Dame Ninette de Valois, founder of Britain's Royal Ballet, one of the world's top five classical ensembles, died Thursday at her home in London. She was 102.
Her influence on ballet in the last century was enormous. There was no continuity of ballet tradition in England before she and a handful of others created the schools and companies from which generations of great choreographers and dancers emerged. Among the epochal artists she nurtured were choreographer Frederick Ashton and ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
"With the death of Dame Ninette de Valois, we acknowledge the passing of one of the 20th century's greatest and most influential figures in the world of the arts," said Sir Anthony Dowell, director of the Royal Ballet.
Moira Shearer, who danced with the company for a decade and starred in a number of ballet films, including "The Red Shoes," once called De Valois "a choreographer of immense talent and perception, and also a ruthless dictator. . . . But performing these ballets were a delight."
A former dancer, teacher, choreographer and company director known affectionately in the ballet world as "Madam," De Valois was born Edris Stanus on June 6, 1898, in Blessingham, County Wicklow, Ireland. The first dance she learned was an Irish jig. However, she also remembered being enchanted by a Dublin version of "The Sleeping Beauty" and it was this ballet that became the touchstone of her career.
Raised in London from the age of 8, she studied dancing at the Lila Field Academy and, later on, with a number of important teachers, including Enrico Cecchetti, whose stylistic priorities put their stamp on what would become the fine-grained, sculptural Royal Ballet technique.
She danced with Field's group of "Wonder Children" in 1913 (at which time her mother chose De Valois as her stage name) and made her debut in 1914 as a principal dancer in "Jack and the Beanstalk," a traditional Christmas pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre, returning annually to Lyceum pantomimes for the next five years.
De Valois also soon began dancing in musical revues and operas, performing for the first time at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (future home of the Royal Ballet) in 1919. After appearances in musical comedy and on the music hall circuit, she joined the small Massine/Lopoukhova company (featuring dancers and repertory from the Sergei Diaghilev Ballets Russes) in 1922 and the next year the Diaghilev company. There, in what represented the mecca of serious ballet, she soon rose to the rank of soloist.
The Diaghilev aesthetic--respect for 19th century traditions but a commitment to working with the finest visual artists and composers of the 20th century--inspired and influenced her, and even after she left the company in 1925, Diaghilev would send for her to dance in the fairy divertissement in his production of "The Sleeping Beauty" (a.k.a. "The Sleeping Princess" and, later, in a shortened version, "Aurora's Wedding.") This production had first enchanted her in 1921 and it was to shape her vision of classicism, just as Diaghilev became the most important influence on her as teacher, choreographer and artistic director.
During her Ballets Russes period, she created an important role in Bronislava Nijinska's "Les Biches" and worked with George Balanchine in operas he choreographed for Diaghilev, including "Le Rossignol." Returning to England, she founded the Academy of Choreographic Art in Kensington in 1926 and the same year approached the director of London's Old Vic Theatre with a plan for developing a repertory ballet company in that venue.
It started small, with curtain-raisers, interludes and dances in Shakespearean plays, but her work there and at the Festival Theatre in Cambridge led to her founding the first government-supported ballet school in Britain--at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, where she worked as a choreographer until 1934.
She choreographed her first ballet, "Les Petits Riens," in 1928 for the Old Vic and in the early 1930s choreographed for the Camargo Society, a pioneer British ballet organization. In 1931 she moved her London-based school to the newly opened Sadler's Wells Theatre, where she presented periodic performances that soon led to the formation of the Sadler's Wells Ballet.
De Valois was now established as a prominent teacher, choreographer and company director, tirelessly building a repertory and the stature of British-born dance artists--most notably that of choreographer Ashton. She continued to dance until 1937.
When the Sadler's Wells Ballet lost the services of Alicia Markova in the mid-1930s and needed a star ballerina, De Valois developed one from a promising teenager named Margaret Evelyn Hookham, who had started in the company in 1934 as a dancing snowflake but within a year was performing Markova roles under the stage name Margot Fonteyn. De Valois also brought other dancers to international prominence but allowed no one to eclipse Fonteyn, a source of company resentment later on.