Biography

Yat 2Yat Malmgren was born on 28th. March, 1916, in Gavle, a small but singularly handsome town, north of Stockholm, which still boasts a remarkably beautiful theatre. Even as a schoolboy, he gave evidence of exceptional qualities. A juvenile adict of the ‘feuilleton’, he had discovered for himself the importance of the Bible on the one hand, classical mythology on the other. Worse still, he wanted to become a priest. This suggestion was given very short shrift by his father, a singularly handsome man from a working-class background, known throughout the country as a brilliant marksman. The attraction towards the Church gave way to a determination to to leave home and to go to Stockholm to study to be an actor. To this end he became a student of Julia Hakanson, of the Svenska Teatern in Stockholm, an actress of outstanding repute, who had created many of Ibsen’s leading roles for the Swedish stage and who had been a close friend of Strindberg. It was to this association that the young man owed his grounding, if not to the work of Stanislavsky, but to the conventions of the Naturalistic stage, of which, till the end of his life, he remained an advocate and which was further developed by a life-long interest in the Film. Nonetheless, it soon became evident to his teachers that the young man possessed a singular aptitude for movement and dance and it was recommended that he therefore train as a dancer, a suggestion that was eventually ,accepted, though not without demur. He therefore enrolled with Ballet Master of the Royal Opera, Sven Trop, but overtaken by wanderlust – as on many occasions in later life – he quickly set his sights on Berlin, which still enjoyed the reputation that had been accrued during the days of the Weimar Republic, despite the advent of the Nazis. The legacy of his training as an actor left a preoccupation with ‘character’ dance, as affording a bridge to the world of Expressionist Theatre. It should be born in mind that many Russian dancers of the period, notably Fokine, had been taught by Stanislavsky. It was therefore with the first of a series of great Russian teachers, Eugenia Edwardova, that Yat Malmgren enrolled, a character dancer from Pavlova’s company; later with Trude Engelhardt, from Mary Wigman’s company, and with Rosalie Chladek. He quickly exhibited an exceptional precocity, giving solo recitals of his own compositions in Stockholm and Paris, Warsaw and Berlin and in 1939 he was awarded the Gold Medal at the Concours International de la Danse in Brussels, having by then already started to work on the techniques of classical ballet with Mme. Preobrajenska in Paris.
The material for these early compositions was very varied; many taken from contemporary life, such as ‘The Rebels, ‘The Victims’, ‘The Witnesses’ and ‘The Fanatics’. he had, fortunately enough, a Swedish passport. Others were devoted to Etudes of Chopin and a whole series were devoted to the Archangels, such as he, who despite his better feelings, is compelled to drive Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and the Angel of the Annunciation who comes with glad tidings to the Virgin, knowing full well the history of bloodshed and suffering that will ensue. The psychological complexity derives from the portrayal of actions that exhibit a powerful inner resistance.
It was clear by then that war was imminent and the young dancer therefore accepted an invitation from Kurt Jooss to audition for him on the stage of the Old Vic in London, which led to his becoming the first artist to join the company without having been trained by the Ballet Master, Sigurd Leeder, f:)r whom he quickly developed a singular distaste. To be fair to both men, it must be conceded that at no period of his life was Yat Malmgren an advocate of Group Theatre.
It was while rehearsing with the company for its projected tours of the British Isles and of North and South America, that he became aware of an insubstantial figure, drifting from one studio to another in Dartington Hall. Enquiry elicited the fact that this was Rudolf Laban, who eventually asked the young Swedish dancer if he might watch him rehearsing his own compositions in a private studio. It was members of the company, notably Ulla Soderbaum, who both then and subsequently in the corridors of trains, crossing and recrossing the continent of America, explained something of the older man’s achievements and his theories, which, though fragmented, exerted subsequently, a powerful influence on the young dancer, who was to abandon the company on their arrival in Rio de Janeiro, where he was compelled to remain until the end of the war and where, despite grave initial privations, he was eventually to achieve an exceptional reputation, that was greatly enhanced by his portrayal of the street life of the city and for the idiom of the native dances of Brazil. The critics were not to be outdone in the expression of their admiration. A single example will suffice:
“Yat Malmgren does not belong among the common run of dancers. He exhibits the impeccable technique of the classical school, but has something more to offer the true connoisseur. His ambition – and one that is realized with notable success – is to make each dance a scene, in which he himself interprets an extraordinary range of different types and physical sentiment. And to express all this, he chooses to employ only the most economical of means, characteristic of great art, and to employ, from a rich palette, only those colours that are necessary to make of them masterpieces of originality symbolic expression. Music and choreography are invariably subordinate to the dramatic or the psychological idea. There can be no doubt that his fame is destined to grow”. Bo Allander. Rio de ,Janeiro, I945.
It should be mentioned in passing that he was, on more than one occasion invited to participate in the Macumba – the indigenous Voodoo – due to an innate susceptibility to states of trance, a facility about which he had very mixed feelings but which subsequently provided a vivid insight into the actor’s capacity for ‘transformation’.
It was’ at this time, too, that deserting a fashionable party and wandering alone through the empty rooms of an opulent residence, he encountered a solitary lady, seated in the penumbra, who was quick to congratulate him on a performance that she had attended. They remained in conversation until the early hours of the morning. This was none other than Ruth Draper, of whom he remained: a devotee till the end of her life; treasured as a singular example of the capacity for ‘transformation’.
In I947 he returned to Europe, appearing with the Danish ballerina, Nini Theilade, in Copenhagen, followed by a long tour of Sweden and a Finland, ravaged by war, culminating in a performance at the Concert House in Stockholm and including a recital in the theatre of his native town, from which his father managed to absent himself. Invited to join the International Ballet Company in Great Britain, to partner the prima ballerina, Mona Ingolsby, he returned to London to study classical ballet with the Sergueffs and with Anna Northcote, at what had been the great Vera Volkova’s studio, at 26, West Street, near Cambridge Circus, before returning to Paris to renew contact with Mme. Egorova, whom he considered to be the greatest of all his teachers. He joined the company on tour in Europe and the British Isles, appearing in the standard classics but to the most telling effect as the Baron in Massine’s “Gaite Parisienne” in a cast that included the great choreographer himself. It was soon after this that he sustained a very serious in,jury while on stage that compelled him to retire, once and for all.
The school of the International Ballet in Brewer street could provide their former leading male dancer with but two classes a week. Reduced yet again to abject poverty, a providential meeting led to an encounter with an actor of considerable repute, ~ Russian Jew, raised in the East End of London, widely reviled for his advocacy of the Stanislavsky System, of which he was a self-taught exponent of no mean accomplishment. Harold Lang had at one time led what was then known as The Young Vic Company, a professional touring ensemble, into which outstanding students of the Old Vic School were accepted for advanced training. He enjoyed a considerable reputation as a film actor, later heading a company created by Michael Elliott and appearing in the role of Edmund, opposite Sir John Gielgud in the notorious production of “King Lear”, designed by Isamu Noguchi, but his claim to lasting fame was owed to his creation for the BBC of the notorious ‘Hilda Tablet’, a lesbian of the old school, with a penchant for pork-pie hats; a character revered by Kenneth Tynan. Lang, one of the few men in London to have some knowledge of the history of the European Modern Dance, was hugely impressed by the professionalism of the classes he attended and instantly telephoned to every member of the acting profession known to him personally. Fortunately, they cam in droves, headed by Diane Cilento and her husband, Sean Connery, who spent a year with Yat Malmgren as a private pupil, before embarking on a season at the Oxford Playhouse in a repertoire that included 0′ Neill’s “Anna Christie” and a profoundly disturbing performance as Pentheus, in “The Bacchae” of Euripides. This was followed by his appearance in the first of the James Bond movies. Other students included Patricia Neal, Natasha Parry, Elizabeth Sellars, Fenella Fielding and, at a later date, Anthony Hopkins; the agent, Jimmy Fraser and the directors, Tony Richardson, Bill Gaskill, Seth Holt and Alexander MacKendrick. This success led to an invitation to join the staff of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre and, at a later date, that of the National Theatre by Sir Laurence 0livier. In 1963, in conjunction with John Blatchley and again, Harold Lang, he created a new school for actors, ‘Drama Centre, London’, soon to be joined by Doreen Cannon, a former assistant to Herbert Bergof and Uta Hagen at the Herbert Bergof Studio in New York, which made of the Drama Centre the first unabashed exponent of The Method in Great Britain.

Yat died in London on June 6th, 2002.

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