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Dame Ninette de Valois

(1898—2001) ballet dancer, choreographer, and founder of the Royal Ballet


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(orig. Edris Stannus; b Baltiboys, Ireland, 6 Jun. 1898; d London, 8 Mar. 2001)

Irish-born British dancer, choreographer, teacher, and ballet director. Founder of the Royal Ballet and one of the pioneering figures in 20th-century dance. She studied with Lila Field, Édouard Espinosa and Cecchetti in London, later with Nikolai Legat, and made her professional debut in 1914, dancing in Jack and the Beanstalk, a pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Revues and pantomimes provided her early employment; then in 1919 she appeared in the Covent Garden Opera season and in 1922 appeared as a principal dancer with the Massine-Lopokova company in their London season. She joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1923 and stayed with the company until 1925, returning as a guest artist the following year. With Diaghilev she created roles in Nijinska's Les Biches, Les Fâcheux, and Le Train bleu and in Balanchine's Le Rossignol. She also danced with Anton Dolin's company (1926) and with the Covent Garden Opera (1928). In 1926 she opened her own school in London, the Academy of Choregraphic (sic) Art, and began her association with Lilian Baylis at the Old Vic, a relationship that provided the foundation for what would become the Royal Ballet. De Valois gave movement classes to the actors at Baylis's theatre and her dancers appeared in the opera productions. She also worked as a dancer and choreographer for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (where she collaborated with W. B. Yeats) and the Festival Theatre in Cambridge. She made her first ballet at the Old Vic, Les Petits Riens, in 1928. In 1931 she closed her school and moved over to the official school linked to the newly re-opened Sadler's Wells Theatre; it eventually became the Royal Ballet School. She now had a company based at the Wells, the Vic-Wells Ballet, which gave regular performances. It later became the Sadler's Wells Ballet which, in 1946, moved to the Royal Opera House. In 1956 the company became the Royal Ballet. She also founded a second company in 1946, first called the Sadler's Wells Opera Ballet, then Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and, in 1990, Birmingham Royal Ballet. She continued to dance until 1937, and created roles in Ashton's Regatta (1931), Les Rendezvous (1933), and A Wedding Bouquet (1937) but during the 1930s her energies were increasingly focused on choreography, as she created works for the Camargo Society, Ballet Club (later Ballet Rambert), as well as for own company. Influenced by European modern dance as well as by her classical training, ballets like The Rake's Progress, Checkmate, and The Prospect Before Us revealed de Valois's distinctive, and economical gift for storytelling and character portrayal. During the 1930s she also staged the Petipa–Ivanov classics for her company, thus helping to bring the Russian ballet heritage to the West. Under her direction, both the Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School became internationally recognized as leading dance institutions. She was artistic director of the Royal Ballet until she retired in 1963, although she continued to work at the Royal Ballet School. She was founder and director of the Turkish School of Ballet in Ankara (1948) and the Turkish State Ballet (1956). A list of her ballets includes Danse sacrée et danse profane (mus. Debussy, Camargo Society, 1930), La Création du monde (mus. Milhaud, Camargo Society, 1931), Job (mus. Vaughan Williams, Camargo Society, 1931), The Jackdaw and the Pigeons (mus. Bradford, Vic-Wells, 1931), Narcissus and Echo (mus. Bliss, Vic-Wells, 1932), The Origin of Design (mus. Handel, arr. Beecham, Camargo Society, 1932), The Wise and Foolish Virgins (mus. Atterberg, Vic-Wells, 1933), Bar aux Folies-Bergère (mus. Chabrier, Ballet Rambert, 1934), The Haunted Ballroom (mus. G. Toye, Vic-Wells, 1934), La Jarre (mus. Casella, Vic-Wells, 1934), The Rake's Progress (mus. G. Gordon, Vic-Wells, 1935), The Gods Go a-Begging (mus. Handel, arr. Beecham, Vic-Wells, 1936), Barabau (mus. Rieti, Vic-Wells, 1936), Prometheus (mus. Beethoven, Vic-Wells, 1936), Checkmate (mus. Bliss, Vic-Wells, 1937), Le Roi nu (mus. Françaix, Vic-Wells, 1938), The Prospect Before Us (mus. Boyce, arr. Lambert, Vic-Wells, 1940), Orpheus and Eurydice (mus. Gluck, Sadler's Wells Ballet, 1941), Promenade (mus. Haydn, arr. Evans, Jacob, Sadler's Wells Ballet, 1943), Don Quixote (mus. R. Gerhard, Sadler's Wells Ballet, 1950), At the Fountainhead (mus. Tuzun, Turkish State Ballet, 1964), Sinfonietta (mus. Kodalli, Turkish State Ballet, 1966), and The Wedding of Harlequin (with Ashton, Ballet for All, 1973). Author of Invitation to the Ballet (1937), Come Dance With Me (1957), and Step by Step (1977). Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire 1951. Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, 1950. Erasmus Prize, 1974. Companion of Honour, 1983. Order of Merit, 1992.

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Subjects: Dance.


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