Irishwoman who became the mother of British ballet


Last summer, An Post issued a special purple 30p stamp, bearing a composite portrait of Dame Ninette de Valois, to honour this great Irishwoman's achievements. Yet, ironically, the founder of the Royal Ballet, who died on March 8th aged 102, will always be referred to as "the mother of British ballet". However, to the dancers who worked or trained under her, she will always be known as "Madam".

Born Edris Stannus at Baltyboys House in Blessington, Co Wicklow, on June 6th, 1898, she was the second daughter of Lieut Col Stannus, DSO, and Lilith Graydon-Smith, a distinguished glassmaker and collector of Waterford Glass. She chose her daughter's stage name, for dancers then had to have exotic names, usually Russian-sounding. In this case, Huguenot ancestry, with a historic connection to the French royal house, suggested the name.

However, no royal welcome greeted the birth of a second daughter, her father ordering the ground staff not to light the bonfire intended to announce the arrival of the expected son. Hearing this nine years later, Ninette de Valois retorted that she might light her own, though even she could not have foreseen how it would blaze around the world.

It was first sparked when Mrs Leggett-Byrne, who ran a dance studio in Dublin's Adelaide Road, performed at a party. The seven-year-old insisted on performing a jig taught her by their cook, Kate. Soon afterwards the family was unable to afford the upkeep of Baltyboys and Ninette de Valois was sent to live with her grandmother in Walmer, Kent.

Later, recalling a visit to the house, she wrote in her memoirs, Come Dance With Me (1957): "I feel that here, at the foot of these Wicklow Hills, lies the midnight of the first seven years of my life."

In England, she began training in classical ballet at the Lila Field Academy. She watched Pavlova dance The Dying Swan at the Palace Theatre, and noted down the choreography, which she reproduced later on tour. She got her first West End role in 1914 as principal dancer in the Lyceum pantomime and was re-engaged there each December throughout the first World War, during which her father was killed at the Somme, when commanding the 7th Battalion of the Leinster Regiment.

By also teaching and playing in summer revue and variety, she earned enough to pay for classes with Espinosa and Cecchetti. In 1921, she toured Europe with the MassineLopokova company before joining Diaghilev's Les Ballets Russes in 1923 for two years, chronicled in her book, Invitation To The Ballet (1937).

In 1927, W.B. Yeats invited her to run a ballet school at the Abbey, where she also choreographed and performed in his Plays for Dancers. Then Lilian Baylis, the formidable and eccentric manager of the Old Vic Theatre, employed her as Shakespearian movement coach and choreographer. This led to the founding in 1931 of the VicWells Ballet Company and School, the latter replacing her London Academy of Choreographic Art, which she had founded in 1926.

In 1935, Ninette de Valois dared, very riskily as it seemed, to make a ballerina of the adolescent Margot Fonteyn. She introduced the great classics into the repertory and set about supplementing them with a British repertory.

Of her own choreography she was the toughest of critics, yet she was responsible for making much of that early repertory very British in character. When Frederick Ashton joined her in 1935 she delegated much of the choreography to him, and in the post-war years made only one ballet for her company, the unmemorable Don Quixote. Yet three of her principal pre-war works have lived on: Job (1931) The Rake's Progress (1935) and Checkmate (1937).

Under her guidance, the Vic-Wells became Sadler's Wells, with a younger sister, the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, and, in 1946, moved to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, becoming the Royal Ballet in 1955.

Kind, sensible and outspoken, Ninette de Valois had absolute integrity. A strict disciplinarian, she demanded no more of her dancers than of herself, continuing to dance until 1937, despite pain from an operation in 1935. The latter, however, led to her long and happy marriage to the Irish surgeon who operated on her, the late Dr Arthur Connell.

She retired as director of the Royal Ballet in 1963, loaded with honours, including a CBE (1947), Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur (1950) and Dame of the Order of the British Empire (1951). In 1961, she became the first woman to receive the Dutch Erasmus Prize and, in 1964, the first, since Marie Curie, to receive the Albert Medal of the Royal Society. In 1980, she received an Irish Community Award and the British Companion of Honour in 1981.

She directed the Royal Ballet School until 1972, remaining on the board of governors, and becoming patron of Irish National Ballet.

Recently ill-health limited her activities, but she was at a special gala performance in Covent Garden in 1997. At curtain fall, the whole company and school assembled on stage as a spotlight found "Madam" and she received a standing ovation.

Ninette de Valois will be mourned throughout the world of dance, however, her legacy lives on wherever she has danced, directed or taught.

Dame Ninette de Valois (Edris Stannus): born 1898; died, March 2001