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In honour of a consummate artist

2015 August 15
by Paul Vallely
Portrait: Chris Mann

portrait of Jonathan Ollivier by Chris Mann

I have never before had the impulse to go to leave flowers in a public place in memory of someone I did not know personally. It’s a common response in our times, as we know from the wisdom of the crowds after great public deaths like that of Diana, Princess of Wales. But I had thought it an attenuated form of the religious impulse. I had certainly never experienced the urge to do it. Until this week.

I did not know Jonathan Ollivier, the dancer who was killed on his way to work last Sunday. And yet, had I been in London, I think I might have found my way to Sadler’s Wells theatre to leave some tribute at the place where Ollivier had been due that evening to give the final performance of Matthew Bourne’s balletic reworking of the Bizet classic which he had updated as The Car Man.

Only a few weeks ago I had been privileged to witness this extraordinary piece of theatre in which Ollivier was one of three men sharing the lead role. Its power came in no small measure from the intensity of Ollivier’s contribution. His was a compelling amalgam of dangerous animal masculinity and arrestingly delicate sensitivity. The critics noted that his performance, which relocated Bizet’s music in Sixties America where Ollivier’s matador had become a car mechanic, was full of “brooding power and danger” but “tempered with tenderness and vulnerability”.

Those words could have been a summary of the human condition. That was brought home to me, with brutal suddenness, when I heard that Ollivier had been thrown 20 yards into the air after a collision with a black Mercedes not far from the theatre at 11 o’clock last Sunday morning.

All sudden death is shocking. It is more than that we never know the hour. Something has not slipped away, it has been snuffed out. There was something about this death which accentuated that. Perhaps it was the contrast between that dancer’s physique, the sheer puissance and control of a highly-disciplined body, and the finality of his passing, which stunned.

On the radio a few days before a man had spoke of his boyhood obsessions as a butterfly collector. One particular creature he had craved for his collection. It was butterfly of peculiar vibrancy, radiant and vivid in its colouring. Yet when it was caught, and killed, and pinned in place in the collector’s case, all its colour drained away with its life force. The object in the case became brown and drab.

The sheer visceral vitality of Jonathan Ollivier as a dancer seems to add to the tragic futility of his death. More than a physical being has gone.  So has the sense of that creative spark which is part of what makes us human. Ollivier was not just an incarnation of that; he was a zenith. Something which represented an exquisite distillation of human creativity has been cruelly torn from us.

I did not lay the flowers. But this bouquet of words shall take their place.

from The Church Times

4 Responses
  1. August 16, 2015

    A beautiful tribute to a beautiful man. Thank you for writing and sharing this! Once again I am stunned by the reach that Jonathan Ollivier had as a dancer, how special that so many of us can hold memories of him performing in our hearts.

  2. Jackie permalink
    August 17, 2015

    Beautiful words indeed, for someone who touched the soul of everyone who saw him dance. Over the years, Jonathan Ollivier had been at the heart of some of the most memorable performances I have seen, most recently in The Car Man in June, but also with Northern Ballet as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and many more performances in the years between.

    I was also shocked by the sudden-ness of this loss, but such is the cruelty of life, more reason to live every minute. My words will never be enough to console his family and friends, but he will live on in the hearts of all who knew him, and all who were moved by his grace, beauty and power.

  3. Lesley Taylor permalink
    August 17, 2015

    A beautiful piece of writing that says it all.

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