de Valois, Ninette (1898–2001)

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de Valois, Ninette (1898–2001)

Irish-born teacher, choreographer, and founder of the Royal Ballet who helped to establish classical ballet in Britain. Pronunciation: VALL-wah. Born Edris Stannus on June 6, 1898, at Baltiboys, Blessington, Co. Wicklow, Ireland; died on March 8, 2001, in London; daughter of T.R.A. Stannus (a lieutenant-colonel) and Lilith (Graydon-Smith) Stannus; educated at home and at Lila Field (Stage) Academy for Children; married Dr. Arthur B. Connell, in July 1935; no children.


Commander of the British Empire (CBE, 1947); Chévalier, Légion d'honneur (1950); Dame of the British Empire (DBE, 1951); fellow, Royal Academy of Dancing (1963); Gold Albert Medal, Royal Society of Arts (1964); (first woman recipient) Erasmus Prize Foundation Award (1974); Irish Community Award (1980); Companion of Honor (CH, 1982); Order of Merit (OM, 1992); granted Hon. Mus.Doc., London (1947), Hon. D.Litt., Reading (1951), Hon. D.Litt., Oxford (1955), Hon. D.Mus., Sheffield (1955), Hon. Mus.D., Dublin (1957), Hon. D.F.A., Smith College (1957), Hon. LL.D., Aberdeen (1958), Hon. LL.D., Sussex (1975), Hon. D.Litt., Ulster (1979), Hon. D.Mus., Durham (1982).

First performed professionally (1913); joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (1923); founded Academy of Choreographic Art, London (1926); hired by Lilian Baylis to work at the Old Vic (1926); worked at Festival Theater, Cambridge (1926–31) and Abbey Theater, Dublin (1927–35); founded the Vic-Wells (subsequently Sadler's Wells and Royal) Ballet (1931); founded Sadler's Wells (subsequently Royal) Ballet School (1931); moved company to Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1946); made first American tour (1949); Sadler's Wells Ballet given Royal Charter (1956); retired as director of Royal Ballet (1963). Founder and director, Turkish School of Ballet (1948) and Turkish State Ballet (1956); founder, Iranian National Ballet (1958); patron, Irish Ballet Company (1974). Publications: Invitation to the Ballet (John Lane, 1937); Come Dance With Me (Hamish Hamilton, 1957); Step by Step (W.H. Allen, 1977).

Ninette de Valois spent the first years of her life at Baltiboys, a country house in the scenic surroundings of County Wicklow, just south of Dublin. Her mother's family had been long established in the county, and her great-grand-mother, Elizabeth Smith , was a perceptive diarist whose chronicles were published in 1980. Her father, an army officer, was later killed in the First World War. A stage career was an unlikely prospect for someone from de Valois' background, but when the family moved to England in the early 1900s it became possible. She took dance lessons and also saw the first seasons of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in London. When her mother decided that she should be trained properly, she went to the Lila Field Academy for Children whose previous alumni included Noel Coward and Micheál MacLiammóir. It was, she later wrote, a typical theatrical school, and she learned something of everything. Early in 1913, after changing her name from Edris Stannus to Ninette de Valois, she went on tour with a company of students from the school who were called "The Wonder Children." They performed programs of small ballets and plays in a variety of venues, and de Valois was later to boast that she danced in every seaside theater in England. One of her most popular pieces was an impression of Anna Pavlova in The Dying Swan. The touring was gruelling but instilled into de Valois an iron discipline and stamina that never left her.

In autumn 1914, she secured her first London engagement at the Lyceum Theater and worked there every year for the following five years as well as on other concert engagements. In summer 1919, she was engaged for the opera ballet at Covent Garden which she found a valuable experience not just musically but later when she started to choreograph. De Valois was anxious to improve her technique and studied with some the most influential teachers of the time, among them Edouard Espinosa, Enrico Cecchetti, and Nicholas Legat. They each influenced her dancing: Espinosa gave her strong, clear footwork; from Cecchetti, she learned the importance of symmetry and detail, and the meaning of ports de bras (carriage of the arms); Legat made her less tense and gave her a sense of her own worth as a dancer. She later invited him to teach at Sadler's Wells in the 1930s.

In 1921, she had her first performing contact with the Russian ballet when she danced with Leonide Massine's company at the Royal Opera House. The standard of the choreography was far in advance of anything she had done previously, but a bigger challenge lay ahead. In

September 1923, de Valois joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and for the next two years was part of a company that was at the forefront of theatrical dance, music, and design. De Valois absorbed as much of this creativity as she could, watching Diaghilev's genius "welding, molding, guiding and seeking." Performing with the company also gave her the opportunity to see the great cities of Europe and their theaters, galleries, and museums. She danced in many of Mikhail Fokine's ballets, but the two choreographers who made the most impression on her were Bronislava Nijinska and George Balan-chine. She admired Balanchine's endless dance invention and acute musicality; she was also fortunate to dance in Nijinska's two greatest ballets, which were choreographed during de Valois' first year with the company, Les Noces and Les Biches, in the latter creating the role of the Hostess. Nijinska also coached her in some of the variations from The Sleeping Beauty, but it took de Valois some time to appreciate the influence of the Russian classical tradition. She was bored when she saw Swan Lake until it was explained to her by Vera Trefilova , one of the great ballerinas of the pre-revolutionary era in Russia. The Russian classics would later become a cornerstone of her own company in the 1930s.

My mind prefers adversity and complexity to any state of smooth living.

—Ninette de Valois

De Valois left the Ballets Russes in 1925 but returned as a guest artist in 1926 and 1928. She had gained immeasurably from her years with Diaghilev, but, when formulating plans for her own company, she was determined that in one respect she would not follow his example: she wanted a permanent company not a touring one. The very idea of an English ballet struck many people as ludicrous. The country may have produced some good dancers but, unlike the French, Italians, Danes, and Russians, it had no tradition of ballet. Ballet, to Diaghilev's English public in the 1920s, meant the Russian ballet in all its glamour and glory, and it would take decades for that prejudice to weaken. De Valois was aware of this and knew that if English ballet was to flourish it needed a repertory theater, a secure base from which to grow, and what better repertory theater with which to begin the process than the Old Vic.

In 1926, she approached Lilian Baylis , the formidable director of the Old Vic, with a proposal to establish the nucleus of a ballet company under the auspices of her theater. Baylis was impressed with de Valois' practicality, and she hired her to teach movement to the drama students and to arrange short dances for plays and operas. In return, the ballet would be allowed to perform in some of the theater's programs. Baylis and de Valois were alike in important essentials: they had vision and the patience to wait for long-term plans to come to fruition. Baylis had great respect for de Valois which was reciprocated, and de Valois paid warm and perceptive tribute to Baylis in her memoirs. De Valois was grateful for the opportunity to work at the Vic but was paid very little and later in 1926 became resident choreographer at the Festival Theater in Cambridge, run by her cousin Terence Gray, which staged experimental drama. The Oresteia, in October 1926, was one of its most successful productions, and de Valois' movement for the chorus attracted particular praise. The poet W.B. Yeats saw her work at the Festival Theater and invited her to come to Dublin to help him restage his Plays for Dancers at the Abbey Theater. Their collaboration was to last until 1935, and de Valois wrote about Yeats with great insight in Come Dance With Me and Step by Step. For her, he was indisputably one of the world's greatest poets, and she regarded her work with him as a cherished experience; Yeats found their collaboration equally stimulating. Her work with Yeats led to her later appreciation of the plays of Samuel Beckett.

With drama, opera, and now ballet being performed at the Old Vic, space was at a premium, and in 1926 the dilapidated Sadler's Wells Theater in north London was purchased. It opened in 1931 and became the home of the opera and ballet companies. The first full evening of ballet took place in May 1931, and from then on the Vic-Wells Ballet, as it became known, gradually attracted a loyal and discriminating audience. Besides her work for the drama and opera companies, de Valois had been choreographing her own ballets since 1925. In July 1931, her ballet Job, using the best British talents, was hailed as a distinguished creation. Described as a "masque for dancing," the ballet had a libretto by Geoffrey Keynes based on William Blake, designs by Gwen Raverat , and music by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. De Valois' best choreography was created in the 1930s, but when planning a repertoire for her company she knew she needed a more wide-ranging base. She wanted a choreographer who could create and develop a native English classical style; but the foundation for this style was the staging of the great Russian classical ballets that were hardly known in the West. The instruments for both were at hand.

In 1933, de Valois invited Nikolai Sergeyev, who had directed the Maryinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg just before the Revolution, to stage the Petipa-Ivanov masterworks for her company from the notations he had brought with him from Russia. Between 1933–39, he produced Coppélia, Giselle, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty. The productions were modest both in design and performance, but their significance for the company was enormous; they were the basis of later, grander productions that made the company's classical reputation in the 1940s and 1950s. Frederick Ashton joined the company as resident choreographer in the 1935–36 season. Ashton had started his career with Marie Rambert 's company and had also worked with Bronislava Nijinska and in the commercial theater. In Ashton, de Valois found a choreographer of lyrical classicism and sensitive musicality who was also full of wit and humor. For 40 years, Ashton's choreography shaped and defined English classical ballet and provided a wealth of wonderful roles for generations of dancers. With de Valois and Ashton, the third member of the triumvirate at the Vic-Wells company was the musical director Constant Lambert. A composer of considerable intellectual gifts, Lambert was an indispensable adviser. He had an innate understanding of dancers and their different styles, and this made him one of the finest dance conductors of his time.

In the early years of the Vic-Wells company, de Valois was fortunate in attracting several major guest stars including Alicia Markova , Anton Dolin, Lydia Lopokova , and Stanislas Idzikowski. But she was also anxious to build up the company's own stars and immediately spotted the potential of the young Margot Fonteyn . As Fonteyn's gifts developed, she became the muse of Frederick Ashton who created a magnificent series of ballets for her in an artistic relationship that lasted, on and off, for over 40 years. But de Valois was also intent on developing male dancing and a strong male roster was built up in the 1930s, notably Robert Helpmann, Harold Turner, and Michael Somes. De Valois continued to dance until the late 1930s, and in 1937 she created the role of Webster, the bossy maid, in Ashton's A Wedding Bouquet. It was a humorous portrait of de Valois herself.

The seasons at Sadler's Wells lasted from September to May and thus gave the dancers a measure of financial security which was rare at the time but which de Valois considered vital for the future of the company. Looking back on that first decade, de Valois remembered the dedication and sense of purpose that inspired them. She also created some of her finest choreography: The Haunted Ballroom (1934), The Rake's Progress (1935) and Checkmate (1937). Checkmate was performed in Paris in 1937 when the company was invited to appear at an international exhibition, an indication of its growing reputation. There was further recognition when it appeared at a royal gala performance at Covent Garden in 1939.

After war broke out in September 1939, Sadler's Wells became a shelter for the homeless, and the company led a peripatetic existence on tour. One of the most dramatic moments in its history occurred in May 1940 when the company was on tour in Holland and narrowly escaped the German invasion (see alsoHepburn, Audrey). As Britain awaited invasion in the summer of 1940, de Valois decided, with unerring instinct, to create a comedy ballet, The Prospect Before Us, which was a great audience favorite. But difficult as the war years were, they were the making of the Sadler's Wells Ballet (as the company was renamed in 1941). The regular tours to a huge range of venues made the company well-known. Another London base was found at the New Theater and the seasons there were extremely popular despite the dangers of German air-raids. In addition to her work with the company, de Valois also helped her husband most weekends at his London surgery. She had married Dr. Arthur B. Connell in July 1935.

The company emerged from the war with a healthy bank balance, most of which de Valois spent on new premises for the school that was reorganized in 1946–47 to include both academic and dance studies for its students. De Valois began regular, annual dance seminars for ballet teachers at the school which were particularly influential. But there were other momentous changes in store. In 1945, the Sadler's Wells Ballet was invited to become the resident company at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which was due to reopen after the war. Despite initial reservations, due mainly to her gratitude to the Sadler's Wells Theater, de Valois accepted, knowing what an opportunity this represented in terms of greater space and prestige. However, a smaller company was retained at Sadler's Wells, the Sadler's Wells Theater Ballet, and became an important training ground for young dancers and especially for new choreographers, among them John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan.

Covent Garden was reopened in February 1946 with a lavish new production of The Sleeping Beauty produced by de Valois; the lavishness was a major achievement since strict rationing was still in force. It became the company's signature ballet, and Fonteyn, now reaching the height of her powers, was one of the finest interpreters of Aurora. Frederick Ashton also created some of his best ballets in the years immediately after the reopening, Symphonic Variations, Cinderella (the first three-act ballet created for the company), Scènes de ballet, and Daphnis and Chloe. In 1949, the Sadler's Wells Ballet was invited to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and had a triumphant reception. The United States became the company's most important touring destination, and there were almost annual visits until the 1960s. The American tours were also an important source of revenue at a time of severe financial difficulties in Britain. De Valois achieved personal success on the U.S. lecture circuit and found that her work with Yeats attracted considerable interest among college audiences.

The early death of Constant Lambert in 1951 was a personal and professional loss to de Valois. It also coincided with criticism that artistically the company had lost its way. In 1950, she had created her last major ballet, Don Quixote, to music by Roberto Gerhard. Though some critics thought it ahead of its time, it was a failure and has never been revived. Only The Rake's Progress and Checkmate, of all de Valois' ballets, have remained regularly in the repertory. Despite the company's artistic doldrums in the early 1950s, there were other achievements. In 1955, White Lodge, a former royal residence in Richmond Park, London, became the residential junior school of the ballet. The growing reputation of the school was due to the calibre of the teachers de Valois appointed, and in the late 1950s a particularly gifted generation of young dancers graduated, among them Antoinette Sibley , Lynn Seymour , Merle Park, Anthony Dowell, and David Wall. At the Sadler's Wells Theater Ballet, de Valois was encouraging new choreography by Cranko and MacMillan. In 1957, she invited Cranko to create the first three-act ballet to a specially composed English score, Benjamin Britten's The Prince of the Pagodas. She later encouraged Cranko to take on the directorship of the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany. He was not the first to receive such encouragement. In 1951, Celia Franca went to Canada and helped to found the National Ballet of Canada and its school. In 1963, Peggy van Praagh became the director of the Australian Ballet. De Valois also took an active interest in the other companies she had helped to found in the 1950s, the Turkish State Ballet and the Iranian National Ballet.

Although de Valois was pleased to be made a Dame of the British Empire by King George VI in 1951, she wanted recognition for her company; in 1956, to her great delight, it finally received a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth II and became the Royal Ballet, with the school becoming the Royal Ballet School. That year, de Valois also paid her first visit to Russia at the invitation of the Soviet government. The Royal Ballet first visited Russia in 1961, and the Russian connection was strengthened the following year. Rudolf Nureyev had defected in June 1961, shortly after the Royal Ballet's visit, and in 1962 de Valois invited him to join the company. It was a decision that attracted some controversy as it was felt by some that he would overshadow the other male dancers. De Valois argued that Nureyev would have a stimulating effect and so it proved. He had a considerable influence on the development of male dancing; his partnership with Fonteyn was legendary; and in 1963 he produced for the Royal Ballet the Petipa masterpiece that was virtually unknown in the West at that time, "The Kingdom of Shades" from La Bayadère. It became just as much a signature piece for the Royal Ballet as The Sleeping Beauty.

After 32 years as director, de Valois retired in 1963 and was succeeded by Frederick Ashton. However, she remained closely involved with the Royal Ballet School until the early 1970s and, even after that, was frequently seen in its classrooms. In 1977, she supervised a new production of The Sleeping Beauty for the Royal Ballet. As she neared her centenary, she retained an active interest in the company and the school. There was also renewed scholarly interest in her choreography. In Step by Step, she wrote that the Royal Ballet "was never meant to be a personal effort in a particularly specialised direction. It was to become something that would have a root in the country's theater." Take root the Royal Ballet did and, that it did, was due to de Valois' personal effort and vision.


De Valois, Ninette. Come Dance With Me: A Memoir 1898–1956. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957.

——. Invitation to the Ballet. London: John Lane, 1937.

——. Step by Step: The Formation of an Establishment. London: W.H. Allen, 1977.

Walker, Kathrine Sorley. Ninette de Valois: Idealist without Illusions. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.

suggested reading:

Beaumont, Cyril. The Sadler's Wells Ballet. London: C.W.Beaumont, 1946.

Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: The First 50 Years. London: Threshold, 1981.

Clarke, Mary. The Sadler's Wells Ballet: A History and an Appreciation. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1955.

related media:

"Madam," two-part documentary for Channel Four television, London, December 1982–January 1983.

Deirdre McMahon , Dublin, Ireland, Assistant Editor, Dance Theater Journal (London) and author of Republicans and Imperialists (Yale University Press, 1984)

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de Valois, Ninette (1898–2001)

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