An Interview with Brenda Last OBE
By Brian Green
Last December Brenda Last was presented with the insignia of the Order of the British Empire by HRH The Prince of Wales for her services to Dance. It had been a long journey and Brenda recalled that on the day of the awards ceremony the part that her first dance teacher, Biddy Pinchard, had played in starting her upon her career.
Attendance at Biddy Pinchard’s dance academy on Brixton Hill was not a likely one for Brenda Last. She was born in 1938 near Loughborough Junction where her parents kept a tobacconists’ shop in Hinton Road. At the age of 3½ and coinciding with the Blitz,
which devastated a good deal of the area, she contracted Diptheria which turned into Rheumatic Fever. In a children’s hospital near the Borough, her left leg was encased in callipers and her mother told that Brenda needed to strengthen that leg. At first her mother thought that rough and tumbles with her three older brothers would be sufficient, but they were a good deal older and a chance look at a local newspaper provided her mother with a better alternative. It was an advertisement for a dance school. And so, despite the threat of enemy bombers, Mrs Last took Brenda to the dance studio located in a large Victorian house on Brixton Hill.
After a very few Tap lessons Biddy Pinchard said to Brenda “You don’t want to wear those callipers do you?”. Brenda didn’t and lessons began in earnest, which would continue for many years, in tap, ballet and classical Greek dance. The journeys to Brixton Hill and the dance school continued through the war, through the V1 and V2 raids, and beyond.
She passed her 11 plus and gained a place at Mary Datchlor Girls’ School where she did well both academically and in sport. Her parents were keen for her to become a pharmacist, considering this a potentially good job for an able girl. The headmistress, Dame Dorothy Brock, interviewed her and asked if she wanted to continue into the sixth form. Brenda explained her love of dance and that she went to classes after school almost every day, and on Sundays as well if she could. Dame Dorothy was very understanding and encouraged her to pursue her chosen career. Brenda was excused school games so she could do her homework. From an early age she was coached by Vera Volkova, the famous Russian teacher and Andrew Hardie taught her Pas de Deux in her early teens. She left school at 16 and shortly after won the gold medal in the Royal Academy of Dancing’s prestigous Adeline Genee competition. This guaranteed a place for her for a year at the Royal Ballet’s upper school, although her parents still had to pay the fees!
Her independence soon showed itself and before taking up her place she joined a small company performing at the Edinburgh Festival, thereby arriving at The Royal Ballet School after the term had already started. There was no opening for her in The Royal Company at the end of her year, probably because of her lack of height (she is only 5 ' tall). Undaunted, she decided to strike out on her own and an opportunity quickly presented itself when there was an opening at the Royal Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford upon Avon for a part in Toad of Toad Hall where the choreographer was Elizabeth West.
Elizabeth West proved an inspiration to Brenda and when West announced that she and choreographer/dancer Peter Darrell were to form a small company in Bristol where she would be Director and Darrell responsible for choreography, Brenda became one of the ten original members of the company which was titled Western Theatre Ballet.
Elizabeth West offered the young and eager company something totally new and vibrant, performing both classical and modern works. An old removal van was found from somewhere which carried the scenery and costumes to a variety of venues, halls or theatres where the young company were to perform. Emanating outwards from Bristol, they toured Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. The company eventually found itself at Dartington Hall, the progressive school near Totnes which had a theatre, an unusual asset for a school in those days. It was an exhilarating time for an eighteen year old hopeful
As rehearsals were held in London as well as at the Bristol Ballet School, Brenda took the opportunity, when not touring, to save money by living at home. The wage paid by Western Theatre Ballet was only £7 per week She then decided to get an agent for additional work. What was forthcoming was an appearance on television (in black and white) as a dancer in a Vic Oliver show, pantomimes and films.
Her big break came when Western Theatre Ballet was performing in a week-long engagement at Elmhurst Ballet School in Camberley. An unexpected member of the audience was Dame Ninette de Valois, Director of the Royal Ballet. “Madame”, as she was called, was so impressed by Brenda Last’s performance that she said she was to come and see her in London. Brenda wrestled with her conscience about leaving Western Theatre Ballet and Elizabeth West where she had had such an inspirational time. Finally, and after being persuaded by a member of the company, she wrote to Dame Ninette and was invited for an interview.
A difficult parting was made even more difficult because upon being offered a place in the Royal Ballet’s touring company in 1963, Brenda heard that Elizabeth West had been killed in an avalanche in Switzerland. Nevertheless, Peter Darrell took over full control of the Western Ballet (it was later invited to become the Scottish Ballet) and Brenda and he parted on good terms. She had been with the company for six years.
Brenda Last immersed herself in the Royal Ballet. She was a member of the corps de ballet in the touring company and after two years she was promoted Principal. She remained there for over ten years, and danced the role of Lisle in Sir Frederick Ashton’s ‘La Fille mal Gardée’ 101 times. Brenda preferred being in the touring Royal Ballet as it gave her the opportunity to dance more often than would have been possible at Covent Garden, which houses both the resident Royal Ballet and Opera Companies. However, when the resident company was performing elsewhere, the touring company got the exciting opportunity to dance at Covent Garden. In 1971 she performed the role of the Black Berkshire pig in the film of Ashton’s ‘The Tales of Beatrix Potter’. Having progressed through the corps de ballet to Principal, Brenda was appointed to the post of Ballet Mistress in 1973.
She was a friend of the dancer and Director, David Blair. Blair had left the Royal Ballet where he had been principal dancer after the arrival of Nureyev and had established a successful freelance career as a guest dancer in a number of prestigious companies including American Ballet Theatre in New York. In 1976 he was invited to direct the Norwegian National Ballet and he asked Brenda to go over to Oslo to see the Company after he had made a start. However, before he could take up his appointment he died suddenly at the age of 43 and the Norwegian National Ballet asked a shocked Brenda Last to be its new Artistic Director.
Taking on the Norwegian National Ballet was an exhilarating experience, which powerfully motivated Brenda, and her doubts about leaving her enviable position in the Royal Ballet were soon overcome. She staged a host of works including ‘Les Rendezvous’ by Ashton, ‘ Lady and the Fool’ .and ‘Pineapple Poll’ by John Cranko and modern works including ‘The Tempest’ by Glenn Tetley with a wonderful score by the Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim.
After three years Brenda Last returned to London, a move precipitated by the death of her mother. However, another opportunity presented itself where she could balance looking after her father and continuing her career. She joined the London Contemporary Dance School. This gave her the artistic freedom that her maverick nature craved. She stayed fourteen years during which time she also worked extensively with the Noriko Kobayski Ballet in Tokyo where she mounted works from the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, including Coppelia in 1986 and works by Ashton and De Valois. Teaching throughout the world followed, with spells with the Royal New Zealand and Australian Ballet companies as well as the English National and Scottish Ballet.
Brenda Last remains hugely involved in dance, both as a teacher and as an official. She was an advisor on the Arts Council Dance Panel for many years and is currently Director of Training and Fellow of the British Ballet Organisation and a Trustee of the Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund.
She and her husband, musician Stephen Lade, continue to live in Dulwich and she is a member of the Dulwich Society.