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  Georgina Julia Parkinson (1938–2009), by Roy Round, 1964 Georgina Julia Parkinson (1938–2009), by Roy Round, 1964
Parkinson, Georgina Julia (1938–2009), ballerina and ballet mistress, was born on 20 August 1938 at 45 Embassy Court, King's Road, Brighton, Sussex, the daughter of George Parkinson, a turf accountant or bookmaker, and his wife, Winifred, née Berg. Her father became addicted to gambling and his losses kept his family perpetually short of money. She nevertheless led an active childhood. In a much later interview she said, ‘I did just about everything. I used to ice skate, play the piano, take singing lessons and dramatic art and of course, ballet lessons as well. It soon became clear that I was better at ballet than any of the other things’ (Dancing Times, Dec 1975).

Parkinson attended Rottingdean School, where her teachers noted her high instep and strongly curved feet and urged that she should train for ballet seriously. She was keen, but her straitened circumstances precluded the means to do so unless she could obtain a scholarship of some sort. Her mother accordingly wrote to the Sadler's Wells Ballet School and a surprised Georgina found herself invited to audition. ‘Many girls turned up’, she recalled. ‘We did exercises for the selection board and I remember that Dame Ninette singled me out and asked me to do an arabesque. I can't imagine what it must have looked like’ (Dancing Times, Dec 1975), but it was outstanding enough to impress Ninette de Valois, who instantly awarded her the scholarship, and she began her four years of training. ‘Once I decide something I'll go all out. As soon as I was accepted for the school I became ultra-dedicated’ (ibid.).

At Parkinson's graduation she danced the Odette part of Swan Lake and, in due course, was accepted into the company. She recalled that her first thrill was in a ballet by John Cranko, The Shadow, in which she understudied Svetlana Beriosova on a regional tour and herself danced one performance. She was given a share of leading roles in the classics, including Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, and a strongly impressive Myrtha, the vengeful Queen of the Wilis, in Giselle. On 22 June 1959 she married Roy Arthur William Round (b. 1928/9), a photographer prominent in theatre work; their son, Tobias, later married another Royal Ballet principal, Leanne Benjamin.

Parkinson's dark-haired allure and fine-boned elegance ensured that onstage she was a focus of attention, and she caught the eye of Sir Frederick Ashton, who chose her as one of his flexible trio in Monotones 1 (1966). In his Enigma Variations (1968) he cast her as Winifred Norbury, the neighbouring Norbury family all being sociable friends of Elgar, especially the sisters Winifred and Florence. ‘The gracious personalities of the ladies are sedately shown’, wrote Elgar. Winifred Norbury was more concerned with music than others of her family and her initials head the movement; to justify this position ‘a little suggestion of a characteristic laugh is given’ (M. Kennedy, Portrait of Elgar, 1968, 65).

More significantly Parkinson became a fruitful muse to the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan. He created several original roles for her, including the Tsarina in the revised version of his dramatic Anastasia (revised 1976), the gaoler's erotic mistress in the first version of Manon (1974), as Empress Elizabeth, the mother of Crown Prince Rudolph, in Mayerling (1978), and more than one leading role in the plotless but dramatically inclined Symphony, to Shostakovich's music (1963). MacMillan also cast Parkinson as the midwife in his Japanese-derived Rituals (1975), as both Rosaline and, later, Juliet in his version of Romeo and Juliet (1965), and as the leading woman to the haunting music of Mahler in Song of the Earth (1965). Beyond performances Parkinson and her husband became close personal friends of MacMillan, giving him encouragement during his ‘difficult’ periods, not least when he was away in Berlin during his spell as director of ballet for the Deutsche Oper (1966–9). ‘He was in a bad way and we were his support system’, she said (Daily Telegraph, 21 Dec 2009). After MacMillan returned to London, following a prolonged crisis of ill-health and alcoholism, and became director of the Royal Ballet, he often took up residence for long periods at Parkinson's house in Battersea, where she would help him overcome his personal crises.

Parkinson's greatest and most memorable stage success came when the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska chose her to dance La Garçonne, the androgynous central role in Nijinska's 1924 ballet Les Biches, which Nijinska revived, at Ashton's invitation, for the Royal Ballet in 1964. Clad in a short, royal blue tunic from neck to upper thigh and matching gloves, Parkinson, who had a vivid feeling for character, drifted into the midst of the social and sexual tensions in polite society, creating a mysteriously unsettling presence. She was later often asked if she favoured one gender in her portrayal of La Garçonne but she always refused to say.

In the late 1970s Parkinson was invited to New York specifically to coach Mikhail Baryshnikov in the Herbert Ross film The Turning Point (1977); much later she also coached Natalie Portman in the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan (2010). Finding herself unexpectedly suited to teaching, she was asked to stay at the American Ballet Theater as ballet mistress and, after a year back in England, she joined their staff in 1980. She continued in that role until her death. She also continued occasionally to dance mature roles for the Ballet Theater. She became ill shortly before a scheduled tour of China in November 2009 and was obliged to seek a doctor, who diagnosed cancer. She died soon after, from complications of cancer, on 18 December 2009, in Manhattan, New York. She was survived by her husband and their son.

Noël Goodwin

Sources  

New York Times (19 Dec 2009) · Daily Telegraph (21 Dec 2009) · The Times (26 Dec 2009); (8 Jan 2010) · The Guardian (2 Feb 2010) · The Independent (15 Feb 2010) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFI NFTVA, performance footage


Likenesses  

photographs, 1955–60, Rex Features, London · group portrait, photograph, 1959 (with husband Roy Round), Getty Images · Barratts, photographs, 1960, PA Images, London · E. Miller, photograph, 1960, Getty Images · group portrait, photograph, 1960, Mary Evans Picture Library, London · group portrait, photographs, 1960–64, PA Images, London · R. Round, photograph, 1964, priv. coll. [see illus.] · photograph, 1969, Photoshot, London · obituary photographs