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Gillian Lynne, Choreographer of 'Cats,' Is Dead at 92

Gillian Lynne, a renowned British ballerina who, after turning to choreography, created the sinuous dances in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats," which became the longest-running musical in London's West End and on Broadway, died Sunday in London. She was 92.

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Richad Sandomir
, New York Times

Gillian Lynne, a renowned British ballerina who, after turning to choreography, created the sinuous dances in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” which became the longest-running musical in London’s West End and on Broadway, died Sunday in London. She was 92.

Peter Land, her husband, said the cause was pneumonia.

It was nearly four decades after she began dancing at the Royal Ballet that Lynne started working with Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn on a musical about a tribe of cats that meets every year in a junkyard. There the cats, with names like Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffelees and Grizabella, tell their stories to Old Deuteronomy, their wise leader, who will choose which one of them will be reborn.

Without a traditional book — the lyrics are T.S. Eliot’s poems in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” — the musical relied heavily on Lynne’s dances.

  • Choreographer Gillian Lynne of 'Cats' fame dies at age 92.

“I was a strong dancer,” she told Dance Today magazine in 2014, “so I created it all on my own body initially, which is why I now have two metal hips and a metal foot.”

She also observed how cats moved — how her own white female, Scarlett, for one, undulated.

She viewed the musical’s cats, known as Jellicles, as a pagan tribe, Land said, and that insight helped her develop the dances. “She personally and utterly understood what the cats were doing, why they were pagan and why they were dancing on that one night,” he said in a telephone interview.

“Cats,” which opened in the West End in 1981 and ran for 8,949 performances there, won two Olivier Awards — for musical of the year and for Lynne’s choreography. After opening on Broadway in 1982, beginning a run of 7,485 performances, it won seven Tony Awards, one for best musical. Lynne was nominated but did not win.

In a statement after her death, Lloyd Webber said that when “Cats” was conceived, “the idea of a British musical with dance at its heart was unthinkable.”

“It is no exaggeration that ‘Cats’ opened with the only cast available who could have played their roles,” he said.

He continued, “It was Gillie’s depth of contacts from her ballet roots to her work in contemporary dance that made it possible to open ‘Cats’ in Britain and prove the naysayers wrong.”

Lynne choreographed many other productions of “Cats” but was irate when changes were made to her dances in a Broadway revival in 2016. Andy Blankenbuehler, who had won a Tony Award for “Hamilton,” was the new production’s choreographer.

“It makes me feel like I’d like to murder,” she told The Stage, a British theater news website.

But in his review of the revival in The New York Times, Charles Isherwood maintained that her signature choreography was intact: “lyrical steps from classical ballet, with knee-to-nose extensions; rump-twisting and hip-thrusting to suggest cats in heat; hands held in pawlike positions as the dancers prowl and crawl and leap in pseudo-feline poses.”

Gillian Barbara Pyrke was born on Feb. 20, 1926, in Bromley, Kent. Her father, Leslie, worked in a family furniture and decorating business that also provided funeral services. Her mother, Barbara (Hart) Pyrke, was a homemaker.

When Gillian was 8 years old, her hyperactivity — which earned her the nickname Wriggle-Bottom — led her mother to take her to a family doctor. While he examined Gillian, the doctor put on some music and asked Pyrke to leave the room with him.

“Out they went and the minute they had gone I started to dance to the music, even going up on his desk,” Lynne wrote in her autobiography, “A Dancer in Wartime” (2012). “What I hadn’t noticed was that his door was one of those beautiful old glass ones with etched designs through which the doctor and my mother were watching.”

As they observed Gillian dancing with abandon, she recalled, the doctor said: “There is no trouble with this child, Mrs. Pyrke. She is a natural dancer — you must take her to dance class.” After her dance schooling began, her mother provided critical encouragement. “If she sensed low spirits in me, she would say, ‘Let’s do that lovely port de bras with forward and back bend next,’ as she knew I would do that well,” Lynne wrote.

Her mother died in a car accident in 1939.

At 15, Gillian was dancing at the Ballet Guild, a company whose artistic director, Molly Lake, gave her a new surname. “Don’t be silly, Gillian, it’s you!” Lynne recalled being told by Lake when she saw, to her surprise, “Gillian Lynne” printed in a Ballet Guild dance program.

Soon after, she became a soloist with the prestigious Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet), where over seven years she danced the roles of the Black Queen in “Checkmate,” the Lilac Fairy in “Sleeping Beauty” and the Queen of the Wilis in “Giselle.” She left in 1951 to join the London Palladium as a star dancer, performing ballets created for her by the choreographer Pauline Grant.

A brief movie acting career began in 1953 with a role in “The Master of Ballantrae,” which was set in Scotland and starred Errol Flynn. In one scene she performed a dance she had choreographed.

Lynne appeared onstage and on television throughout the 1950s, but when she replaced the choreographer of a revue called “England Our England,” a new direction beckoned. She was asked to create ballets for productions in England of “The Owl and the Pussycat” and “Collages.”

Theater impresario David Merrick liked “Collages” enough to hire her in 1965 to choreograph “The Roar of the Greasepaint — the Smell of the Crowd,” a musical by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse that ran on Broadway for 231 performances.

Later on, her choreography for “The Card,” a 1973 West End musical starring Jim Dale, established a friendship with producer Cameron Mackintosh, who several years later encouraged her to meet Lloyd Webber about the project that became “Cats.” Lynne had worked with Nunn several years before “Cats,” when he asked her to choreograph a musical version of “The Comedy of Errors” in 1976.

“Her dance numbers became an expression of ecstasy and joy,” Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote Monday in an appreciation.

Lynne choreographed two subsequent musicals by Lloyd Webber, “Aspects of Love” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” and worked almost continuously until a few years ago.

Just past her 88th birthday, Lynne choreographed “Miracle in the Gorbals,” a ballet by a mentor, Robert Helpmann, for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Speaking about its dancers during a rehearsal, she told The Financial Times: “I don’t believe in 15-minute breaks every hour, or whatever it is. I don’t think it gives the kids the brutish stamina they need.”

She added: “This generation needs to be encouraged not to give in.”

Lynne died in a London hospital. Land is her only immediate survivor. Her previous marriage, to Patrick Back, ended in divorce.

Last month, the New London Theater, where “Cats” opened in 1981, was renamed for Lynne. In an event to mark the occasion, she was carried to the stage on a golden throne and surrounded by dancers from the musical.

“She was pivotal in our careers,” Mackintosh said at the ceremony. “The success of ‘Cats’ changed all our lives. For this to happen in Gillian’s lifetime is marvelous, and is a brilliant idea of Andrew’s.”

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