de Valois, Ninette
Ninette de Valois
In the space of a quarter-century, Ninette de Valois (1898–2001) made Britain's Royal Ballet into one of the leading dance companies in the world. Starting it virtually from scratch in the late 1920s, de Valois worked tirelessly to make what was originally the Vic-Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet a first-class performance troupe, and then secured its future by convincing England's cultural guardians to grant it a charter so that it became the Royal Ballet. For her achievement she has been termed the mother of modern British ballet, and a tribute to her on the occasion of her hundredth birthday by New Statesman writer John Percival called her "a phenomenon: a woman who changed the whole history of her art."
Mimicked the Famous Pavlova
De Valois was the stage name she adopted as a young dancer. She was born Edris Stannus on June 6, 1898, outside an Irish village near Blessingham in County Wicklow. Her father was an officer in the British Army, and at the time of her birth the family was living on an estate called Baltiboys. It was there that the wife of one of the estate's herdsmen taught the very shy child an Irish jig, which she then aptly demonstrated at a party before returning to the folds of her caretaker's skirts, where she preferred to hide. In 1905, the Stannus family returned to England and settled in a seaside town called Walmer. She started taking dance classes as a child, though she suffered a bout of polio that occasionally made practice sessions painful, and took up the study of ballet in earnest at the age of 13 with a teacher named Lila Field. By 1912, she was dancing in Field's "Wonder Children" troupe, and during their performances she often demonstrated her imitation of famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and the "Dying Swan," Pavlova's signature role.
De Valois received her schooling at home, with a governess. Keenly interested in ballet as a career, she lacked role models at the time, for there was no genuine English ballet tradition during this era. London performances were generally the province of touring French or Russian companies. Instead de Valois served as a dancer in pantomime performances at London's Lyceum Theatre during the World War I years, and began teaching classes as well. Around 1917, she decided to change her name to something that sounded more French, in the hopes that it might boost her career, and her mother devised "Ninette de Valois" based on the family's French genealogical ties.
Danced at Covent Garden
It was in the corps de ballet in London opera performances that de Valois first made her mark upon the stage. She became a principal dancer for the Beecham Opera and Ballet Company, and danced with the companies of Leonide Massine and Lydia Lopokova during this era. In 1919, she was the principal dancer during the opera season at London's Covent Garden. Still training rigorously under renowned ballet masters, a new door opened for her when she began working with Enrico Cecchetti, who was affiliated with the renowned Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev. The Ballets Russes was credited with revolutionizing classical dance by merging the grace for which French ballet was known with a Russian verve. In 1923, she joined the Diaghilev company herself, and the two years she spent with it would change her career. Based in Paris but with a strong Russian tradition, the Ballets Russes performed works written specifically for it by composer Igor Stravinsky, and Pablo Picasso created some of its stunning sets.
In Britain, there was little of the same exciting cultural atmosphere compared to Paris, and de Valois was determined to change this. To start with, she established a small ballet school, called the Academy of Choregraphic Art, in London in 1926, in order to train new dancers for a future dance company. She then began to place her students in opera productions, or in the professional theater, which gave them performance training. Teaming with Lilian Baylis, the founder of the prestigious Old Vic theater, de Valois found additional training ground for her dancers in the opera ballets staged at that venue. A company was formed, the Vic-Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet, which gave its first full programme in 1930. Her company's home became the Sadler Wells theater, also in London.
Cultivated New Talent
De Valois worked with her company choreographer, Frederick Ashton, to create new ballet works, while also staging several Russian classics that were a first for Britain. Initially, she danced in some of the productions herself, but by her mid-thirties she ceded the stage to a new generation of talent. These dancers included Alicia Markova from the Ballet Russes, who became the prima ballerina of de Valois's company in the 1930s, and British star Margot Fonteyn. De Valois's last stage role was in Ashton's A Wedding Bouquet of 1937; the lengthy list of duties she had taken on in addition to running her company by then were added to her new role as a wife after her 1935 marriage to a physician, Arthur Connell.
De Valois's company's reputation grew during the 1930s, and made its debut at Covent Garden with Sleeping Beauty in 1939. The careers of dancers like Fonteyn and her longtime stage partner, Robert Helpmann, were enhanced immeasurably by the prominent positions they held in de Valois's company, and new generation of composers and choreographers also benefited from these first acclaimed years. For a number of years, de Valois shared choreography duties with others, and programs such as The Rake's Progress ballet, based on the work of eighteenth-century British painter William Hogarth, were considered her best work. Her ambitions, however, were for her company: she hoped that it would eventually become the true national ballet of England, an institution reflecting the country's culture, history, and spirit through the presentation of classic ballet works for the stage but also serving as a testing ground for important new creations.
Became Royal Ballet
The years of World War II served as the tragic impetus that helped make de Valois's dream a reality. During the difficult war years, her company made extensive tours of England, which served to boost wartime morale and gave the company an excellent reputation outside of London. In 1946, her Sadler's Wells Ballet was chosen to reopen the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden with Sleeping Beauty, which featured Fonteyn. De Valois once recalled in an interview the overpowering smell of mothballs coming from the audience that night, since Londoners' formal clothes had been so long in storage. The British royal family was there that night as well, and the Sleeping Beauty engagement was sold out for weeks.
After that unparalleled success, de Valois's company was made the resident ballet corps of the Royal Opera House, which in essence meant it was formally recognized as Britain's leading ballet company. The recognition launched an entirely new era for the company, and for de Valois as well: suddenly, she was forced to deal with an array of Royal Opera House executives and governing committees, but the formidable director seemed to possess the necessary skills. She led her company over an illustrious decade, and then in 1956 managed to secure a Royal Charter, which formally created the Royal Ballet from her company. The charter, perhaps more importantly, also assured it a permanent future past her own leadership tenure. Wishing to maintain ties to the Sadler's Wells theater, she established a second company there, which after several permutations became the Birmingham Royal Ballet. The Sadler's Wells Ballet School, meanwhile, became the Royal Ballet School, and she would serve as its life governor for the remainder of her life.
De Valois's legacy in British dance is an important one. She was the first to present a full evening of ballet, which had not been done before in London, by working with noted theater impresario Sol Hurok. Her students went on to impressive careers themselves, and the influence of her company eventually reached all the way to the National Ballet of Canada and Australian Ballet. She also traveled to Turkey in the late 1940s, at the invitation of its government, to establish the Turkish School of Ballet and Turkish State Ballet in Ankara. Dance aficionados also credit her mettle with indirectly altering the direction of New York City's American Ballet Theatre. Her eye for talent remained sharp, and she was the first to give recent Russian émigré Rudolf Nureyev his first job outside of the Soviet Union in 1962. "Without her, the history of English ballet this century would be very different—a more cautious, insular, hidebound thing, lacking in the injections of Russian physicality and French avant-gardisme that made it cosmopolitan and endlessly refreshed with outside influences," declared John Walsh in London's Independent newspaper.
Celebrated Milestone Birthday
A woman in possession of such mettle inevitably cultivated a few detractors, and de Valois was known to be imperious and exceedingly blunt with her students at times. Clive Barnes, writing for Dance magazine, assessed her post-performance career by granting that "as a choreographer, few of de Valois's works will survive . . . but as a builder of companies she was in a class of her own. She was ruthless and charismatic, and like many pragmatic leaders, she probably destroyed as many careers as she made."
De Valois retired as Royal Ballet director in 1963, and was succeeded in the post by Ashton. A number of subsequent leaders seemed to lack their distinct vision, and in later years, the company she had founded failed to maintain the pristine reputation and critical plaudits it had once enjoyed under her direction. Nevertheless, even in her advanced years de Valois continued to attend dance performances and remain enthusiastic about the world of ballet. "I'm not one of those people who say, 'They don't know how to dance these days,' " she told Walsh in the Independent, "because they do know, and they're much better than we ever were. I hate these oldies who say there aren't any good dancers now."
De Valois was made a dame by Queen Elizabeth II, and also received the rarer Order of Merit and Companion of Honour designations. Always known as "Madam" by her former students and colleagues, she was honored on her hundredth birthday with a BBC television tribute, Call Me Madam. She authored three books, Invitation to the Ballet in 1937; Come Dance with Me, which appeared twenty years later; and Step by Step, published in 1977. She died on March 8, 2001, at her home in London. Her Times of London obituary asserted that she "leaves, for future British dancers, the prospect of a career that did not exist when she was young; for audiences, two great companies that would not have existed without her; and for her country, a national asset beyond price."
International Dictionary of Ballet, 2 vols., St. James Press, 1993.
Dance, February 1994; February 1997; August 1998; June 2001; July 2003.
Economist, March 17, 2001.
Financial Times, November 8, 2003.
Independent (London, England), June 6, 1998.
New Statesman, June 5, 1998.
Times (London, England), May 27, 1998; March 9, 2001.