Ninette de Valois (1898-2001) was one of the founders of 20th century British Ballet, being the first artistic director of The Royal Ballet.

IN HER OWN WORDS

“The quality of our dancing comes more from our feet and legs than from our whole bodies. I always say that everything we do springs from English country dancing.”
On the English ballet style (The Independent, 1998)

“I think that I can boast of having danced on every old pier theatre in England.”
On her dancing career

“I can’t help but think a hard knock is helpful now and again.”
(New York Times interview, 1963)

“We must continue to find our future in our past.”
(New York Times interview, 1978)

“Classical ballet will never die.”

IN OTHERS’ WORDS

“Madam”
As she was called by generations of dancers

“A choreographer of immense talent and perception, and also a ruthless dictator.”
Moira Shearer

“If she’s nice, watch out. If she’s horrid, you’ll go up a step.”
Sadler’s Wells Ballet company members (1955)

”She is one of the greatest artistic influences in this country in this century. She made a great national company, and all of us in British ballet are her children.”
Clement Crisp, dance critic (1998)

“One of the 20th century great cultural visionaries.”
Anna Kisselgoff, dance critic (2001)

“An interview with this great and formidable woman is an intimidating undertaking. You do not create, virtually single-handed, a great ballet company, a national institution, without being formidable and becoming intimidating.”
Edward Thorpe, New York Times (1978)

Cover of Ninette de Valois’s book Step by Step (1977)

BIOGRAPHY

Born in Ireland as Edris Stannus, Ninette de Valois trained with Lila Field and as a child star became one of Field’s ’Wonder Children’. She quickly realised she still had much to learn and while she studied with the best teachers in London in the 1910s and 20s she worked as an independent artist. In 1923 she joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes where she gained a real insight into running a major company and where her own chorerography was influenced by exposure to Léonide Massine’s character works.

Having established her school in 1926, she joined forces with Lilian Baylis to present ballet at the Old Vic and the rebuilt Sadler’s Theatre. Initially she was one of the company’s leading choreographers creating Job (1931), The Rake’s Progress (1935) inspired by Hogarth’s paintings and Checkmate (1937) based on a game of chess. She could also create comic works when needed such as The Prospect Before Us (1940) choreographed at the outbreak of the war. Her work in Britain became increasingly focused on serving as an artistic director of vision and as her company gained in profile to become The Royal Ballet.

When London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) was invited to tour South America under the auspices of the British Council in 1965 ,they needed a distinctively English ballet to include in their repertoire so they acquired de Valois’ The Haunted Ballroom (1934). Otherwise the only choreography by de Valois presented by ENB was the Black Queen’s solo from Checkmate, danced at two special performances to make the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall, a London venue with which the Company had a long involvement.

Ninette de Valois choreographed over 50 works, many of which are now sadly lost. Despite leaving her role as artistic director of The Royal Ballet in 1963, she remained a major influence on ballet in the United Kingdom, up until her death, aged 102.

KEY WORKS Checkmate, The Rake’s Progress, Job

KEY COLLABORATORS
W.B. Yeats, Leonide Massine, Serge Diaghilev, Lilian Baylis, Frederic Ashton, Lesley Collier, Wayne Eagling

TAUGHT AND CHOREOGRAPHED ON
Margot Fonteyn, Wayne Sleep, Robert Helpmann, Beryl Grey

LEARN MORE
Interview on her 100th birthday, The Independent (1998)
Desert Island Discs, BBC (1991)
Ninette de Valois Bequest and Papers, Royal Opera House Collections
Come Dance with Me: A memoir 1898-1956

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