Without her, there would be no tradition of ballet in this country,” reflected Kenneth MacMillan at Ninette de Valois’ 90th birthday in 1988. This diminutive but feisty lady, who died in 2001 at 102, devoted her life to classical ballet as a dancer, teacher, director, choreographer, writer and founder of The Royal Ballet and The Royal Ballet School. But never one to take any credit for her life’s work, she always stated firmly, “It takes more than one to make a ballet company.” This month, on the 10th anniversary of her death, a conference, “Ninette de Valois: Adventurous Traditionalist,” is being held in London at The Royal Ballet School to celebrate her life.
Born Edris Stannis in Ireland in 1898 to a British army captain and his wife, de Valois as a tiny child shyly performed her first dance, an Irish jig, in a workman’s cottage on her family’s estate. Later, despite having suffered from polio, she studied ballet seriously at the Lila Field Academy. The pupils, known as Wonder Children, performed publicly around the country, and this gave young Edris her earliest stage experience—her most-danced role was the Dying Swan. Her first London engagement was as principal dancer in a pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre, and she continued her training with Edouard Espinosa and Enrico Cecchetti.
By 1917, she had changed her name and became Ninette de Valois. In 1923 she joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on tour in Monte Carlo. Balanchine had started choreographing and she was in his second work for the company. She spent a successful three years there, reaching the position of soloist, and encountered other dancers trained in the Russian, Italian, French and Danish schools. Now, she reasoned, it was time to develop an English style. On her return to Britain, she advertised and opened the London Academy of Choreographic Art (later to become Sadler’s Wells School of Ballet).
Upon leaving the Ballets Russes, she teamed with Lillian Baylis, manager of the Old Vic theater, to establish a professional ballet school and to form the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, which became The Royal Ballet and its sister company, Birmingham Royal Ballet. Known as Madam, de Valois attracted such luminaries as Frederick Ashton, Anton Dolin, Robert Helpmann, conductor-composer Constant Lambert, Alicia Markova, Lydia Lopokova and the young Margot Fonteyn. De Valois choreographed more than 50 works, among them Job, The Rake’s Progress and Checkmate, which are still performed today. Ashton, too, began his illustrious choreographic career at this time. With the arrival of World War II, most of the male dancers had to enlist. But de Valois continued with performances, even abroad—the small company was touring France when the Nazis invaded and escaped just in time.
For the next four decades, the quick-witted and often feared Madam immersed herself in promoting English ballet (also establishing The State Ballet of Turkey in 1956). Made a dame in 1951, she continued to love and support the young dancers—it was not unusual to find oneself sitting beside her at a performance and cringing as she commented very loudly on who was doing things wrong! Madam’s legacy and influence flourish to this day.
The conference runs April 1–3. It includes performances from The Royal Ballet School, the world premiere of the documentary, Dancing Across the Bosphorus, and discussions of her work.
For more, see: www.royal-ballet-school.org.uk/dvconference/conference.php.
Margaret Willis is the author of Carlos Acosta: The Reluctant Dancer.
Photo: Zenaida Yanowsky in The Royal Ballet’s performance of Checkmate (by Johan Persson, courtesy of The Royal Ballet)