The Early Years
‘Festival Ballet’, as the Company was originally called, was founded by Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova and Julian Braunsweg in 1950. The idea for the new Company arose from successful gala programmes, including arena performances, featuring Markova and Dolin that were presented the previous year and the growth of interest in ballet nationwide following the War. The company’s original name was chosen by Alicia Markova, to reflect the imminent Festival of Britain (1951) and the variety of its programmes.
From the start, touring throughout England has been at the heart of the Company’s activities and from 1951 the Company has toured overseas on a regular basis. Originally, London Festival Ballet was privately financed and led a precarious existence. This phase came to a dramatic end in 1965, when costs on a new production of Swan Lake over-ran significantly and the Company headed for bankruptcy. In the salvage operation that followed, the Arts Council of Great Britain agreed to grant a subsidy to the Company in recognition of its important work in bringing popular ballet to the regions but insisted that a new Administrator, Donald Albery, led the Company.
1968 – 1979
In 1968, Beryl Grey was appointed Artistic Director of London Festival Ballet and, from the following year, was able to capitalise on seasons at the London Coliseum, which had just become the home of Sadler’s Wells (now English National) Opera, to raise the Company’s profile.
The long annual spring seasons at that fine theatre allowed the Company to present its richly varied repertoire in London. The Coliseum’s large stage also enabled Rudolf Nureyev to mount his Sleeping Beauty for the Company’s 25th anniversary and to create his Romeo and Juliet for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. These acclaimed productions enabled the Company to undertake a number of prestigious and lucrative foreign tours.
1979 – 1984
In 1979, John Field succeeded Beryl Grey. At this point the Company turned to developing its own talents, rather than depending as much on guest artists. Two notable developments occurred. The first was the establishment of small-scale touring, which heralded the mid-scale ‘Tour de Force’ programmes of the 1990s. The second, was that in 1980, London Festival Ballet became the first British classical ballet company to establish a formal outreach and education programme.
1984 – 1989
In 1984, Peter Schaufuss took over as Artistic Director. He considerably widened the Company’s repertoire, adding works by Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, Michael Clark and Roland Petit, and inviting such distinguished figures as Sir Frederick Ashton, Natalia Makarova and Sir Kenneth MacMillan to work with the Company. In the same year, Christopher Bruce was appointed Associate Choreographer.
1988 saw the opening of English National Ballet School, (currently with its own premises in Hortensia Road, Chelsea), to provide a dependable source of talent for the Company for the first time in its history.
In 1989, following a reduction in the length of the London seasons and with the Company’s ability to field two parallel tours and thus substantially increase the number of venues visited each year, together with changes in the funding system, it was decided to change the Company’s name to ‘English National Ballet’.
1990 – 2001
In September 1990, Ivan Nagy briefly succeeded Peter Schaufuss as Artistic Director and was followed, in March 1993, by Derek Deane. Under Schaufuss and Nagy, the Company had embraced a range of dance styles but Deane preferred to focus on building a strong classical company, whilst still allowing for a rich variety of choreography, ranging from Balanchine to Bigonzetti. During the 1990s, the full evening classics were freshly produced, while shorter signature works like Etudes (first danced in 1955) and Graduation Ball (1957) were kept alive.
The year 1997 saw the start of a relationship with the Royal Albert Hall, with a season of Swan Lake presented in the arena. This, and the equally successful Romeo & Juliet in 1998, have been revived on a number of occasions and toured to arenas in Hong Kong and Australia, and elsewhere in the UK. As well as this new relationship with the Royal Albert Hall, the year 1997 also saw the revival English National Ballet’s relationship with the London Coliseum. After more than four decades of performing the annual Nutcracker seasons at the Royal Festival Hall, the Company decided to move its five-week Christmas Season to the London Coliseum.
2001 – 2012
Between September 2001 and October 2005 Matz Skoog, a former dancer with the Company, served as Artistic Director. He was encouraged in his aim that the Company should focus on creations by British choreographers when in 2003 the Company was awarded the National Dance Award for ‘Outstanding Repertoire’.
Wayne Eagling, a dancer with The Royal Ballet for many years before becoming Artistic Director of Dutch National Ballet, served as Artistic Director from 2005. His arrival coincided with the staging of Kenneth MacMillan’s The Sleeping Beauty and the focus was inevitably on the longer ballets including productions of Manon and the revival of Mary Skeaping’s Giselle from 1971. During his tenure he continued the growing relationship with Sadler’s Wells where a tribute to the Ballets Russes, a strand of the original London Festival Ballet repertoire, was produced. The company celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2010.
Following Eagling’s departure in 2012, Tamara Rojo announced her return to English National Ballet as Artistic Director beginning in the Autumn 2012 season. Along with Tamara’s new position, the Company also began re-branding.
George Williamson (Associate Artist of the company, 2012-2016) was commissioned by English National Ballet to create Firebird in March 2012; Williamson also choreographed the My First Ballet series, a joint initiative between English National Ballet and English National Ballet School.
Since joining as Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo has been determined to reinvigorate the Company, introducing innovative new works to the repertoire while continuing to honour traditional ballet. New productions under Rojo’s artistic directorship include Le Corsaire, with English National Ballet being the only UK company to have the full work in its repertoire; Lest We Forget, a triple bill reflecting on the experiences of those who fought in the First World War; Modern Masters, a triple bill honouring icons of 20th century choreography; She Said, a triple bill of new works by female choreographers Aszure Barton, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Yabin Wang; and a reimagined version of Giselle choreographed by Akram Khan. 2014 saw English National Ballet become the first Associate Company of Sadler’s Wells, London.
English National Ballet was named Winner of the Stef Stefanou Award for Outstanding Company at the 2014 and 2016 Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards. Lest we Forget was named Winner of the The South Bank Sky Arts Awards 2015. The Company has also received the Manchester Theatre Awards’ Robert Robson Award for Dance for three years in a row (Le Corsaire in 2014, Lest we Forget in 2015, and Akram Khan’s Giselle in 2016).
In 2019, the Company moved into the Mulryan Centre for Dance located on London City Island, East London. This purpose-built, state-of-the-art building gives the company the space and facilities needed to continue to develop world-class artists, create new works that push boundaries of ballet and expand the programme of public workshops and classes. The Mulryan Centre for Dance was named the London Building of the Year 2021 by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
In 2020, English National Ballet were awared the prize for Best Company Response to the Pandemic at the National Dance Awards. During the pandemic, the Company streamed daily ballet classes, released archived performances, livestreamed the Emerging Dancer Competition, premiered five original dance films, and launched a brand new online dance and fitness subscription service BalletActive.
English National Ballet remains committed to its original aspiration, taking world-class ballet to the widest possible audience, through its national and international tour programme, offsite performances at festivals including Glastonbury and Latitude, and being a UK leader in creative learning and engagement practice and delivery, building innovative partnerships to deliver flagship programmes such as English National Ballet’s Dance for Parkinson’s.