Dancing in the Blitz : How WW2 made British Ballet
As part of the BBC’s Short Ballet Season, Dancing in the Blitz : How WW2 made British Ballet describes how the onset of war isolated Britain and its small ballet companies, which were then given the chance to shine through adversity.
From 1939 to 1946 this documentary is presented by David Bintley, Artistic Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet and a former dancer who was taught by Ninette de Valois – widely regarded as the founder of British ballet. From Dante Sonata to Symphonic Variations, ballet footage in rehearsal and performance gives a snapshot of the conditions the dancers faced, at home and on tour.
Ninette de Valois’ Vic-Wells Ballet was founded in 1931 (later became the Sadlers Wells Ballet), and surviving members of the company describe morning class during the war years as a roll call to see who was still alive, literally. Julia Farron, Beryl Grey and Gillian Lynne among others reminisce without sentimentality, with Grey saying “we did so many new ballets.”
Before WW2 it was mostly Russian ballet companies who visited Britain. There was no British company or style. Ballet hardly existed for the man on the street in the 30’s; it was seen as an art the existed for the elite of London. Anna Meadmore, Historian at The Royal Ballet School concurs, “it was for the tiara set.”
The film follows the moment that war was announced on 3rd September 1939, through conscription (which de Valois, coming from a military family, believe very strongly in) which depleted the men of her company, and on through the tour to Holland in 1940 (Holland was a neutral country at that stage), where they performed Les Patineurs and Dante Sonata, among others on the first night at The Hague’s Royal Theatre. The dancers recall seeing flowers thrown onto the stage for the first time, marvelling at how they got hold of them in the first place, and this being Holland, they were spring flowers of tulips and daffodils. Critical reviews were very good, but on May 10th the Germans invaded Holland and the company, formed with many teenager dancers, had to flee the country with almost nothing. A few days later, Holland surrendered to the Germans.
Back in London, de Valois set to work again, against the backdrop of the Blitz which began in September 1940 and caused the closure of the Sadlers Wells Theatre; leaving the company homeless temporarily. They found a new base in the New Theatre, but these were the days when 100 flying bombs would hit London every day, and the dancers recall a performance of Les Sylphides where they were performing and could hear the bombs dropping close by.
Because the company shared the New Theatre, the dancers didn’t get that many performances, so they went on tour. This was possibly the making of de Valois’ company, as they were seen by everyone all over the country – and even those initially sceptical had nothing else to see at the time, which helped to form new audiences as they fell in love with ballet.
The dancers were paid £4 a week (roughly £100 nowadays) and they endured hardships – food rationing, lack of digs, or heating, and for the ladies, one pair of pointe shoes per fortnight, which had to see them through 18 performances.
The touring was a success, and by the end of the war they were playing to packed houses all the time. The dancers recall how, when people had nothing, they still found enough to pay to go to the ballet. And so the dancers were determined to be wonderful. Records show that between 1941-42 the company gave 208 performances (110 the previous year). Compare this with the current tally for Birmingham Royal Ballet, of 130 per year.
There is rehearsal and performance footage from BRB’s dancers and from Margot Fonteyn and others. One of these clips is from the dress rehearsal of Symphonic Variations, which has never been seen in public before, from 1946 with the original cast.
On 8th May 1945 Germany surrendered, and the dancers remember dancing Coppelia at the time, and how keen they were for the performance to be finished so that they could join the crowds in Trafalgar Square to celebrate the end of the war. By this time, the company was successful and artistic, but it would take the influence of one man to secure their future : John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was an economist and balletomane, married to a Russian ballet dancer, and it was he who suggested that de Valois’s company move to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, which until now had been a dance hall and a venue for visiting Russian dancers. In 1946 the company moved into the building, which Grey describes as “such a hallowed place where only the greatest had performed.”
On 20th February 1946 the Opera House re-opened with The Sleeping Beauty, performed in front of the royal family. The dancers recall having new costumes, sets and a full-sized orchestra for the first time since the war. Kaynes was also responsible for the public funding that was granted to the company from the newly formed Arts Council, which put the company on a far more secure footing than they had ever been.
The Royal Ballet came into being in 1956, transforming the Sadlers Wells Ballet into a national company and school for the first time and fulfilling de Valois’ vision.
Dancing in the Blitz : How WW2 made British Ballet is on 5th March on BBC Four at 9pm