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About the Change

Ninette de Valois:

Adventurous Traditionalist

London Conference 1-3 April 2011

One of the most significant ballet events of 2011 was the 3 day conference about all things Ninette de Valois - Jann Parry, who gave a paper, was there for us...

by Jann Parry

© Sasha

Lynette Halewood's report on 2 April conference events

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

Jann Parry reviews

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The Royal Ballet School hosted a conference to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Dame Ninette’s death (8 March 2001), in the vein of previous conferences honouring Ashton, Fonteyn and MacMillan. Such celebrations have become very well organised – a judicious mix of scholarly information, film, entertaining performance and ballet chatter. So there was no need to be discouraged by the official mission statement:

The aim of the Conference is to facilitate a rigorous and multi-disciplinary exploration of de Valois’ life and legacy, while promoting a productive exchange between dance practitioners, academics, social historians and cultural commentators, within the context of ballet and the wider theatre.

The Friday-evening-through-Sunday proceedings covered de Valois’ achievements, casting light on the less well-known phases of her career (in Dublin and Ankara) as well as the familiar one – the establishment of the Royal Ballet. Her private life was glimpsed only occasionally. We probably learnt more about her as a woman from a Turkish documentary film, Dancing Across the Bosphorus, than from the numerous presentations and panel discussions.

Over the years, she had become something of a terror to the British dancers she presided over: for the Turkish Ballet, she was a more approachable figure, welcoming their dancers into her home whenever they visited London. A revelatory contributor to the film was her stepson, Dr David Connell, a GP like his father. I’m curious about de Valois’ other life as Mrs Arthur Connell, but there wasn’t space in the conference for domestic matters.

An insight into her inner life, however, was given by Patricia Linton in a paper at the opening session in the ROH Clore Studio. Ms Linton discussed de Valois’ poetry, focusing on poems that revealed her sense of loneliness, and the determination that set her apart from others. While I’ve struggled with the poems on the page, recorded readings by Eileen Atkins, with the text projected onto a screen, made eloquent sense. One doesn’t think of a busy person at the heart of an institution as being ‘fiercely alone’ (a quotation from one of her poems), but here was evidence of Idris Stannus’ personal isolation.

As a counterbalance, Friday evening concluded with a well-prepared programme of examples of de Valois’ choreography, performed by students of the Lower and Upper Schools and members of the Royal and Birmingham Royal Ballet companies. The selections were linked by recorded narration, voiced by Will Kemp and Jan Francis, as the voice of de Valois: both actors, of course, came through the Royal Ballet School. There were 11 items – too many to list here – concluding with excerpts from David Bintley’s Hobson’s Choice and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as examples of her legacy. The diverting programme was conceived by Jay Jolley and Anna Meadmore.


Ninette De Valois in 1931
© Sasha
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Lynne Wake’s film featuring de Valois, Come Dance With Me, first shown in the Lowry Centre exhibition about the Royal Ballet, had been screened during Friday afternoon, when conference delegates had a chance to see items from the exhibition displayed in the Opera House foyers and corridors.

Saturday’s proceedings took place in the Upper School’s Linden studio theatre in Covent Garden. Jane Pritchard, who chaired the conference, opened with a paper outlining de Valois’ early career as a dancer in pantomimes and end-of-the-pier shows. Ms Pritchard had unearthed far more information than de Valois provided in her autobiography, and she made the point that performing as a dancer in popular theatre during the early decades of the 20th century was a far from despised activity. It was the context in which ballet was usually seen by the English public until Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe presented it as an art form in its own right.

Clement Crisp discussed the influence of Diaghilev on de Valois’ work as a choreographer and artistic director. Giannandrea Poesio examined her connections with the Cecchettis, Enrico and his wife Guiseppina, drawing on recently discovered letters. Beth Genné marvelled at the breadth of de Valois’ reading in philosphy, given how little formal education she had received; her ideas about dance and training methods, published in her books and articles, shaped the development of British ballet.


Entrance to the conference website at
© Royal Ballet School
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As an antidote to the morning’s theorising, six students of the Upper School were put through a gruelling class by Valerie Adams, who had taught this syllabus on the teachers’ training course de Valois had introduced. Tough on the girls to be corrected in front of an audience – but ballet is a tough profession. De Valois evidently emphasised strong placement as well as speedy footwork, and she used a vocabulary of intricate steps unfamiliar to today’s dancers (and choreographers).

After the class demonstration, a panel discussion involving Julia Farron, Michael Hogan, Michael Boulton and Henry Danton (now 91, still teaching in the US) revealed that Madam’s classes were not appreciated by her company’s members. They preferred to go elsewhere for training, to de Valois’ annoyance. What became very clear during the conference was the awe that Madam instilled in generations of dancers. They had to have confidence in themselves to stand up to her, and she was adept at undermining their self-esteem.

Her great-niece, Louise Verity, intervened later in the proceedings to state that because her great-aunt came from a military background, she ran the Royal Ballet as strictly as a general would an army. That claim puzzles me, since de Valois, in her autobiography, Come Dance With Me, barely mentions her father, a Lt. Colonel who died during WW1, when she was 18. Her early, formative years were dominated by her mother and her dance teachers: she was a child of the theatre, not the barracks. Her implacability may well have been a theatrical device to gain the upper hand and conceal any sense of inadequacy. But young dancers and even mature administrators were unlikely to see through her protective disguise.


Ninette De Valois in 1926 as the Hostess in Nijinska's Les biches
© Courtesy of the Royal Ballet School
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Saturday afternoon’s session concentrated on elements in de Valois’ choreography. Nicola Katrak presented an analysis of the Betrayed Girl’s solo from The Rake’s Progress through interviews with dancers, ranging from Julia Farron and Margaret Barbieri (in person) to Elizabeth Anderton, Marion Tait, Alfreda Thorogood and Belinda Hatley (on film). Melissa Parsons, a second year student from the Upper School, performed it for the conference. The mixed message that came through was that Madam wanted the choreography, not the interpreter, to reveal the Girl’s emotions; yet the role requires an expressive artist to make it telling.

De Valois’ interest in folk dance, and her insistence it be taught in the School, was discussed by Libby Worth of Royal Holloway College, University of London, and by Ronald Smedley, former folk-dance instructor and Simon Rice, current teacher at the Lower School. The case for its inclusion was made by invigorating performances by boys of different ages, the youngest of whom was having a whale of a time.

Madam’s Turkish Adventure was revealed in films by Figen Phelps and Levent Kurumlu, and in a paper by Richard Glasstone, who directed the Turkish State Ballet from 1965-1969. He accounted for the Cold War politics that determined why de Valois was invited in 1947 to introduce classical ballet to Turkey. She continued to take a keen interest for the rest of her long life in the school and company she helped to found. Its members paid testament to her in the films, which included excerpts of her choreography for the company. (Her 1964 At the Fountainhead was performed by the Turkish Ballet in the Linbury Studio in May 2006 – see Ian Palmer’s review in the May 2006 magazine).


All the conference participants together on the steps at White Lodge. Here is a giant version (350k, 1500 pixels wide) of the participants so you can see everybody in detail.
© 2011 Patrick Baldwin
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Sunday’s sessions took place at White Lodge in Richmond Park, looking splendid in spring sunshine. The presentations were more multi-disciplinary than the previous day’s, with one performance at the conclusion. Alastair Macaulay, now dance critic of the New York Times, opened the day with a talk about the professional partnership between de Valois and Frederick Ashton, which he entitled ‘Cat and Mouse’. Their complementary relationship was a tricky one, since both partners could be contrary – and self-contradictory. Ashton revered classicism more than de Valois did, according to Macaulay; he was by far the greater choreographer, she the adminstrator and politician.

My paper on her relationship with Kenneth MacMillan was based on the correspondence between them that I found in MacMillan’s papers when researching his biography. He was the first home-grown choreographer she believed she could mould and mentor at the start of his career, though he often proved as stubborn as she was. Our two papers were followed by a panel discussion involving Gillian Lynne, Anya Linden, Maina Gielgud, John Tooley and John Copley: lots of anecdotes about Madam, and enjoyable mimicry of her manner, as in Saturday’s panels. These sparky personal reminiscences brought Madam vividly alive for those who didn’t have the chance to know her.

Susan Crow and Jennifer Jackson presented a double act, alternating statements in their joint paper and posing questions about de Valois as a creator and collaborator. Their pas de deux was followed by opposing views about her adoption of movement notation: Ann Hutchinson-Guest lamented de Valois’ rejection of Labanotation; Victoria Watts and Robert Penman accounted for her preference for Benesch notation. As a consequence, both systems are in use world-wide instead of just one – though most dancers (unlike music students, who learn to read a score) cannot follow either with ease.

A buffet lunch in the spacious Bussell/Stock studio included a dish dedicated in 1934 to de Valois. Salade de Volaille Ninette de Valois, mentioned in Cyril Beaumont’s Miscellany for Dancers, consists of cold chicken, celery, tomoatoes, artichokes and asparagus tips. Very healthy.

The afternoon session included papers on the influence of the Bloomsbury Group artists on de Valois’ approach to design for ballets, and her pre-war connection with Lilian Baylis and the Vic-Wells theatres. Her Irish background was given its due in the closing sessions. Victoria O’Brien from the University of Limerick described how de Valois’ formation of the Abbey Theatre Ballet School in 1927 served as a springboard for her Royal Ballet establishment. Dancers she trained in the Dublin school appeared, as she did herself, in the productions on which she collaborated with W.B. Yeats from 1927 to 1934.


The cover of the programme for Step by Step - a gala given at the Lowry to celibrate the Ninette de Valois/Story of The Royal Ballet exhibition in October 2010
© Royal Ballet/Royal Opera House
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Richard Cave, whose research on the period has been published as copiously illustrated book, Collaborations (Dance Books), presented a staging of Yeats’ 1934 dance-drama, The King of the Great Clock Tower. Deirdre Chapman took de Valois’ role of the Queen, in choreography devised by Will Tuckett. Set, costumes, masks and props were recreated from original designs and photographs; Arthur Duff’s music was adapted and extended by Craig Fortnam.

What might have seemed quaintly archaic turned out to be surprisingly compelling, thanks to professional performances by the cast of four and the musicians. The production has been filmed as an educational and archival resource.

Celebratory drinks, with a closing address from Monica Mason and a toast to Madam, concluded the conference on Sunday evening.

Papers given at the conference are to be published in an expanded form next year.

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