Obituary for Lynn Seymour

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Lynn Seymour, who has died aged 83, was one of the greatest dramatic ballerinas of the 20th century. In addition to her career with the Royal Ballet and the Berlin Opera Ballet, she has danced as a guest with companies such as the National Ballet of Canada, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Second Stride and Adventures in Motion Pictures.

She choreographed several short-lived ballets and was Artistic Director of the Ballet of the Bavarian State Opera Munich (1978-80) and the Greek National Ballet (2006-07). An independent figure, she enjoyed exploring many dance forms: Matthew Bourne described her as rare, having been “completely accepted by the whole dance world”.

Best known as Kenneth MacMillan’s muse, Seymour was a dancer of individuality with delicate musicianship, and in all the roles she created left a high standard for successors to emulate. She was known for a fluidity that MacMillan said in 1980 made her “movements flow into one another.” He added that “Lynn is as real as anyone can be on stage wearing pointe shoes.”

Beginning with the small but striking role of the teenager in The Burrow, MacMillan brought Seymour to the limelight in 1958 and two years later created two contrasting roles for her, the fiancee in Le Baiser de la Fée and the young girl in The Invitation. This role was controversial as it featured a girl flattered, raped and traumatized by the attention of an older man – on stage in Covent Garden.

Seymour created leading roles in three of MacMillan’s acclaimed multi-act ballets, Romeo and Juliet (1965), Anastasia (1967, 1971) and Mayerling (1978). Seymour and her stage partner Christopher Gable had joined MacMillan’s inner circle, fascinated by the art and theater of the 1960s. In Romeo, MacMillan wanted to replicate the youthfulness of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1960 production of the play at the Old Vic, and make Juliet the driving force of his ballet.

It was traumatic for the trio when Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev got their first performances in London and New York at the urging of US impresario Sol Hurok. This was especially true for Seymour, who underwent an abortion to ensure nothing interfered with her career.

In 1966 she went to the Berlin Opera Ballet with MacMillan. There she was great as the desperate Anna Anderson, who tried to convince in the Berlin hospital in the expressionist one-act play Anastasia (1967) that she was the youngest daughter of the tsar. MacMillan then added two earlier acts for The Royal Ballet (1971): as a real-life tomboy Anastasia, Seymour took the stage in roller skates and matured as a young princess at a state ball. While some of Seymour’s roles have been captured on film, her performance as Anastasia is included in Anthony Crickmay’s striking photographs of the ballet.

Frederick Ashton loved showing Seymour quick, detailed steps to show off her wonderful, expressive feet and flowy torso. He gave her more romantic roles in The Two Pigeons (1962) and as the bored, capricious Natalia Petrovna hoping for one last love in A Month in the Country (1976). In his Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, she recalled the famous barefoot dancer as Ashton remembered her. This work found its five-waltz form in 1976, and that year also saw her appointment to the CBE.

Seymour was less happy dancing the exposed ballerina roles in classics like Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, though she was an interesting Giselle. In the 70s, Nureyev, a friend with whom she liked to dance, helped her gain confidence in these roles. She worked with many choreographers and was memorable in Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries (1976) and in Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering (1970) and his comic The Concert (1975).

In 1981, Seymour retired from the Royal Ballet on the eve of her comeback after injury and illness, but it was not the end of her career. She briefly created the rock dance Seymour’s Circus and was persuaded by Gable, who was then directing Northern Ballet, to create Lowry’s Mother in Gillian Lynne’s A Simple Man (1987).

In 1988 she returned to ballet as the memorable Tatiana in John Cranko’s Onegin with the London Festival Ballet and over the next year danced with the company a full repertoire, from the Sugar Plum Fairy to the Anna Anderson reprise. In 1996 she asked to play the queen in Bourne’s Swan Lake and the following year she created the stepmother, inspired by Bette Davis, in his Cinderella.

Seymour was born Berta Lynn Springbett – MacMillan advised the name change – in Wainwright, Alberta, Canada to Marjorie (née McIvor) and Ed Springbett, a dentist. Inspired by Alexandra Danilova in Coppélia and the 1948 film The Red Shoes, she trained with Nicholas Svetlanoff in Vancouver, where she was discovered at an audition by Ashton in 1953, and was offered a scholarship to Sadler’s Wells Ballet School.

There her most important teacher was the former pavlova dancer Winifred Edwards. In 1956 she graduated from the Royal Ballet Companies, where she was promoted by Peter Wright and MacMillan and took up solo roles almost immediately. Even so, she struggled with a lithe, voluptuous body with supple muscles not made for dancing.

In 1963 she married Colin Jones, a dancer-turned-photographer; 1979 another photographer, Philip Pace; and in 1983 Vanya Hackle, an agent for the rock group. All ended in divorce.

She had three sons who survive her: twins Adrian and Jerzy with Polish dancer Eike Walcz and Damian with Pace.

• Lynn Seymour, dancer, born March 8, 1939; died March 7, 2023

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