John O’Brien owed his career as a much-admired principal dancer with Ballet Rambert, and later a widely respected teacher, to the suggestion of a doctor who was treating him for a broken femur in childhood.
The injury having followed an earlier bout of Polio-induced paralysis, O’Brien was advised to take up ballet lessons. Dutifully obeying, he found his niche and his calling.
Born in Hopetoun, Victoria in Australia, he was raised in Melbourne and as a child helped with the family fruit-and-veg stall. He began taking dance lessons with Xenia Borovansky, the Bolshoi Ballet-trained niece of Anna Pavlova, and became an avid collector of books on dance.
With his former Melbourne University Press colleague and partner Edward Mason, he travelled to London in 1954. There Mason became a dance critic, the pair later establishing the Pocketbooks bookshop. Subsequently renamed The Ballet Bookshop and later Dance Books (under which imprint it also published a considerable volume of material) it eventually closed in 2001.
He enrolled at the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet School in 1955 with a scholarship, and on graduating made his professional debut with the Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet in 1957.
At the invitation of Marie Rambert, he joined Ballet Rambert as a principal dancer the same year. Over the next decade he established himself as “a creative character dancer of no mean achievement”, as The Stage noted of his signature role, Sancho Panza, in the European premiere of Don Quixote, staged by Witold Borkowski at Sadler’s Wells in 1962.
Other significant appearances in the ensuing years with the company included John Cranko’s La Reja, the British premiere of La Sylphide, Norman Morrice’s The Wise Monkeys, George Balanchine’s Night Shadow, Cavalier in Antony Tudor’s Gala Performance, Scotch Rhapsody (Frederick Ashton’s Facade) and the peasant pas de deux in Giselle.
Encouraged by Madame Rambert to begin leading company classes as early as 1964, after retiring from the stage O’Brien became a widely sought-after teacher. He taught with the Australian Ballet, Les Ballets Contemporains and at the Dance Centre, Royal Ballet School, Royal Academy of Dance, Actors Centre and, until as recently as 2013, at Pineapple Studios.
A healing practitioner, he was a long-time member of the National Federation of Spiritual Healers.
John O’Brien was born on August 29, 1933 and died on May 11, aged 85. He is survived by two siblings and his partner, the former dancer and now ballet teacher Alex Simpkins.