Prima ballerina with Scottish Ballet: an appreciation by Mary Brennan

Born: May 2, 1943;

Died: December 9, 2018

FOR anyone who remembers the early days of what is now Scottish Ballet, the news of Elaine McDonald’s death will be achingly sad indeed. From the arrival of the company in 1969, until her retirement in May 1989, Elaine was an abiding muse for founder-choreographer Peter Darrell and a remarkable role-model for others – a gifted prima ballerina without a smidgeon of diva temperament.

On-stage, Elaine brought seemingly artless technical mastery to whatever role she danced, but what really reached out to audiences was the expressive character she also brought to those roles. Tiny, flame-haired, fine-boned and wonderfully fleet of foot, she could be funny or seductive, elegant or tragic, but above all, Elaine was always innately sincere. This shone through when, for instance, she danced the lead in Darrell’s version of Giselle. For while some ballerinas tend to deliver this simple village girl’s descent into madness as a rampant melodrama, Elaine portrayed the harrowing humanity of a broken heart giving rise to a broken mind.

In Darrell’s much-loved Nutcracker, she was a glowing, gracious Sugar Plum Fairy whose dancing had a delicious, filigree precision. In the same ballet’s Arabian solo, she had sensual mystique – and one of the most pliantly arching back-bends imaginable... Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Lea in Cheri, Cinderella – Elaine made these, and many other demanding roles, genuinely meaningful to modern-day audiences, and in doing so, she helped secure their enthusiastic support for Scotland’s national ballet company.

Of all my fondest memories, however, one is especially cherished. In 1983, Scottish Ballet were invited to perform at the International Festival of Music and Dance in Granada. Late evening, in the Alhambra’s Generalife Gardens, on an outdoor stage framed by tall dark cypresses, Elaine McDonald danced what was a signature ballet for Darrell and for her: Five Ruckert Songs. Overhead, in a star-filled sky, the bright moon looked down – as if enthralled by the slender figure of a woman whose body was a conduit for Mahler’s music. From the hope of love, to its loss – and then, with a poignant resolve that embraces acceptance and inner calm, Elaine’s journey through Darrell’s evocative choreography was luminous with understanding. Her very soul was in every move, and the ensuing audience hush was tinged with reverence.

Home again, in Scotland, despite artistic successes, the company was facing difficult times with arts funders and policy-makers. Ever-loyal to Darrell, Elaine ignored other career possibilities and remained with Scottish Ballet. She overcame serious injury, and – after many intensive pilates sessions with Dreas Reyneke – told me with a mischievous laugh that her turn-out had improved considerably. Darrell’s untimely death inevitably had a profound and far-reaching impact on Elaine. In grief, and determined to keep his vision alive, she took on the role of Scottish Ballet’s ‘artistic controller’. In May 1989, the post was discontinued and after some 20 years of selfless dedication to the company, Elaine McDonald left Scottish Ballet. It was the end of an era that had nonetheless laid valuable foundations for the company’s future. It is painfully sad that as Scottish Ballet prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, Elaine McDonald, the company’s first prima ballerina, will not be with us to celebrate.