975). On the corner of 46-57 Millbank, Westminster, a poetically lithe male figure leaps high into the ether, as if tethered only by a drapery caught on the plinth. It is breath-taking – like the dancer who inspired it.
David Wall is survived by his wife, the former Royal Ballet dancer Alfreda Thorogood, his son and daughter and a number of grandchildren.