Modern Dance from Whithorn

“There has yet to be a comprehensive survey of modern British dance as a continuing tradition…The result of this neglect could be interpreted that there was ‘nothing going on’ in modern dance in Britain before the importation of the Graham* technique from America in the 1960s.”
 “Free dancers at the turn of the twentieth-century such as Isadora Duncan and Maud Allan* generated a British movement of “Helenic” dancers among whom Margaret Morris was the most radical”

(Larraine Nicholas, Dancing in the Margins, from Rethinking Dance History: A Reader, ed. Alexandra Carter, London: Routledge, 2004)

Celtic Ballet

One dancer who played a very active part in the development of modern dance came from the Machars of Galloway. Ronnie Curran grew up at Monreith, a few miles from Whithorn. Taking dance classes locally, his abilities were clear from a very early age. When he was 11, Ronnie was seen by the Countess of Galloway who also recognised his talent and later supported his training; first in Glasgow under Margaret Morris with Celtic Ballet, then in Manchester with Lisa Ullmann, Sylvia B. Bodmer and Rudolph Laban, “the father of modern dance”. Ronnie later studied with Hans Zullig at the Folkwang School, Essen , Germany.
In 1950, at the age of 20, Ronnie was approached by Sadler’s Wells Ballet but he turned down the offer in order to be one of the founding members of the British Dance Theatre Company. At the time Ronnie said, “The work I am doing is very different from the classical and I do not aim to be a classical dancer. I do not want to have any specific style… My plans are to work with this company and see it grow. I hope it will become a huge organisation and I would like very much to be there to help.”

British Dance Theatre started from the Art of Movement Studio in Manchester but it rehearsed for its first 1951 tour in the hall in Monreith and went on to perform in Kilmarnock, Newton Stewart, Stranraer and Kirkcudbright. In Newton Stewart, “the audience loved Ronnie, for they saw in him a future star of the ballet, but they also fell in love with the whole Company’s performance.” (Galloway Gazette, June 1951) Dancing barefoot with Ronnie were Sally Archbutt, Allison Buchan, Margaret Fox, Sheila Urquart, Julia Mason and Warren Lamb. They performed 7 pieces, danced to a diverse range of music from Grieg to the South American compositions of Lecuona and Barroso and the blues of Duke Ellington. The pieces took daring contemporary themes such as the guerrilla leader tortured by a prison warder in “And Tomorrow Comes”, the sadness of a childless couple in “Born of Desire” and, in contrast, a lighter, joyful dance in “Bobbysoxers”.
Although first associated with ballet and modern dance in Scotland, Ronnie Curran went on to perform hundreds of dance numbers for television but it was in the satirical revue “For Amusement Only”, which played for three years in London’s West End, which established him.

Ronnie also appeared in feature films including “I Gotta Horse”, “Masque of the Red Death”, one of the best horror films ever made, and “Shot in the Dark”, possibly the best of the Pink Panther films. For a time he was a visiting lecturer in Further Education working with PE teachers and, at Bromley College, training student TV cameramen. Ronnie was a founder member and principal dancer with West Country Ballet performing to great reviews at the Edinburgh Festival in the early 1960’s. This ballet company, under the directorship of Peter Darrell, later formed the nucleolus of Scottish Ballet.

This year as Scottish Ballet proudly celebrates its 40th anniversary, it is a great pity that the often groundbreaking achievements of dancers like Ronnie Curran have been overshadowed by later events and personalities. Indeed, the concept of taking popular music and dancing to contemporary themes, exhibited, for example, in the recent ballets by Michael Clark at this years Edinburgh Festival, were being put into practice by Ronnie Curran and others at Monrieth and Newton Stewart almost 60 years ago!

* Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan and Maud Allen were all of Scottish descent.

Some of the images were taken with thanks from Ronnie Curran’s website. The image at the start of this post is by Rudolf Laban who created a movement theory and practice that reflected what he recognized as Space Harmony. 

First published October 2009

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