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Obituary: Jonathan Ollivier

Jonathan Ollivier Jonathan Ollivier, whose life will be celebrated at an event later this month.

Jonathan Ollivier was one of the most expressive dancers of his generation, the imposing muscularity of his performances characterised by a distinctive gracefulness of line that more often than not seemed almost poetic in its fluidity.

No less striking was his ability to invest his characters with an emotional intensity and a psychological depth that rendered them as flesh-and-blood creations with whom audiences readily identified.

Born in Northampton in 1977, his interest in dance began when he was left by his mother at his sisters’ Saturday morning movement classes while she went shopping. Aged five, he began lessons in Irish dancing and within a year had progressed to ballet and decided on a career in dance.

He trained with the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, benefiting, he later recalled, from its shared focus on both forms. On graduating in 1996, he joined Cape Town City Ballet and was quickly promoted to principal dancer, taking lead roles in the company’s classically accented repertoire.

On returning to the UK in 1999, he joined Northern Ballet Theatre (now Northern Ballet) in Leeds where the emphasis on contemporary choreography championed by artistic director David Nixon saw him emerge into a dancer of considerable prowess and promise.

Ollivier’s partnership with NBT in the early years of the last decade was significant in helping turn around the fortunes of a company that had only recently been facing the prospect of folding. His actor-like approach to the interior life of his characters was to come forcefully into its own in a number of NBT shows during his seven years with the company. In 2001, he came to wider attention as a dancer of notable physical and intellectual gifts in choreographer Didy Veldman and director Patricia Doyle’s A Streetcar Named Desire, for which he created the role of Stanley Kowalski. The Stage welcomed Ollivier’s “magnificently danced” performance for “suggesting more of the character than the usual posturing.”

Opposite Daniel de Andrade’s Dr Jekyll the same year, he was a chillingly calm but disturbingly brutal Mr Hyde, following it with an intense, romantic Heathcliff to Charlotte Talbot’s Cathy in Wuthering Heights (2002) – a role that saw him nominated as outstanding young male artist in the National Dance Awards. In succeeding years, he was nominated as best male dancer in 2003 and 2004.

Jonathan Ollivier in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Jonathan Ollivier in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

In 2003, he offered a striking depiction of Death in the UK premiere of Birgit Scherzer’s setting of Mozart’s Requiem and the following year made a solid contribution to David Nixon’s critically mauled but commercially successful Swan Lake.

His repertoire was broad but always danced with idiomatic insight, whether in the strident and edgy choreography of Cathy Morgan in Dividing Silence or in David Nixon’s fantasy-laced Peter Pan, both in 2004.
A highpoint came in 2005 when he danced Armand to the Marguerite of his wife, Desire Samaai (whom he had met and married in Cape Town) in Veronica Paeper’s re-working of La Traviata, their duets together seeming to The Stage’s Kevin Berry as “sublime creations, graceful, passionate and ravishingly romantic.”

The following year Ollivier’s stylistic flexibility came to the fore again in three contrasting roles: as the eponymous Dracula emerging naked from his coffin in the opening scene of David Nixon’s gothic take on Bram Stoker’s classic, as a (fully clothed) swashbuckling Athos in The Three Musketeers, and in Nixon’s compendium of short ballets set to the music of George Gershwin, I Got Rhythm, first seen at the Edinburgh International Festival.

His other roles with NBT included Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and both Romeo and Tybalt (Ollivier clearly relishing the greater menace of the latter) in Romeo and Juliet.
With his profile now securely established in the UK, in 2007 he joined the Alberta Ballet Company as a principal dancer, spending two years in Canada before returning home.

More recently, his collaborations with two leading British choreographers, Matthew Bourne and Michael Clark, forged a series of memorable performances. With Bourne’s New Adventures company, he spent two seasons dancing Swan/Stranger in Swan Lake (2010 and 2013) and in between performed as Speight in Play Without Words (2012). He had been dancing Luca in a revival of The Car Man at the Sadler’s Wells at the time of his death. His several appearances with the Michael Clark Company included New Work and The Barrowlands Project in Glasgow in 2012 and a tour of Come, Been and Gone in 2013.

Jonathan Ollivier as Luca in Matthew Bourne's The Car Man. Photo: Chris Mann
Jonathan Ollivier as Luca in Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man. Photo: Chris Mann

In addition to regular guest appearances with companies in the United States, South Africa and Germany, he toured extensively around the world and was seen in Dusseldorf earlier this year in Der Tod Und Die Malerin, choreographed by Bridget Breiner – a portrait of the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon who died at Auschwitz.

In 2011, he made a brief foray into musical theatre when he appeared in the first UK tour of Dirty Dancing after its five-year run in the West End.

On the way to perform in the final night of The Car Man at Sadler’s Wells, he was involved in a collision with a car that fatally threw him from his motorbike. He was 38.

Jonathan Byrne Ollivier was born on April 26, 1977 and died on August 9. He is survived by his wife and two sons.

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