Christopher Gable, who recently died of cancer in his native England at the age of fifty-eight, was one of the finest British dancers of his generation. At the time of his sadly premature departure from the ballet stage in 1967, brought about by a chronic rheumatoid condition in his feet, as well as by a growing wish to develop his acting talents both onstage and on screen, he had bidden fair to become one of the superstar dancers of his time. For the Royal Ballet he had already created roles in ballets by Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, and John Cranko, while his partnership with Lynn Seymour was becoming internationally famous. Even before he had left the ballet stage he had acted in TV movies--notably one on the composer Frederick Delius, directed by Ken Russell. Then, after his unexpected retirement from the Royal Ballet to devote himself to acting, Peter Hall offered him a contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was immediately given such outstanding opportunities as Lysander in Peter Brook's original staging of his celebrated A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Laertes in that season's new production of Hamlet.
The transition to the legitimate stage was neither smooth nor easy. But Gable persevered, eventually with some success, and he also made a number of movies for Russell, who by that time had moved on from TV to become a controversial film director. Starting in 1969 with The Music Lovers and ending in 1989 with The Rainbow, the most impressive of Gable's films for Russell was perhaps The Boy Friend, in which he played the title role opposite Twiggy. But eventually, if at first slowly, he moved away from acting, and in 1982 he started a ballet school with his wife, Carole Needham, while from 1987 he took over direction of Yorkshire's Northern Ballet Theatre. Here he won a great deal of acclaim, establishing in England a new kind of dramatic ballet, even a new kind of company, as well as commissioning a number of really interesting ballet scores from British composers. And also in 1987 he even made a belated return himself to the ballet stage, starring as the painter L.S. Lowrey, and partnering another early Royal Ballet retiree, Moira Shearer, in Gillian Lynne's A Simple Man.
Gable was a wonderful dancer who has left gleaming memories, even though his dance career was never completely fulfilled. With his curly blond hair and snub nose in a round face, he looked dangerously cherubic--a kind of rough-trade Cupid--but he was perfectly built for a dancer. His breakthrough season came in 1960-61 when he was with the Royal Ballet touring company (now Birmingham Royal Ballet) and danced both Florimund and the Bluebird in The Sleeping, Beauty, then in short order created the role of an innocent boy seduced by an older woman in MacMillan's The Invitation, and through an injury to Donald Britton, took over the first performance of the Lover in Ashton's The Two Pigeons, a role he made forever his own.
Even before Rudolf Nureyev joined the Royal Ballet, Gable had started to redefine the British male dancer, and after Nureyev started his own private revolution, Gable immediately joined the fold, welcoming the young Russian and learning assiduously from him. Thus he was the first British dancer to successfully dance Solor in Nureyev's one-act La Bayadere, and he learned and performed a number of Soviet pas de deux, as well as the leading role in Nureyev's staging of Chabukiani's pas de six from Laurencia. And in 1964 he shared with Nureyev the title role in the revival of Robert Helpmann's Hamlet, as well as appearing in a specially created trio for Seymour, Nureyev, and himself in MacMillan's ballet based on Shakespeare sonnets, Images of Love. And in 1965 MacMillan created on him and Seymour the leading roles of his new version of Romeo and Juliet, although it was known, certainly by the press, that the first performance would be given by Nureyev and his partner, company prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
When he retired from dance, Gable left a gap in British ballet that was eventually to be filled by the sheerly elegant Anthony Dowell and the more robust and exciting David Wall, with both of those dancers developing the concept of the male dramatic classicist that was the Nureyev-Gable heritage. But the tragedy is that Gable himself didn't dance longer. Only twenty-seven years old at the the end of his Royal career, he was still a developing dancer, even a developing technician, although his technique, with its impressive elevation, fast pirouettes, and matchless double-double tours en l'air, was already formidable. And then he has obviously left unfinished business with Northern Ballet Theatre--a company that has never appeared in North America--which clearly combines Gable's two loves, the ballet and the theater. Let us hope that future historians of British ballet will take careful note of this bright, flaming comet that once, too briefly, passed through it.
Senior editor Clive Barnes is dance and drama critic for the New York Post.
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|Title Annotation:||dancer Christopher Gable|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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