Skip to main content

Tireless champion of dance education

Peter Brinson, the great champion of dance education, died on April 7 after a long illness. I can think of no single individual who has achieved more during the past 30 years for dance education in particular, and for arts education in general. His death will be felt as a personal loss by countless people in arts and education who were touched by his friendship and who benefited from his support.

I came to know Peter well during our work together on the Gulbenkian Foundation inquiry on The Arts in Schools, which he initiated and chaired. From 1972-82, he was director of the UK and Commonwealth branch of the foundation. He made its name synonymous with progressive initiatives and adventurous funding not only in the arts but across the broad field of education and social policy.

But this was one period in a long, surprising and accomplished career. He was born in 1920 and grew up in the Wirral, later taking a first in politics, philosophy and economics at Keble College, Oxford. Always thinking him 20 years younger than he actually was, as everyone did, I laughed one day when he mentioned the war and his encounters with Montgomery. It turned out to be true. He spent much of the Second World War as a major commanding tanks, and served at El Alamein.

His first professional appointment, in 1948, was as scriptwriter and director of research at the London Film Centre, producing reports on film policy and development for UNESCO.

By the early 1950s his major artistic interest had moved decisively to dance. In 1952, he scripted and appeared in The Black Swan, a film with members of the Royal Ballet. He became dance critic for The Times and The Sunday Times, and was a regular contributor to The TES and the Observer. In 1963, with Peggy van Praagh, he published his classic text, The Choreographic Art. In 1964 he founded and until 1972 directed the Royal Ballet's pioneering education programme, Ballet for All.

In 1972, he moved to Gulbenkian and set in train a range of initiatives and projects that had a fundamental impact on the arts in education and the community throughout this country and wider afield. After Gulbenkian, he moved to the Laban Centre at Goldsmiths' College, as head of post-graduate studies. Then, as throughout his life, he took on key advisory roles in arts education to national organisations and institutions including the Arts Council, the Council for National Academic Awards, and the Royal Society of Arts.

Peter's personal and professional qualities were rare. He had a deep commitment to individual talent and energies. He was also convinced of the importance of systems. He spent much of his time in agitating professional and political systems and in creating new alliances, in Britain and as consultant to national agencies in Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and New Zealand.

In his writings and lectures he articulated basic principles and policy implications in cultural activities from street fashion to Sadlers Wells. Politically sophisticated, he combated class-based distinctions between high art and popular culture, and Western-dominated conceptions of artistic excellence.

Knowing the constant demands made of him, he was consistently sensitive in his demands on others. And the demands he faced were incessant: to give keynote addresses, to lecture, examine, chair commissions, mediate and negotiate on behalf of artists and always to support and inspire. He did all of this with a legendary energy and unfailing courtesy and warmth.

More than 10 years ago, he developed a blood disorder that required frequent transfusions lasting several hours. Though painful, he found these, he said, a marvellous opportunity for uninterrupted writing. He wrote always and fluently: books and scholarly articles on dance, television programmes, reports on national inquiries.

In 1992, he received the last of many awards: the prestigious Digital Premier Award for services to dance. Typically, he devoted the award to the development of a national health and injury service for dancers. He was supported in all of his work for many years by his partner, Werdon Anglin. Peter's inspiration will survive but his presence will be very deeply missed.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you