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In praise of physique and spark

14 August 2015

Paul Vallely lays a bouquet of words in honour of the dancer Jonathan Ollivier, who was killed on Sunday

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 is a common response in our times, as we know from the wisdom of the crowds after great public deaths such as 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 he had

been due that evening to give the final performance of Matthew Bourne’s balletic reworking of Carmen, the Bizet classic that 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 his 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 to the 1960s United States, 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 me.

On the radio a few days before, a man had spoken of his boyhood obsession as a butterfly collector. One particular creature he had craved for his collection: it was a butterfly of peculiar vibrancy, radiant and vivid in its colouring. Yet when it was caught, 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 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 that is part of what makes us human. Ollivier was not just an incarnation of that: he was a zenith. Something that 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.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.


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