‘Our ballet made you forget the horror of war’

It’s 75 years ago this week that Henry Danton stepped onto the Royal Opera House…

It’s 75 years ago this week that Henry Danton stepped onto the Royal Opera House stage, performing in the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet production of Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty – the venue’s grand reopening after the war. A former army captain, Danton had gladly traded in his bayonet for ballet shoes, and, in 1946, was living out his dream of dancing at Covent Garden. Now aged 101 – turning 102 in March – Danton is the oldest surviving dancer who has performed with the company.

He was a part of the “pioneering years, as [we] moved into the Opera House,” explains Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet. “He still shows that spirit and enthusiasm for classical ballet which helped form the Royal Ballet we know today.” Danton’s era was teeming with dance legends, including Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann. Their performances led Britain out of the dark war years, and, while touring in the UK and abroad, cemented the Royal’s status as a world-leading company.

Pre-pandemic, Danton was still teaching ballet at three different schools near his home in Mississippi. He’s a sprightly figure, with sharp recall, decided views, and a roguish twinkle in the eye. As he explained to me over Zoom, he’s currently shielding, but is otherwise in rude health. “I’m a vegetarian, and I haven’t been to a doctor for 15 years.”  

Danton joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1944, and was soon rehearsing “in a military hall on Tottenham Court Road, and in the then-closed National Gallery. We hung onto the benches to do our exercises. Most of the paintings were removed, but there was one left, Michelangelo’s The Madonna and Child with St John and Angels. I loved looking at that.”

It was a good view, but the conditions were tough. “It was a terribly hard wooden floor – very difficult on the legs,” says Danton. They were waiting for the Opera House to be reconfigured: “All the stalls had been taken out – it became a dance hall for soldiers on leave.” This was still a dangerous time, too. “Our 10 o’clock morning class was like a roll call. People died in bombings every night, and we were never sure if we were going to be missing someone.”