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About the Change

Ninette de Valois:

Adventurous Traditionalist

London Conference 1-3 April 2011

Lynette Halewood with her thoughts on Saturday 2 April conference proceedings - an enjoyable day...

by Lynette Halewood

© rbs

Jann Parry's report on all 3 days of the conference

Conference Website

Royal Ballet School Website

Ealier Ninette de Valois on
Memorial Service to Royal Ballet Founders (Nov 2009)

Dame Ninette de Valois Thanksgiving Service (Sept 2001)

'Invitation to the Ballet' Exhibition (Nov 2010)

Other historical resources on
Following Sir Fred Book Nov 1994 Ashton Conference proceedings

Revealing MacMillan Conference (Oct 2002): Day 1, Day 2

Exhibition feature (Jul 2010)
Fonteyn’s dressing room

External Resources:
Kenneth MacMillan website

Royal Ballet website

Turkish Ballet website

Royal Ballet reviews

Lynette Halewood reviews

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The Royal Ballet School hosted this 3 day conference to consider Dame Ninette’s life and work and it was a very crammed and comprehensive programme. It ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening at various locations first in the Royal Opera House, then in the Upper School on Saturday and at White Lodge on Sunday. It was very well attended – more or less a sell out, and packed with many people who had known her personally.

I was able to attend only the Saturday session. At this Jane Pritchard kept a firm grip on the conference timetable which is no mean feat. De Valois’s former colleagues including Dame Beryl Grey, Sir Peter Wright, Dame Antoinette Sibley, David Wall (to mention only one pane)l and many others have a prodigious number of stories and anecdotes of the trials and rewards of working with a leader who described herself firmly in a filmed interview shown that afternoon as “tough”.

The proceedings on Friday had considered De Valois as choreographer. Films shown in the breaks on Saturday gave us a chance to catch up on this. McRae doing Satan’s solo from Job certainly caught the eye but there had also been live performances from RB and BRB dancers the day before which I was sorry to miss. The conference on Saturday was a mixture of the academic (analysis of letters recently found between Dame Ninette and Ceccetti, consideration of what her concept of a national company as expressed in her published work consisted of) to the practical (demonstrations of the class she codified for the teaching of dance teachers) to the very personal recollections of those who worked with and for her. This certainly wasn’t a tribute to some remote historical figure, even if she had been dancing at the end of every pier in England in the period before the First World War. She was still very present in the minds of many there.

Her achievements in creating what is now the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School are so significant and so extraordinary and yet somehow we do seem take them for granted to an extent. There was very little discussion of any of the obstacles that she overcame: which isn’t to say they didn’t exist.


Ninette De Valois in 1931
© Sasha
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What was presented on the Saturday was material that shed light on some aspects of her career that are less commonly discussed. De Valois as a teacher elicited some very different views from those who had taken her classes from those who hated it and went elsewhere and those who found her concentration on fast intricate footwork (“knitting !”) rewarding.

Nicola Katrak gave us a different perspective on de Valois, that of many dancers all of whom had danced the Betrayed Girl in the Rake’s Progress, via a series of filmed interviews. The list was extensive including Elizabeth Anderton, Julia Farron, Margaret Barbieri, Marion Tait, Alfreda Thorogood and Belinda Hatley. It was a good idea but it was a lot of contributors to squeeze into a short slot.

De Valois’s love of folk dance and how it formed the foundations of our national character in dance were also discussed. She introduced folk dances to the curriculum of the Lower School, where they are still studied and performed. There was a demonstration of these, introduced by Simon Rice, plus a film from a number years back where the Morris dancers included Simon Rice and Jonathan Burrows.


Entrance to the conference website at
© Royal Ballet School
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De Valois’ view of folk dance as the foundation of the national character in dancing came into play with further presentations on her work in setting up a national ballet company in Turkey. In the 1960s she choreographed a number of ballets for them and in the filmed excerpts it was possible to see in her dances for groups of men in a village just the steps you would expect to see danced in celebration at a local wedding. The Turkish material was interesting in that it showed Madam in a rather softer and mellower light, not at all as intimidating to the dancers of the Turkish company as she was to those of the English one. Film of their productions in the 60s showed some very talented dancers including a lovely Giselle whose name I failed to write down legibly.

The proceedings of the conference are to be published next year.

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