In all the years I knew John, he always seemed the same age, and always young, so I never thought I would be writing this post. He was also one of the most present people I have ever met. I’m lost for words to hear that he died yesterday, so here is a post I wrote about John a few years ago; another about the time the actress and singer Gertrude Thoma and I surprised him in Barnes at the crack of dawn on his birthday , inviting him to a house where we’d just spent the night at a party (they had a piano), with a rendition of the Marlene Dietrich number Johnny, Wenn du Geburtstag hast. And the last word, the thing that made John’s classes different from any other teacher I’ve known, his gentle philosophy of “This thing is bigger than all of us.”
…goes to John O’Brien. I could never pinpoint why John’s classes, and the experience of working with him was quite so different to every other teacher. Then one day, he happened to say in passing, ‘my attitude to class is, this thing [meaning music, dance, teaching, art & so on] is bigger than all of us.’
And there was my answer. If your philosophy is that everyone in the room, including the teacher, is involved in something greater than the individual talents, personalities, opinions, abilities, rank, age, experience and so on, then it’s all so much easier, and liberating.
Update, May 2019
After John’s death a few days ago, I updated the photograph on this page with one of the many beautiful pictures of John, taken by friend and photographer Andrew Florides. It was taken at my wedding in Mayfair Library, in 2016.
John O’Brien is probably the greatest inspiration and teacher I had in my life as a ballet accompanist. This is Dec. 3rd in my dance inspirations advent calendar, in which I celebrate some of the un(der)sung heroes of the dance world who have helped and inspired me in my career.
How we met
In the late summer of 1986, I decided that the RAD wasn’t for me after all. I have to be grateful to one of their examiners, to whom I poured my heart out over several G&T’s on the train back from Newcastle after a gruelling exam tour – she said “Resign now while it still bothers you. If you stay a few months longer, you’ll ‘sear’ yourself to the pain, start to lose your drive and end up one of those people who ‘get by’ in their job because they’ve taught themselves not to care any more”. It was brilliant advice: I took it, and resigned.
Due to some emergency or other, in my last couple of weeks at the RAD I was asked to play for John O’Brien, whose classes up until then had been considered too complex or fast for someone as green as me, but this was an emergency and the view was, we’d both have to cope as best we could with each other under the circumstances.
Cope?! We had a ball. From the minute he started the class, I felt that if only all ballet had been like this, I would have stayed in it. John seemed to need music for his class, rather than that strange recipe of metre & anxiety that other teachers demanded. His exercises felt like dancing, rather than exercises. His manner, his voice, his rhythm and his warmth as a human being were totally different to anything I’d experienced, and – darn it – they’d saved this one til last, once I’d decided to leave.