An English Ballet
In 1981 Ninette de Valois, the founder of English Ballet, spoke at the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars. This book, An English Ballet, combines that talk with her 1955 article, Some Problems of Ballet Today, along with Sir Peter Wright’s Madam’s Memorial Address; these two extras take up the second half of the book which is edited by David Gayle. There are some charming photographs dotted throughout the text – Madam being taken in a horse drawn carriage to the Seminar; Madam aged 17 in costume; Dame Alicia Markova and Michael O’Hare at the first Yorkshire Ballet Seminar and Madam teaching Marguerite Porter in the graduate class at the Royal Ballet School in 1965, photographed by Lord Snowdon.
Are Dame Ninette’s words as valid today as they were in the 50’s and 80’s ? What does it mean to have a national style and why is it important ? How might such a style be nurtured ?
A portion of the sales from this book will be donated to the Yorkshire Ballet Summer School.
An English Ballet opens with a letter from Madam, accepting the invitation to speak at the Seminar, and signed ‘Madam.’
She was 83 in August 1981 and at the time she was celebrating 50 years of The Royal Ballet, speaking for around an hour about life with the Royal Ballet, without notes.
De Valois said that she didn’t know what the English style was, that ‘style’ is something to do with character and personality that evolve from the Country itself. She didn’t think that the National Dances were given enough importance or taken seriously enough by teachers. Nowadays the Royal Ballet School students perform these National Dances often. Just as the complex melodies found in opera derive from airs and tunes, so classical ballet should be formed from the National Dances.
De Valois was a big fan of Dalcroze Eurhythmics, where children were taught to listen to music; to dance with the music, and she felt that choreographers should study it when young. Indeed, Madam felt that ballet should take the same role in schools that music does.
De Valois spoke of the differences in schooling around the world, and how it’s good that those differences exist and how we should take those elements that suit our English dancers just as other countries take things from our dancers that would suit there’s. She was very keen to emphasise that we should never ditch everything and try to copy someone else’s style; that 50 years was nothing in terms of development of an English style.
Talking about styles around the world, De Valois remarked that in the English style, we dance from the waist down. The Russians dance from the waist up and their more prolonged, lethargic Russian line suits the American, Balanchine dancers better than it does English dancers with their fast footwork.
There are parallels with today; for example the battle for ballet to have its own place in the school curriculum (as music does) rather than being lumped with sport, goes on in some schools. Also, The Royal Ballet made the greatest progress during the war, when initially the Home Office closed all theatres, only to find that the one thing people needed was the theatre. So it is today – in these recessionary times, theatre attendance continues to rise. De Valois felt that the company really built its audience during those times, also building an American public on tour in Paris where they were only allowed to dance for the American troops (though she tells the story of how the Paris Opera Ballet dancers got in). What surprised some of the audiences of that time was that ballet “could be about anything.”
De Valois recommended that all dancers read their criticisms without being too swayed by either the praise or the blame, because criticism is what you take in your stride.
De Valois very much emphasised how important it was for the schools to develop talent within their students in all areas, because it may be that they won’t reach the top in their dancing career, but later on, in another branch of it they may reach the top. Some students at White Lodge had gone into other areas simply because, say, their violin playing was better than their dancing. To this day, every student at White Lodge learns a musical instrument.
Noting that great dancers don’t always make great teachers, she admits to a very Irish remark in saying that “to be a great teacher you probably have to have been a very good dancer.” That’s why I always recommend students check the performance experience of their potential teachers and find out whether previous students have gone on to join companies etc,.
Madam’s voice comes across through the talk – her no nonsense advice and instinctive reactions which she passionately believed in and which she used to form The Royal Ballet School and The Royal Ballet company. Reading it now, you get a clear sense that the threads of her advice are fully knitted within the school and company and remain there to this day. Today’s advice might well be the same – listen to your gut!