Star of Scottish Ballet and Scotland's first ballerina

Born: May 2, 1943

Died: December 9, 2018

ELAINE McDonald, who has died aged 75, was a pioneer of ballet in Scotland. When Scottish Ballet came to Scotland under the artistic direction of Peter Darrell, Elaine McDonald’s name became synonymous with the company. Her skill as a dancer was seen in many roles – from the classics to contemporary – and she triumphed in Darrel’s new ballets. Through her art and her warm personality, she was to act as an superb ambassador for the company.

One of her outstanding qualities was her loyalty. McDonald came to Glasgow and helped create a new audience for dance. It was a considerable professional risk for her, but she and Darrell shared a vision and once they had established the company Scottish Ballet attracted international stars and dancers. McDonald was appointed artistic controller of the company (1988–89) after Darrell's untimely death.

Scottish Ballet’s current director, Christopher Hampson, spoke to The Herald about McDonald’s place in Scottish dance. “Elaine was a rare talent: incredibly well known and respected throughout Scottish Ballet. Each evening before the performance at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre I will be making a speech ahead of the performance and will mention her being Scotland’s first ever ballerina. She inspired generations of dancers and choreographers over her career. I will dedicate all our performances of Cinderella to her memory.”

Elaine McDonald was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire but aged 11 she won a competition organized by the Royal Academy of Dance in London and then won a place at the Royal Ballet School. On graduating she found work in pantomime and Walter Gore’s London Ballet Company then joined Western Theatre Ballet, staying with the company until it moved to Glasgow in 1969.

McDonald was to devote her entire career to Scottish Ballet. “When I joined the Western Theatre Ballet,” she once said, “it was considered one of the most modern companies in Britain and many of our ballets told stories of everyday life. I knew it was young, vital and very forward-looking."

McDonald and Darrell formed a magnificent artistic partnership. She added much to his choreography and the two fed off each other’s vivid imaginations. Their artistic relationship was central to the development of ballet in Scotland: both were keen to accept new ideas, new music and expand the traditional vocabulary of dance. Throughout the 1970s they brought the worlds of fashion, pop music and social-politics to ballet.

Alan Crumlish was associated with the company for many years and recalls working with McDonald and Darrell. “Peter would rehearse Elaine all day in the studio and she would go away like a little puppy and return the next day having made it her own. She involved the entire theatre: those sparkling eyes reached the back of the gods. She was a ballerina of real stature.”

With Western, McDonald had shown her mettle by leading the company in Mods and Rockers (an early free-movement ballet). With Scottish Ballet, she was to create many works for the company - fondly remembered were Darrell’s majestic Nutcracker (recently returned to the repertory), Cheri, Othello (short, but concentrating on McDonald’s ability to evoke jealousy through dance) and her “ethereal grace” in Napoli.

The classics showed off her deft technique and towering sense of drama: Cinderella, Giselle and Swan Lake were all masterful interpretations as was her thrilling account of Darrell’s Mahler’s Five Ruckert Songs. She captured the very essence of love, loss and loneliness with a painful sensitivity.

McDonald seldom performed as a guest with other companies and preferred to concentrate on Scottish Ballet and live happily in Glasgow’s West End. One foreign highlight was dancing opposite Rudolf Nureyev in La Sylphide in Madrid and also at the London Coliseum. Typically, Nureyev insisted upon wearing his own grey/blue kilt. At the 1986 Spoleto Festival Scottish Ballet danced La Sylphide with McDonald who was praised for her sweetness of characterisation and lightness in her dancing.

She was seen at three Edinburgh Festivals especially in 1985, again, in La Sylphide. The Sunday Times wrote that McDonald, “has few peers in the role. She dances it with fleeting ease, poetic grace, and an innocent teasing skittishness – a captivating creature.” In 1980 the company concluded their festival visit with a rapturous account of Darrell’s wonderful Tales of Hoffmann with McDonald making a strong impression.

Mary Brennen, the dance critic of The Herald, remembers McDonald with particular warmth. “Her twinkly and mischievous sense of humour and her flawless stage technique marked her out as special. Elaine engaged with an audience from the moment she came on stage. Whether she was in a major theatre or a village hall in the Highlands, Elaine gave everything. She was charismatic and engaged with the public everywhere. Dance in Scotland owes her much.”

In her final years, McDonald suffered severe health problems but her faith gave her much sustenance and she was greatly comforted after an audience with the Pope. She never married.