Ivor Guest, 97; transformed study of dance history

NEW YORK — Ivor Guest, a lawyer by training whose extensive research into ballet from 1750 to 1900 transformed the study of dance history, died March 30 in London. He was 97.

His death, at St. Mary’s Hospital, was confirmed by his wife, Ann Hutchinson Guest.

In books, biographies, monographs, and program notes, Mr. Guest became one of the foremost authorities on dance in the Napoleonic and Victorian eras and notably on the Paris Opera Ballet. Jane Pritchard, curator of dance for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, described him as a cartographer of 19th-century ballet.

He was also credited with contributing to the creation of one of the best-loved 20th-century ballets, Frederick Ashton’s “La Fille mal gardée” (1960).


When Ashton was preparing “La Fille,” a two-act ballet, using a scenario and a patchwork musical score from the early 19th century, he was disappointed to find that the music did not contain a “grand pas,” a central suite of dance for heroine, hero and ensemble.

Mr. Guest, however, researching the archives of the Paris Opera, found the violin arrangement for a pas de deux that ballerina Fanny Elssler had added to “La Fille” in the 1830s; this music used items from Donizetti’s opera “L’Elisir d’Amore.”

Conductor-composer John Lanchbery, who was working with Ashton, incorporated the piece into his new arrangement for “La Fille.” The suite became known as “the Fanny Elssler pas de deux,” and contains the ballet’s greatest display of ebullient virtuosity.

Ivor Forbes Guest was born on April 20, 1920, in Chislehurst, Kent, England. As a lawyer, he became a senior partner at Tweedie & Prideaux, with offices at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. But he was best known for historical research, and it was his birthplace that inspired him to follow his passion.

After Mr. Guest learned that Napoleon III of France had spent his last days in Chislehurst, in the 1870s, he wrote “Napoleon III in England,” published in 1952. His enthusiasm for ballet led him to later investigate the ballet of Napoleon III’s era.


Ballet also had triumphant periods in England, and Mr. Guest wrote a number of books on 19th- and early-20th-century ballet in London. The most important of these is “The Romantic Ballet in England” (1953), which covers the phenomenal period in the 1840s when impresario Benjamin Lumley, hiring young dancer-choreographer Jules Perrot as his ballet master, briefly made Her Majesty’s Theater in London into a more prestigious center for ballet than the Paris Opera.

With the young Queen Victoria often in the audience, the world’s foremost ballerinas appeared there, sometimes in duets, trios, and quartets, with Perrot making creative breakthroughs in terms of both narrative ballet and pure-dance divertissements.

Nonetheless, the Paris Opera Ballet generally remained the central institution of ballet as a professional art form for at least two centuries after its inception in 1672. Mr. Guest soon became the leading authority on the history of Parisian ballet, writing two overall histories — the first published in French, “Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris” (1976).

More valuable yet, and far more detailed, are his four books on individual periods of the Paris Opera Ballet. Though not written in the order of the eras they cover, they amount to a sequential tetralogy of the history of ballet at the Paris Opera between 1750 and 1870: “The Ballet of the Enlightenment” (1996), “Ballet Under Napoleon” (2001), “The Romantic Ballet in Paris” (1966), and “The Ballet of the Second Empire, 1858-1870” (1974), an amalgamation of two earlier books on the topic. In all of these books, Mr. Guest’s tone is light and unassuming.


While producing these broader surveys, he also wrote a series of biographies, including three on celebrated 19th-century ballerinas whose careers took them across Europe: “Fanny Cerrito” (1956), “Fanny Elssler” (1970), and “The Divine Virginia: The biography of Virginia Zucchi” (1977).

A later biography, “Jules Perrot” (1984), was on the most prestigious choreographer of the 19th century. Perrot worked in Naples, Paris, London, Milan, and St Petersburg, and Mr. Guest found a wealth of information about him in each city.

Mr. Guest and Ann Hutchinson were married in 1962. Ann Guest is an eminent practitioner of the Laban system of dance notation, the detailed recording of movement in written scores similar to those of music. Their separate fields of endeavor made them respected figures in dance scholarship.

The couple spent part of each year in Massachusetts, where they were often seen in the audience at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance festival in the Berkshires. Ann Guest is his only immediate survivor.

In addition to his writing career, Ivor Guest was an official adviser to two notable British institutions, the Royal Academy of Dance (he was its chairman from 1970 to 1993) and the monthly magazine “Dancing Times.” His autobiographical “Adventures of a Ballet Historian: An Unfinished Memoir,” was published in 1981.


In 2000, he received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France, which recognizes significant contributions to the arts and literature.