Obituary: Jonathan Ollivier, ballet dancer

Born: 26 April, 1977, in Northampton. Died: 9 August, 2015, in London, aged 38

Jonathan Ollivier: Ballet dancer who captivated critics and audiences as the lead male swan in Matthew Bournes Swan lake
Jonathan Ollivier: Ballet dancer who captivated critics and audiences as the lead male swan in Matthew Bournes Swan lake
Jonathan Ollivier: Ballet dancer who captivated critics and audiences as the lead male swan in Matthew Bournes Swan lake

The sad early death in a car crash of the dancer Jonathan Ollivier is a severe loss to the world of dance. He was a central figure in Matthew Bourne’s pioneering and hugely successful New Adventures Company.

Ollivier was a dancer of much energy and drive with a strong technique and a marvellous sense of drama. These qualities were magnificently witnessed when he made his debut in 2009 as the lead male swan in Bourne’s robust version of Swan Lake.

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The classic ballet was given a new and innovative interpretation. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal wrote that Ollivier was “even more compelling” than Adam Cooper, who had triumphantly created the role in 1995. As a schoolboy Ollivier had seen Cooper in the role.

When Swan Lake came to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre last April Ollivier admitted: “It can be quite tough on the body and takes a lot of stamina – but that is what’s great about it. There aren’t many iconic roles in male modern dance, but this is certainly one of them.

“To be dancing this beautiful, soft movement, yet making it look masculine and powerful is a rare thing, and quite special.”

Josie Balfour, in The Edinburgh Evening News, raved about his performance: “Jonathan Ollivier’s beguiling Swan is sinuous, seductive and aggressive. This Swan Lake is a must-see for anyone with a even a passing interest in contemporary theatre.”

In 2012 Olivier briefly guested with the Michael Clark Company and toured several theatres in Scotland dancing the role of the womaniser in Dirty Dancing.

Jonathan Byrne Ollivier was brought up by his mother on a council estate in Northampton. His sisters did dance classes (at what Ollivier described as “a little dolly-dinkle dance school on the side of Tesco’s”) and he joined the classes.

Ollivier had to cope with some bullying at school for attending ballet class, but said: “I also did karate so that helped.”

At 16 he joined the Rambert School of Ballet, graduating in 1999 and then joined the Cape Town City Ballet where he met his wife, the South African ballerina Desiré Samaai.

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They married and returned to England – both joining Northern Ballet Theatre where he danced in A Streetcar Named Desire, Wuthering Heights, Jekyll and Hyde and Swan Lake.

After eight years with the company Ollivier danced for two seasons with the Alberta Ballet Company.

In 2009 Bourne invited him to join his company. Ollivier had the classic training and technique and the sheer machismo for the powerful, more theatrical ballets, choreographed by Bourne.

As principal dancer with New Adventures he led the company with an enthusiastic zeal.

He encouraged new members and was always available to rehearse with dancers performing roles for the first time.

He made time for fans at the stage door and, as Matthew Bourne said yesterday: “He was a man of great warmth and charm. Jonny was a true gent, loved and respected by his colleagues and adored by audiences who were mesmerised by his memorable performances on stage.”

On stage Ollivier cut a commanding figure. He was tall, handsome and an excellent partner – always “show ing off” his partner to best effect. He brought to all his characterisations an emotional depth and intensity that made them real.

Those who saw his portrayal of the Swan recall the sheer power and bravado he gave the role. The aggression of the Swan – with its eyes and hair in heavy black make up – was a forbidding and awesome sight when Ollivier first came on stage.

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With a bewitching subtlety he softened the character and made it recogniseable.

In 2005, his career was in jeopardy when he tore two discs in his lower back. He was forced to take five months off from dancing and had severe physiotherapy.

The healing process was slow and at one stage it was thought that Ollivier might have to have an operation – which might have terminated his career.

“It just wasn’t an option,” he said, typically taking a positive attitude.

Christopher Hampson, the director of Scottish Ballet, told The Scotsman yesterday: “I had the great privilege of working with Jonny during my time as a guest teacher with New Adventures. His energy in the studio was never any less than his stage performances. He was a supremely strong dancer with a remarkable stage presence.

“To know that he will have inspired generations to come through his iconic performances will be of little comfort to the family he leaves behind, but it is a legacy that all that knew him will cling to.”

Ollivier is survived by his wife and their two sons.