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Call Her `Madame'.

Not many lives literally span over a century, but Dame Ninette de Valois, O.M., C.H., a woman everyone called "Madame" and the founder of Britain's Royal Ballet, was born in the nineteenth century and died in the twenty-first. And that was surely the least remarkable thing about her. She was spiritually and professionally a child of Serge Diaghilev, but also a child of W.B. Yeats, and she was effectively a Margaret Thatcher before anyone had ever heard of Margaret Thatcher. De Valois was one of the tiny handful of people who have exerted a crucial influence on twentieth-century dance.

That impact was not made as a dancer, although de Valois danced with some distinction. Nor was it made as a choreographer, although de Valois choreographed, also with some distinction. It was as an organizer, an entrepreneur--you even might say an architect. She was the architect not of any bricks-and-mortar building, but of an almost unimagined institution and a virtually intangible tradition. Her achievement in creating The Royal Ballet School, The Royal Ballet at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, perhaps can only be compared with Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine's creation of the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet. These people changed the face of the dance world.

Unlike the rest of the West, the English-speaking world had no national arts organizations supported largely by public-funds. Traditionally, British royalty had only been supportive of the fine arts. It commissioned palaces and portraits, but unlike the European kings and princes beyond the English Channel, it did not found theaters and opera houses, national theater troupes, nor opera and ballet companies. The British royal family seemed rather more interested in hunting and horseracing, and that lack of interest in theater, music, and dance trickled down to other aristocratic tastes and, as a consequence, stultified both royal and aristocratic munificence.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, classic ballet was in a bad way everywhere except in two comparative cultural backwaters, Denmark and Russia, and it was from Russia that contemporary ballet got its second wind. The Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev, with its ballets by Mikhail Fokine and later Vaslav Nijinsky, Leonide Massine, and Bronislava Nijinska, coupled with its new scores and designs, revolutionized ballet in the West, first in Western Europe and later in the United States. When the company broke up, after twenty years, with Diaghilev's death in 1929, the dancers were left to seek their own professional salvation. Among them were Diaghilev's favored choreographer, George Balanchine, and a 31-year-old Irish soloist and brilliant technician, Edris Stannus, whom Diaghilev had grandiloquently rechristened Ninette de Valois. These two, in very different ways, were to prove the most enduring aspects of Diaghilev's heritage.

De Valois had, in fact, formally left Diaghilev in 1925, although she frequently returned as a guest artist right up to the end. But by 1926 she had started her famous Academy of Choregraphic Art--yes, with that eccentric spelling--and the die was cast for her to be more and more in front of the classroom instead of the footlights. She was dancing, but was now teaching and choreographing and providing dances for the dramatic theater. She met Yeats at that time, who insisted that she work on his Plays for Dancers at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. At more or less the same time, she met Lilian Baylis, who was running with benevolent despotism the Old Vic Theatre and, later, the newly built Sadler's Wells Theatre.

De Valois provided Baylis with dancers for the operas and the plays, and finally, in 1931, formed the Vic-Wells Ballet, while her school morphed into the Vic-Wells Ballet School. There were a dozen or so dancers at first, supplemented by others recruited from her more or less friendly rival Marie Rambert's school and its Ballet Club. It was from Rambert's company that Frederick Ashton permanently joined de Valois in 1935. Her first principal dancers were Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova; when Dolin left, he was replaced by Robert Helpmann, and then when Markova went, she was replaced by Margot Fonteyn. The company, now called the Sadler's Wells Ballet, moved to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1946, after painfully surviving the war. By 1949 it was ready to appear at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, which it did to great acclaim. In eighteen years, de Valois had built from scratch a national company of international stature. The company acquired its final name, The Royal Ballet, in 1956, and de Valois retired as director in 1963--although she remained as the company's eminence grise almost until her death. When de Valois handed over the directorship to Ashton, The Royal Ballet, effectively headed by the formidable pairing of Fonteyn and Soviet defector Rudolf Nureyev, was poised to move into its great period, lasting until Ashton's own very premature retirement in 1970.

As a choreographer, few of de Valois's works will survive (possibly only The Rake's Progress and Job), but as a builder of companies she was in a class of her own. She was ruthless and charismatic, and like many pragmatic leaders, she probably destroyed as many careers as she made. Her eye was always on the big picture: It was her decision to invent a British classic repertoire by hijacking (with the assistance Of St. Petersburg repetiteur Nicholas Sergeyev) the Russian. And she would let nothing and no one stand in the way of her molding of Fonteyn as her prima ballerina, a creation essential to her grand plan.

She had good luck, but used it to demonstrate magnificent judgment. World War II, which banished the glamorous Ballets Russes companies from British wartime stages, gave her company the chance to establish an unexpectedly dominant position at the end of the war. Luck perhaps, but it was true grit that kept her and her company going in blitz-time conditions. Equally, it was her prescience in being the first in the West to realize the public appeal of the full-evening ballet--which she and her impresario, Sol Hurok, effectively introduced to the American public with far-reaching results--that changed the whole repertoire pattern of large-scale Western ballet companies. This was just one of the ways her influence spread--the National Ballet of Canada and the Australian Ballet were founded on her advice and by her proteges, and American Ballet Theatre eventually changed its direction after exposure to her example.

What should be her epitaph from the ballet world? Something like this: She knew what to do, she knew how to do it; she knew whom to hire and when to fire them; and she didn't give a damn for anything that stood in the way of her meticulously selfless ambition. Madame was not a particularly easy person, I suspect, but a sensationally effective one.

Senior consulting editor Clive Barnes, who covers' dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to Dance Magazine since 1956.
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Title Annotation:Ninette de Valois
Author:BARNES, CLIVE
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Words:1158
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