Former National Ballet director Alexander Grant dies

Alexander Grant, a dancer and former artistic director of the Toronto-based National Ballet of Canada, died on Friday in London. He was 86.
Alexander Grant is shown in 1978 coaching a dancer with the National Ballet. (Deborah Shackleton/National Ballet)

Alexander Grant, a dancer and former artistic director of the Toronto-based National Ballet of Canada, died on Friday in London. He was 86.

Grant had been ill for eight months after a hip operation left him hospitalized with infections and pneumonia.

Born in New Zealand, he was well known as a character dancer with the Royal Ballet in London and is especially associated with the works of Ecuadoran-born choreographer Frederick Ashton.

As artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada from 1976 to 1983, he introduced Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée, The Dream, Two Pigeons, Monotones and Les Patineurs to the company. 

"Among the many things Alexander Grant provided this company was the incredible opportunity of working with the great dance master Sir Frederick Ashton during his tenure," the National Ballet’s current artistic director Karen Kain said in a statement released Monday.

"It was a direct contact to the British dance tradition continuing the lineage that our founder Celia Franca brought to the company."

National Ballet founder Celia Franca with Alexander Grant in 1983. (National Ballet )
Grant is particularly associated with La Fille Mal Gardée, which became a favourite for the Toronto ballet company and which he later staged in companies around the world, including New York, Tokyo and Moscow.

"He was a charming, humourous and sympathetic person and, on a personal note, had an important effect on my career by persuading me to stay with the National Ballet at a significant point in my life," Kain said, recalling how Grant counselled her to remain in Toronto rather than accepting an offer with another company.

At the National Ballet, Grant worked with dancers such as Kevin Pugh, Kimberley Glasco, Kim Lightheart, Sabina Allemann, Jeremy Ransom and Veronica Tennant.

He also added works by Jerome Robbins, Glen Tetley, Kenneth MacMillan and Maurice Béjart to the company’s repertoire and encouraged choreographers Ann Ditchburn and James Kudelka.

After leaving in 1983, he worked with English National Ballet as a coach and character dancer.

Born in 1925 in Wellington, N.Z., Grant was offered a ballet scholarship in London in 1946 and later joined the Royal Ballet, where he danced for 30 years. At the Royal Ballet, he was acclaimed for his classical dance technique and his ability to portray character through dance.

He caught Ashton’s eye early in his career and was an inspiration for the choreographer. Among the roles he originated is Alain, the rich farmer’s son who is rejected in Fille. He also danced roles such as Bottom in Ashton’s The Dream and the pirate chief in his Daphnis and Chloë. Grant was a favourite among Royal Ballet fans for these roles.

Grant  was made a Commander of the British Empire in recognition of his contribution to dance. He also earned the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award from the Royal Academy of Dance in London and the 2009 De Valois Award for outstanding achievement in dance, named for Irish dancer Ninette de Valois.

Grant is survived by his partner of 54 years, Jean-Pierre Gasquet, and younger brother, former Royal Ballet dancer Garry Grant.