Ninette de Valois (1898-2001)


Life
[Edris Stannus;] b. 6 June, in Georgian country house called Baltiboys, nr. Blessington in Co. Wicklow, the daughter of a career officer, who fought in the Boer War and later moved with the family to England when she was 7 [var. Kent at 11]; her first theatrical experience was seeing The Sleeping Beauty at the Gaiety; first trained as a dancer by a Mrs. Wordsworth;
 
sent at 13 to the Lila Field Academy, run by two German sisters; in Lila Field’s Wonder Children at 13, touring with the Academy, which had graduated Noel Coward; first engagement in London at 16 as principal dancer in the Lyceum Christmas pantomime; her father wounded at Gallipoli and died in battle, 1917; said she ‘danced the Dying Swan on every pier in England’;
 
took lessons Enrico Cecchiti and successfully auditioned for Grand Opera season at Royal Opera house as premiere danseuse, May 1919; joined Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in September 1923-25; gave up dancing at 26 on learning that she had been struggling with the effects of undiagnosed childhood polio; formed her own Academy of Choreograph, 1926;
 
attracted the attention of W. B. Yeats at the Cambridge Festival, and founded the Abbey Dancing School; produced Fighting the Waves (Abbey 1929); School of Ballet closed with Máire O’Neill’s Bluebeard and Arthur Duff’s The Drinking Horn, 1933; friend of Margot Fontayn [née Peggy Hookham], whom she made a ballerina as a teen-ager when Markova left in 1935;
 
m. Arthur Connell, an Irish surgeon, 1935; moved her school to Sadler’s Wells, with Constant Lambert as mus. dir.; introduced Nuriyev to the Royal Ballet in 1962; retired from directorship, 1963; Old Vic and Sadliers Wells ballet united as Royal Ballet, with Royal Charter, 1956; created Dame of the British Empire, 1957; awarded Order of Merit, 1992;
 
wrote three volumes of memoirs: Come Dance with Me (1956), chronicling the years 1898-1956, Invitation to the Ballet (1937); and Step by Step (1977); received Legion d’Honneur, 1950; knighted [Dame], 1951; Order of Companion of Honour, 1980; death of Arthur Connell, 1986; latterly lived alone in her apartment in London, SW; d. aetat. 102.

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Works
Come Dance with Me: A Memoir
[1898-1956] (1957); Do., with foreword by author [rep. edn.] (Dublin: Lilliput 1992).

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Criticism
Katherine Sorley-Walker, Ninette de Valois: Idealist Without Illusions (1987) [on career rather than life].

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Commentary
Richard Allen. Cave, ed., W. B. Yeats: Selected Plays (Penguin 1997), Introduction: ‘Ninette de Valois was to be the last shaping influence on his [Yeats’s] career as a playwright, a muse of a surprising but fitting kind, whose extraordinary gifts as a daner and choreographer exactly matched Yeats’s creative needs of the moment. Her cousin Terence Gray had mounted a production of On Baile’s Strand at his theatre in Cambridge in January [1927], for which she created the movement work involved in the oath-taking ritual and, more importantly, for the two masked figures of the Blind Man and the Fool. Gordon Bottomley, the English poet who had been inspired to devise dance-plays in imitation of Yeats’s recent work, saw the production and wrote excitedly to Yeats about it [...]. Gray and de Valois had a trained caste that enabled them to stage the play with a physical flamboyance that the Abbey could never have attempted; even from the photographs Yeats must have seen that the performance came nearer to his ideals in terms of staging than any other production had [xxxiii; ...] he tranvelled to the Festival Theatre in Cambrdige to view their next efforts with his work at first hand. De Valois’ contribution to this particular production was slight, but the programme was completed with dances in the modern style of abstract expressionism performed by herself and members of her dancing school. Yeats [...] invited her to come regularly to Dublin to help establish a school of dance at the Abbey and join him in staging his plays for dancers. This she did, to Yeats’s immense satisfaction, and in gratitude he devised for her Fighting the Waves (a version of The Only Jealousy of Emer, staged in 1929) and The King of the Great Clock Tower (1934). Inspired by the art and artistry of the Greek tragedian and the modern dancer, Yeats again undertook the process of remaking himself as a playwright. The resulting series of late plays was [..] boldly innovative, strange and challenging [placing him] firmly in the vanguard of modern experimental theatre.’ (pp.xxx-iii-iv.)

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Eileen Battersby, review of Come Dance with Me [1957], rep. with foreword by the author (Lilliput 1992), in Irish Times (19 Dec. 1992), incls. extract from her memoir (Come Dance &c.) on Diaghilev is also copied; Battersby writes, ‘Like all great minds, Diaghilev respected all people and things functioning in their proper sphere, and as his sense of proportion was as impeccable as his taste, Diaghilev lived beyond th world of his artists. He was concerned with the development of the Russian tradition. His strength lay in the fact that his familiarity with the value of the known and the tried was so great that he could advise with conviction and discard with impunity; he could light the path of the unknown and untried with the torch of experience.’ She calls him ‘autocratic, proud and conservative’ - words with Battersby, more than superficially acquainted, considers could be used to describe herself. Review incls. half-length photo-portrait by Houston Rogers in the 1950s.

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Guardian Obituary (Guardian Weekly, 15-21 [q.m.] 2001; aged 102; b. Edris Stannus at Baltiboys, nr. Blessington, Wickow; moved to London with family, aged 11p learned ‘fancy dancing’ from Mrs Wordsworth; later at Lila Field Academic; learned ‘the Dying Swan’ from having seen Pavlova and claimed to have danced it at the end of ‘every pier in England’; opened Academy of Choreographic Art, 1926; successfully interviewed with Lilian Bayliss at the Old Vic (‘liked her face’) and was taken on to work with the actors and singers; worked with Yeats in Dublin and Terence Gray in Cambridge; moved her school to Sadler’s Wells; Constant Lambert as mus. dir.; Markova and Dolin as artistic guests; made a ballerina of adolescent Fonteyn when Markova left in 1935; retired from directorship, 1963; Vic Wells Ballert gained Royal Charter in 1956, uniting both schools as Royal Ballet; Dame of the British Empire, 1957; Order of Merit, 1992.

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Audrey Woods [Associated Press] (8 March 2001), gives details: In 1926, de Valois opened her London Academy of Choreographic Art, and formed a small group of dancers. She began a collaboration with Lilian Baylis at the Old Vic theater, teaching movement to the actors and giving ballet performances; in 1931 she moved to Baylis’ second theater, Sadler’s Wells, persuaded Frederic Ashton from the Marie Rambert ballet company to join her company as choreographer, and signed Constant Lambert as musical director; oung dancers who later achieved international fame - Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Michael Somes and Moira Shearer - performed with the company; grew steadily and became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, which moved to the Opera House in Covent Garden in 1946. The company was renamed the Royal Ballet in 1956; De Valois was head of the growing ballet school in those years, and continued working with the school until 1971. She stepped down as director of the Royal Ballet in 1963.quotes comments: ‘With the death of Dame Ninette de Valois, we acknowledge the passing of one of the 20th century’s greatest and most influential figures in the world of the arts,’’ said Sir Anthony Dowell, director of the Royal Ballet.’ Moira Shearer (dancer): ‘a choreographer of immense talent and perception, and also a ruthless dictator. Rehearsals with her were hell. But performing these ballets were a delight.’ [online].

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Quotations
The modern way: ‘What we might call modern ... That is modern in the way classical dancers can move into any style they want ... One really did use the simplest gestures possible, rather symbolic movements, really ... There was no question of pseudo-Oriental graduations ... These were all barefoot dances, of course, but what one did was stylised to bring out the spirit of the thing.’ (Quoted in G. M. Pincier, ‘A Dancer for Mr Yeats’, in Educational Theatre Journal, Dec. 1969, p.389; cited in James W. Flannery, Yeats and the Idea of A Theatre, 1976, p.208.)

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Notes
Colum McCann, in Dancer (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson [Phoenix Pbk] 2003), has this, in Rudi Nureyev’s text: ‘A call from Gilbert. The suicide notion. If you don’t come back soon, Rudi, I will leave a gap between the floor and my feet. His wife, it seems, has taken to bed in distress. / (I told Ninette that, as a Tatar, I had spent centuries contemplating the gap between the floor and my feet. she shot back that she was Irish and had already spent hundreds of years in the air.)’ (p.171.)

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