Sermon given at the Service to Dedicate a Memorial to the Founders of the Royal Ballet
17 November 2009 at 12:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The most obvious and best memorial to founders must be the flourishing of their organisation. Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Constant Lambert and Margot Fonteyn have a living memorial in the life and work of the Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School. Now we are to dedicate a memorial in stone to the four founders. In view of their living memorial it may seem an odd thing to do; still odder in that stone seems hardly capable of representing an art form that is so much of the present moment and so evanescent. The stone will however be near the grave and memorial to George Frederick Handel and not far from the grave of David Garrick. The genius of their work must have seemed equally difficult to capture before the modern era. Amongst the 3,300 people buried or memorialised here, besides saints and kings and queens, are musicians, poets, playwrights, novelists, actors, scientists, architects, clergy, statesmen, sailors, soldiers and airmen. Now this great national shrine will acknowledge for the first time the power and beauty of the dance through a permanent memorial to the founders of the Royal Ballet.
A hundred years ago it was proposed to remove all the monuments and memorials placed in the Abbey since the Reformation and transfer them to a new monumental hall built between the Abbey and the Victoria Tower Gardens. To the Dean and Chapter of the time it might have looked an attractive proposition, allowing them to reveal afresh the clean lines of this Gothic building and to restore altars to ancient chapels hitherto filled with overblown memorials. To me, the move would have been infinitely sad, breaking the essential link here, in this place of worship, between the celebration of the creative achievements of humanity and the beauty, love and power of God, without whom no human creativity would be possible.
The memorial to the founders of the Royal Ballet will celebrate above all their quite remarkable and particular gifts. The very term ‘gifts’ acknowledges the notion of a giver. Many of us will remember the harvest hymn with the lines, ‘All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; then thank the Lord.’ It is right to acknowledge the fruits of the earth as gifts sent from God, despite the human endeavour involved. But truly creative gifts are in a different category from those that are ‘sent’ by God. They are like love, which is the very nature of God himself. ‘God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them’, says St John. Since creativity like love is of the very nature of God himself, creative gifts are not ‘sent’. Those who receive these gifts are participating in the very life of God himself, are themselves reflecting the loving, creative power of God.
In dedicating a memorial here in the Abbey we acknowledge the origin of the creative gifts of the four founders. They come from God and are of the very nature of God himself. We should also recognise the danger of distorting our gifts and using them not for the glory of the Giver but to our own glory or for our own ends. A little later in the service we shall see Satan’s Dance from the ballet Job choreographed by Madam de Valois, which reflects William Blake’s interpretation of the biblical book of Job. Satan’s Dance illustrates the moment when Satan, with the permission of God, leaves heaven with a commission to put Job to the test. He afflicts him with suffering and expects him to curse God and die. Job however endures patiently and refuses to repudiate God. In the 16th plate of the Book of Job, William Blake depicts Satan and his angels falling from heaven to the underworld. Satan’s sin has been one of pride, over-reaching himself, believing that he can exercise his gifts successfully without reference to God. For Satan – as for human beings – pride comes before a fall.
As we give thanks for the extraordinary creativity of the four founders and celebrate the remarkable gift of ballet, which has been called the hidden language of the soul, let us commit ourselves afresh to offer our own gifts for the enlarging of the souls of our fellow human beings and to the glory of almighty God.