Meyer, Laverne Ignatius Henry (19352008), dancer and choreographer, was born on 1 February 1935, in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, one of seven children of Lincoln Meyer, farmer, and his wife, Cora, née Voll. A childhood enthusiasm for dancing from watching films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers led to his choice of career. Beginning with tap dance lessons, he went on to ballet training in Toronto with the Russian teacher Boris Volkov, touring with the Volkov Canadian Ballet. After coming to Britain in the 1950s he attended Sadler's Wells Ballet School and also took classes in London with Cleo Nordi and Anna Northcote and in Paris with Lubov Egorova. He first danced professionally with the Welsh National Opera in 1956.
At Northcote's studio Meyer met the remarkable Elizabeth West, artistic director of the recently founded Western Theatre Ballet, and joined her company in 1957. Western Theatre Ballet was a lively, experimental group with a very talented and exciting team of dancers. The repertory was initially choreographed mainly by Peter Darrell and West herself. The Darrell ballets had great appeal for young audiences as they broke away from familiar ballet traditions. His 1957 Non Stop was spirited, up to the moment, and set to jazz music, while The Prisoners, a grim drama about escaped convicts, became a signature piece for the company. In the ensuing years Western Theatre Ballet flourished both in Britain and abroad (in Belgium they had a fruitful collaboration with Maurice Béjart and the Théâtre de la Monnaie). West commissioned Meyer's first ballet. Choosing as music Webern's Five movements for string quartet (he was the first choreographer in Britain to create ballets to scores by Webern and Berg) he staged The Web on 4 September 1961. Its theme was of a girl saved from suicide and her relationship with her rescuer.
On 2 October 1962 West died in a climbing accident on the Matterhorn. Darrell was named director but had other commitments as well, so Meyer stepped in very successfully as ballet master and associate artistic director and from this point only danced one or two special roles. He knew that West intended to link up more with American modern dance and in July 1963 the company appeared at Jacob's Pillow, Massachusetts, and in Central Park, New York, where it was welcomed wholeheartedly; Walter Terry called it a highly auspicious debut (New York Herald Tribune, 18 July 1963). On 28 September 1963 Meyer's second ballet, Reconciliation, was premiered. Set to Berg's string quartet, it dealt with a wife trying to mend the damage caused by her affair with another man. Meyer now spent some weeks in New York, studying with Martha Graham and José Limon, and in February 1964 he took over as sole artistic director of WTB. In late May he choreographed Sextet, to Hindemith's Kleine Kammermusik. John Percival wrote that the sense of contact or alertness between dancers … gives heightened interest to a series of fluent and musical dance patterns (New Daily, 24 June 1964). Meyer's next ballet (premiered on 4 July 1966) was Trial, set to Berg's Lyric suite for string quartet, about a young woman destroyed by a conflict between reality and fantasy.
In January 1968 Meyer launched a workshop venture to discover new talent, and the company toured in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Holland. Then an offer was accepted from Scottish Opera for WTB to become a new ensemble, Scottish Theatre Ballet, with Darrell as artistic director. A joint production of Scottish Opera and Scottish Theatre Ballet in 1969 was an historic staging in its entirety of Berlioz's The Trojans, in which a notable series of celebratory dances was imaginatively choreographed by Meyer.
Meyer, however, decided not to move to Scotland. He thought the north of England deserved its own dance company and after researching the situation in depth he put forward an admirable feasibility study for such a project. Three pilot programmes in March 1969 at the University Theatre, Manchester, were outstandingly successful and on 28 November 1969 Northern Dance Theatre was launched with Meyer as founder-director and choreographer and Freda Steel as administrator. He recruited a group of ten versatile and keen young dancers and over the next half-dozen years created a diversified repertory that included significant revivals (such as Kurt Jooss's The Green Table and Andrée Howard's Death and the Maiden) and new works by Peter Wright, John Chesworth, Charles Czarny, and Clover Roope, as well as finding a good new choreographer in one of his dancers, Jonathan Thorpe. Other leading dancers included Cecilia Barrett, Suzanne Hywel, Ursula Hageli, and John Fletcher. In the 1970s the board of directors decided to enlarge the company and reduce its experimental character. Meyer met their wishes by choreographing three longer ballets (Schubert Variations, Cinderella, and Aladdin), but in 1975 matters came to a head. Elizabeth Conran later described how the board's chairman, Simon Townley, ordered Meyer to resign there and thenIt was brutal … and unappreciative of what he had achieved (The Guardian, 25 June 2008).
After this severe shock, Meyer concentrated on international teaching for companies in Israel, Canada, Portugal, and New York, and in London at Pineapple Dance Centre. From 1991 to 1995 he was director of the Legat School (Sussex), and senior lecturer at the Laban Centre (London), establishing its classical ballet syllabus. He retired in 2000. A modest man of great artistic integrity, he had a special ability for creating and sustaining small classically based companies. He lived latterly in Lorne Road, Richmond, Surrey, and died at Kingston Hospital, Kingston upon Thames, on 25 April 2008, of pneumonia. He never married. After his death, Northern Ballet acknowledged him as its founder, and its artistic director David Nixon dedicated a performance to his memory, writing We are extremely grateful to his pioneering spirit and passion for dance (Yorkshire Post, 10 May 2008).
Kathrine Sorley Walker
Yorkshire Post (10 May 2008) · The Independent (13 May 2008) · The Times (18 June 2008) · The Guardian (25 June 2008) · Dancing Times (June 2008) · personal knowledge (2012) · private information (2012) · d. cert.
Wealth at death
£535,773: probate, 7 Oct 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales