David Wall (1946–2013)

July 1, 2013


One of Britain’s finest male dancers, David Wall, died of cancer on June 18. His career onstage spanned the 1960s to the early ’80s. At the age of 21, he became The Royal Ballet’s youngest principal, and he created the roles of Lescaut in Manon and Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, two of Kenneth MacMillan’s greatest works. As a dancer he was elegant, handsome, and fleet of foot, with beautiful lines and technique. Above all, he was a consummate actor, able to portray realistic emotion in each role, be it romantic, tragic, or comic. Offstage he was naturally gracious and charming.


At left: Wall in
Manon. Photo by MIRA, DM Archives.

Born in London, Wall took compulsory ballroom lessons at his primary school at age 5. The teacher, seeing his potential, persuaded his (adoptive) mother to send him to her ballet class. When he was 10, she encouraged the redheaded lad, nicknamed Ginger, to audition for the Royal Ballet School. He was successful, but it was not until he reached 16 that he really felt the call to become professional. The war years had depleted ballet companies of male dancers, but on seeing the virile dancing in Ashton’s Fille mal gardée and Cranko’s Antigone, and the influence of the newly defected Rudolph Nureyev, Wall decided to continue.


Wall in
La Fille mal gardée with Ann Jenner and Alexander Grant in 1976. Photo by Beverly Gallegos, DM Archives.

Wall graduated in 1963 and was taken into the Royal Ballet Touring Company (today’s Birmingham Royal Ballet). He was on tour in Oslo when he was first called upon to dance with the legendary Margot Fonteyn, 27 years his senior, in Les Sylphides. In an interview he recalled the occasion as “terrifying. I doubted my own ability to dance with her for three weeks. But as soon as I got into the rehearsal room, she put me totally at ease and we started to enjoy working. She was an enormous inspiration to me.”


Wall in
La Fille mal gardée with Ann Jenner in 1976. Photo by L. D. Vartoogian, DM Archives.

He became a principal at 20. In 1970 the two companies merged and Wall became a member of The Royal Ballet. It was the golden age of British choreography—Ashton, MacMillan, Tudor—and an exciting time for a young, talented dancer. In the company premiere of Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, he was first cast along with Anthony Dowell and Rudolph Nureyev; he also created many roles in Ashton’s ballets. Technically proficient in the classics as well as many new works, his prowess as an actor was widely acclaimed when, as the Rake in De Valois’ Rake’s Progress, he produced one of the most powerfully dramatic performances the British audiences had seen. He was a commanding figure onstage with a strong masculine presence, and there was always powerful chemistry with his partners, who included Lynn Seymour, Natalia Makarova, Alessandra Ferri, and Fonteyn. But he felt most comfortable dancing with Alfreda Thorogood, who became his wife.


Wall with Merle Park in MacMillan’s
Elite Syncopations. Photo by MIRA, DM Archives.

He retired from the stage at 38 to become associate director of the Royal Academy of Dancing (1984–87), then its director until 1990. As a freelance teacher and coach, he was beloved for his caring attitude. As a repetiteur, he staged Mayerling for Hungarian National Ballet; Manon for Royal Danish Ballet; and in 2005, he and Alfreda staged MacMillan’s Sleeping Beauty for English National Ballet, where he had been ballet master since 1995. ENB dedicated its recent performance of Swan Lake to him. —Margaret Willis


Wall with Lesley Collier in
Swan Lake. Photo by Anthony Crickmay, DM Archives.