11 April 2024 11:03

Eli Gray-Smith 1927 - 2024

Eli Gray-Smith. Photographed in his Dunedin home 271108

The RAD was very sad to hear that the highly respected and much-loved RAD dance accompanist, Eli Gray-Smith, passed away on Sunday 7 April.

Born in Dunedin in 1927, Eli lived a long life full of rich experiences. He began playing for RAD dance classes at the age of 14 for well-known dance teacher Lily Stevens and credits her with teaching him the phrasing of dances, the flow of movement and the vocabulary of steps. This gave Eli a sense of dance that made him a very skillful and much sought after accompanist. As Eli said when he retired in 1996, that experience “started a love-affaire which has lasted all my life, not only with ballet but dance movement in general…to this day, I would rather play for an exciting class than for a performance.”

He studied music at the Royal Toronto Conservatory as well as playing for the National Ballet School and other RAD schools in Toronto. From there he went to New York and played for the famed choreographer George Balanchine at a time when Balanchine was working with Stravinsky on Agon and “every week this great composer of the century came in to watch class and rehearsal”. Eli also became the pianist for the San Francisco Ballet and accompanied Martha Graham’s pre-classical dance classes for drama students.
Eli played for the RAD in London for many years later becoming the RAD’s official exam accompanist for Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa – a role he enjoyed for 23 years. Deirdre Tarrant, RAD Registered Teacher and former RAD examiner recalls: “Touring on examination sessions was always fun with Eli as a companion. This was an era very fondly remembered and appreciated by the examiners of the time who loved his music, magic and wit. Eli was a unique part of the RAD in New Zealand for us”.
Returning to settle in NZ, Eli continued to accompany dance classes, RAD exams, and the RAD Summer School, for which he organised both classes and social life for the team of pianists until his retirement in 1996. After that, he continued to teach a select group of students and to play on Saturday mornings for dance teacher Shone Dunlop-MacTavish.
In recognition of his significant and distinctive contribution to dance both within the RAD and for the wider dance community, Eli was presented with the RAD’s prestigious President’s Award in 1994. The RAD is indebted to Eli for his many years of excellent and dedicated piano accompaniment and for the skill, knowledge and flair he brought to the role. Many RAD members will remember him fondly and our deepest sympathies go to his family and friends.