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At eight years old, Gill Pyrke was driving her parents crazy, as she couldn't sit still and was nicknamed wriggle-bottom. Her mum took her to see the family GP and told him in great detail how annoying she was. The doctor asked if he could talk to Gill alone and put on some music. She started to dance around and climbed on to his desk. He prescribed ballet classes. She started off in a Bromley dance class where one of her classmates was later to be the famous ballerina Beryl Grey. This story is lovely and funny, and has lots of elements of a dream story, yet is told in a very down to earth style which makes it very convincing. The same could be said of the whole of Gillian Lynne's memoir of her early years, starting out on a brilliant career in dance.
Another teacher later decided that Pyrke was no name for a ballet dancer and renamed her Gillian Lynne. Lynne trained in classical ballet at Sadlers Wells with considerable success before moving into a more varied and commercial dance career which included also acting and singing, film and musicals. She is best known though as a choreographer with a CV including top musicals such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera. This memoir, though, is about her early years, ending on her 20th birthday in 1946.
As I would expect from a dancer's memoir, there is lots of detail here on Lynne's training and career as a dancer, including auditions and different types of dance, and lots of turning points in her career. However, she also faced many other huge upheavals as a young girl. In summer 1939, her mother was killed in a car crash, and soon after that World War II began, her father joined the army and Lynne was evacuated.
I really enjoyed Lynne's chatty, down to earth style. For a woman who has had a long, successful and glamorous career, she is quite self-deprecating. She says she wasn't pretty. It is hard to tell from the pictures in the book but there are online photos which show a very beautiful young woman (who still looks enviably elegant at 85). While fiction about girls at ballet school (and other school stories) often portray a very self-contained environment with no concern about what is going on in the world, Lynne was obviously more aware of and concerned with what is going on in the war than many teenagers now would be.
There are a lot of black and white photos reproduced through the memoir, showing Lynne and many of her famous contemporaries, colleagues and friends, and more personal family pictures. It seems quite nice to have the illustrations with the text, rather than just having a few photos in the middle of the book. However, they are all rather small and dark, slightly more than passport size, and the size and poor quality are sometimes frustrating. It is hard to get a clear idea of what the author or anyone else mentioned really looked like.
A Dancer in Wartime is very accessibly written and would appeal to teenage girls who like ballet school stories as well as to more mature readers. It is also another picture of life in London during the war. Apparently Lynne has written far more about her life than what is in the book, but the publisher was primarily interested in this part. I hope there will be more to come as Lynne must have many more stories to tell.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
This book was published in hardback and Kindle formats by Chatto & Windus in November 2011.