The Dancer’s Camera
Margaret Dale is born in Newcastle on Tyne in 1922 and begins dancing at age three. Her fascination as a child is primarily with her dancing classes rather than school, and she dances in and out of the tables at the Newcastle assembly hall where her mother goes to take her afternoon tea. Maggie studies many forms of dance with Nellie Potts at a time when ballet is known in England as “operatic dancing,” but Miss Potts soon discovers Russian ballet and arranges for her to receive special coaching from Phyllis Bedells in London. Maggie eventually leaves school before age fourteen, joining the Vic-Wells Ballet School in London in 1936. She dances in many of Frederick Ashton’s early works and helps to establish the company’s classical repertoire, as well as performing in numerous operas and early pre-World War II productions for BBC Television.
Ms. Dale recalls having been on the stage before she even began classes with the Vic-Wells Ballet School. An aunt helps her and some of the other students to find lodgings in Calthorpe Street, near Russell Square in Bloomsbury, after which Maggie sets out in December 1936 to attend the Saturday matinee performance of Casse-Noisette (The Nutcracker) at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. When she arrives at the stage door to report to Ursula Moreton, Maggie is asked to go on in someone’s place, is expeditiously shown the choreography for the children’s dance in Act I, and ushered straight into wardrobe and makeup. These whirlwind beginnings to her dancing career coincide with the birth of the BBC, as well as the emergence of dance on television in Britain. Maggie immediately falls in love with television, making her on-screen debut performance as the Baby Bear in The Three Bears, first broadcast live from Alexandra Palace in 1937. She observes shifting illustrations of presentation by different producers in subsequent performances of The Three Bears, as well as other programs, recognizing early on the level of authorship involved in arranging dance for the camera.
The war inevitably shapes the momentum of Maggie’s career, as those London theatres unharmed by German bombs are closed during the height of The Blitz in 1940, and BBC Television broadcasts are discontinued until June 1946. Once again, the circumstance of an ill colleague leads to a memorable evening on the 114th night of The Blitz when Maggie dances in her place during a theatrical performance of Faust at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. In haste, she leaves off the frilly knickers from underneath her costume, triggering an alarming reaction from theatre manager Tyrone Guthrie after her skirt flies up, revealing too much of her legs. Ms. Dale later recollects the sight of London burning, excusing Mr. Guthrie’s attack as a result of his distress during a time of great change and uncertainty. The male dancers in the company, with the exception of Commonwealth citizens such as Australian-born Robert Helpmann, leave to join the armed forces while the remaining company goes on touring and doing “war work” with ENSA. As early as 1939, Ms. Dale observes the ambassadorial potential of dance in transcending political tensions when BBC broadcasts the Vic-Wells Company dancing The Sleeping Princess, in conjunction with a command performance of the same ballet, at The Royal Opera House welcoming French President Albert Lebrun. The newsreel of President Lebrun’s state visit precedes the broadcast of The Sleeping Princess, establishing television ballet as an envoy for national identity and international alliance.
While touring America with the company in December 1950, Ms. Dale receives a letter from Naomi Capon asking for her assistance in producing a new television broadcast of The Three Bears ballet she had danced before the war. This partnership with BBC Children Programmes Department leads to her creation of an original television ballet based on the card game Happy Families (1951), and further productions, such as: Kitchen Carnival (1952), Trojan and Tilly (1953), and The Great Detective (1953). Divided between her obligations to the ballet company and her enchantment with television, Maggie considers her future beyond dancing within the social context of women’s roles during this time. World War II had altered England irrevocably, but as she sees her choices, she can either become a “has-been” dancer or retire and be content with her domestic duties as a wife. Instead, in 1955 Maggie risks a six-month leave of absence from her position with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company to enroll in a new-producer training course with BBC. She is influenced by the aesthetic developments of drama programming, though never allowed to work directly under the Drama Department, despite several requests for placement with Drama during her training course. Instead, Maggie produces short experimental programs under the supervision of Humphrey Burton, the Director of Music Programmes Department, and through her own persuasion is able to acquire short attachments with other departments, such as Talks and Light Entertainment.
Upon the completion of her training course, Maggie is retained by Music Programmes Department, where she is tasked with the adaptation of a great many classical ballets from the English repertoire. Music Department particularly emphasizes the adaptation of Romantic classics at the beginning of her career, linking the gothic and folkloric roots of Romantic ballet with religious holidays as events. These “event ballets” are akin to the Saturday night play commissioned weekly and on special occasions by Drama Department. Ms. Dale forms a contractual partnership between BBC Television and The Royal Ballet, facilitated by her participation in the company’s formative years and close friendship with director, Dame Ninette de Valois. She gradually begins to use tableau more deliberately in staging, and investigates classical choreography as an aggregate moving image woven by the interconnectedness of the individual dancers. Maggie makes major contributions to an evolving aesthetic of dance for the camera through these adaptations: including the prolific use of high-angle—rather than low-angle—master shots to create a sense of depth in the proscenium view; her revision of choreography to accommodate increasingly tighter shots, and thus a greater use of pantomime to develop characters; and the highly sophisticated design of constantly moving cameras—planned in great detail using camera and sequencing maps—in order to translate to the small screen a sense of fluidity and the ceaseless movement characteristic of classical phrasing. Ms. Dale’s classical ballet programs are consistently successful with audiences, and she becomes the first female producing head of a department, fashioning Ballet Programmes Department as a result of competitive organizational shifts.
Covent Garden is flourishing with intercultural and avant-garde dance, and Maggie produces as many folk dance programs as possible during visits from the Moscow State Dance Company (later known as The Bolshoi Ballet), the Yugoslav National Ballet, Phakavali Thai Dancers, among many others. Her refusal to adhere to limited broadcast parameters of “high-art” classical dance programming echoes earlier implications of dance as a transnational intermediary, especially when she provides televised exposure for the Bolshoi dancers during a sold-out tour in 1956, and again during the Cold War in 1963 after attempts to visit the Soviet Union with the documentary program Monitor. Maggie revises formal movement altogether in her recreation of Bronislava Nijinska’s 1924 ballet Les Biches as a new work entitled Houseparty, a program that both launches the experimental arts channel BBC 2 in 1964 and wins her the grand prize at the International Music Centre’s Seminar on Music, Opera and Ballet in Sweden. Ms. Dale’s aesthetic contributions to dance for the camera are expertly sustained through her use of pedantic movement across the backdrop of Poulenc’s score and reverberations of Nijinska’s critique of the Russian bourgeoisie. However, Houseparty is beyond the artistic comprehension of average television audiences. A subsequent attempt to create a unique, freelance company of dancers, musicians, and choreographers in conjunction with the twelve-month recurring series Zodiac are ultimately unsuccessful and the series cancelled halfway through.
Margaret Dale produces a handful of programs in the successful BBC documentary style, inter-cutting interviews with rehearsal and performance footage in order to demonstrate the contributions of important figures in ballet, such as John Cranko and Alicia Markova. She officially retires from producing for BBC Television in 1976, but her post-retirement salute to Madame Ninette de Valois, Thank You, Madam (1978), outlines the changing scope of dance throughout the long career of her friend, the “godmother” of English ballet, as well as the nationalist aims of dance during World War II, and the potential to transcend national identity through the arts. Maggie teaches and chairs the dance department at York University in Toronto for many years, though her ballet programs for BBC Television are never broadcast again. She attends a ceremony unveiling photographs of her producing days in conjunction with a series of four screenings offered by the British Film Institute honoring her life’s work as a dance for camera artist in 2007, three years before her death in 2010.
Jessica Escue (Writer, Director, Producer) Jessica Escue is a former semi-professional ballet and modern ballet dancer, educated in the Cecchetti method as a member of LakeCities Ballet Theatre in Flower Mound, Texas until college, where she studied under Denise Vale of the Martha Graham Dance Company at the University of Oklahoma. Jessica was director, executive producer, and lead writer for three years on the student television show “SIN TV.” She has written and directed several short experimental films and choreographed, directed, and edited contemporary and cultural dance for camera pieces. She is currently in development with her first narrative feature film, “Love is Dead.” Jessica is also a film and television scholar, specializing in the history of dance on camera and devotional cinema. She wrote her graduate thesis on the BBC career of Margaret Dale, entitled “Margaret Dale, Adapting the Stage to the Screen: Aesthetic, Appropriation, and Intimacy in Ballet Programming for Post-War BBC Television.”