Thursday, June 06, 2019

Dame Ninette de Valois: Architect of British Ballet

The dancer, director, teacher and choreographer Dame Ninette De Valois (born June 6th 1898, died 2001 aged 102) had many honours bestowed upon her in her lifetime including a C.B.E. in 1947, Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur (1950), D.B.E.(1951), C.H. (1981) and O.M. (1992). But perhaps it is her being awarded the Erasmus Prize in 1974 for a contribution of particular importance to Europe in the cultural or social sphere which best reflects her greatest achievement. She effectively established a British National ballet company, (The Royal Ballet), as well as founding a national ballet company for Ireland and Turkey. The deep influence which de Valois exerted upon the ballet world continues to the present-day.

Ninette de Valois first danced professionally on the stage of the Palladium in 1915 and by 1919 she had achieved the status of premiere danseuse at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London.

De Valois in 1923
In her memoirs de Valois states that she studied for 4 years with the Italian dancer Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1925). Born in 1850 in the dressing room of the Apollo Theatre in Tordino, Italy, by 1888 Cecchetti was widely acknowledged  as the greatest male ballet virtuoso in the world. He created and performed the virtuoso role of the Blue Bird and the mime role of Carabosse in the premiere of Marius Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty in 1890. Later in life he restaged many ballets, including Petipa's definitive version of Coppélia in 1894, from which nearly all modern versions of the work are based. Indeed, de Valois' own choreography for the Royal Ballet's revival of Coppelia in 1954 is based upon Cecchetti's choreography. [1]

Enrico Cecchetti 1890
In addition to Cecchetti, de Valois was greatly influenced by the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929). De Valois considered Diaghilev's Ballet Russe company to be the most perfect ballet expression the theatre has ever known and Diaghilev himself to be an exemplary fusion  of  connoisseur, creative artist and scholar.

It was during de Valois' time with the Ballet Russe that Diaghilev assigned to Bronislava Nijinska the choreography of Stravinsky's Les Noces. The result combines elements of her brother's choreography for The Rite of Spring with traditional aspects of ballet, such as dancing en pointe. The following year Nijinska choreographed three new works for the company: Les biches, Les Fâcheux and Le train bleu. While attending rehearsals of Les Noces de Valois noted- 'From  this detailed study was to emerge a clear picture of the geometrical beauty of the inner structure and relationship between the music and choreography'. [2]

De Valois had the unique opportunity to learn many aspects of staging a ballet production while with the Ballet Russe. Artists of the calibre such as Picasso, Stravinsky and Matisse frequently visited the Company in rehearsal. She describes one surprise visitor during rehearsals, none other than Vaslav Nijinsky who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and committed to a mental asylum. She describes him thus - 'Looking around that company where futures and pasts were stamped on features and actions, one felt the silent onlooker's present state spelt a peace that might be absent for ever from the understanding of his companions. It is important to stress the happiness that was in his face; it was as if the mind had departed in an effort to escape from the discord'. [3]

Vaslav Nijinsky with sister Bronislava 1912

In her Invitation to the Ballet (1937) Ninette de Valois informs her reader that, 'two English choreographers have served under Madame Nijinska, both in the classroom and on stage, i.e. Frederick Ashton and the present writer - the latter regarding Nijinska's tuition as the most vital influence and help in her career'. Elsewhere she states - 'I learnt far more from Nijinska than I ever did from Massine'. [4] She also states- 'The main effect of Diaghilev on my dormant creative mind was to arouse an intense interest in the ballet in relation to the theatre....I had come to one conclusion: the same should happen along the same lines, and with such an ultimate goal - in England'. [5]

Upon leaving Diaghilev's company in 1926, De Valois occasionally toured England, in particular performing at Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. In her Rout staged privately with her pupils at Cambridge in 1928, the influence of Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noches which de Valois had  danced while a member of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe  can be seen. 

Rout  Cambridge 1928 with de Valois in centre of group
Ninette de Valois performed at the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich on  Monday 1st December 1930. The Maddermarket Theatre was the first permanent recreation of an Elizabethan Theatre in England. It opened under the directorship of its founder Nugent Monck in 1921 and continues to be active today.  

In what appears to have been a full programme of dance, all of which was choreographed by de Valois, her small troupe of dancers performed the following - Prelude Orientale with music by Gliere, Rhythm a group dance with music by Beethoven, Russe Fantasie a group dance, Serenade a solo with music by Boccherini, Etude a pas de trio with music by Debussy, Fugue a group dance to the music of J.S. Bach's Fugue no. 5 from The Well-Tempered Klavier and The Tryst with specially commissioned music by the budding composer William Alwyn (1905-85). It was probably de Valois' solo dance in A Daughter of Eve which was the star performance of the night with de Valois dancing in a costume  consisting of a fluffy, white, calf-length skirt, a peasant apron, and a bonnet with coloured ribbons. 

'This became an immensely popular item, a demi-caractere miniature of a flirtatious young woman in silent dialogue with an unseen young man. At the end she offers him an apple, is refused, and then sits on the forestage steps, and bites into the apple. With a provocative smile, she leaves it on stage and walks away'  [6]

Its not improbable, given the fact that both Nugent Monck and de Valois were friends of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, that somehow a commendation, request or invitation to perform at the Maddermarket theatre at Norwich was made between these artists. In the same year as her Norwich performance de Valois danced in a production of the opera Carmen  at Covent Garden  in 1930.

In 1931 De Valois, through the help of theatre manager Lilian Baylis (1874-1937) established a permanent ballet company at Sadler's Wells. At first the Vic-Wells ballet had only six female dancers, with Ninette de Valois herself as lead dancer and choreographer. The company performed its first full ballet production on 5 May 1931 at the Old Vic, with Anton Dolin as guest star. Its first performance at Sadler’s Wells was a few days later, on 15 May 1931.

De Valois shares this amusing anecdote about her benefactress Lilian Baylis- 'The body beautiful was her great topic; on this point she had no inhibitions. I once stood with her at the back of the Old Vic circle during a ballet performance when she informed me, in clear loud tones, that a certain male dancer had a most beautiful behind'.  [7]

De Valois performed one last time as a dancer in 1935 in a production of Coppelia.  One critic noted-

'Her performance was characterised by superlative neatness and elegance but it was in her miming that she particularly excelled. In the second act especially she reflected to perfection every idea and fancy passing through the heroine's brain. Not only her face but all the movements of her body seemed to be called into play'.

Another ballet-critic claimed she was- 'something of a sensation as Swanilda. Her grace and charm; her precision and sense of rhythm; and her gaiety and perfect miming, went to the creation of a very fine performance.'

De Valois as Swanilda in Coppelia 1935
Under the Directorship of Ninette de Valois the Vic-Wells ballet company flourished during the 1930s to became one of the first Western dance companies to stage the classical ballet repertoire of the Imperial Russian Ballet. De Valois began to establish a British repertory, engaging Frederick Ashton as Principal Choreographer and Constant Lambert as Musical Director in 1935 and  choreographed several of her own ballets including Job (1931), The Rake’s Progress (1935) and Checkmate (1937). 

The Black Queen in a modern production of Checkmate

Eventually the dance company which de Valois established included many of the most famous ballet dancers in the world, including Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Moira Shearer, Beryl Grey, and Michael Somes. In 1949 the Sadler Wells Ballet was a sensation when they toured the United States with Margot Fonteyn instantly becoming an international celebrity.

In many ways de Valois' visionary genius lay in her ability to recognise, encourage, train and retain talent. Self-sacrificing for the benefit of the Company, forever considering the future, she was also a strict disciplinarian who earned the nickname of 'the Games mistress' by pupils and dancers. Set designer and artist Leslie Hurry (1909-78) typifies her influence, stating-

'She imposed a stern discipline upon my turbulent imagination. An incredibly brilliant woman -sympathetic, understanding, marvellous to work with'. [8]

Although she officially stepped-down as Director of The Royal Ballet in 1963, de Valois continued to teach and exert her sometimes formidable influence upon the Company for a further decade. De Valois herself stated of  choreography-

'Choreography is one of the most complex and exacting forms of creative work, demanding an abstraction and plasticity to be found in painting and sculpture. In this way its relation to space is coupled with its own function in time'.

De Valois (left) teaching a dancer

[1]   Delibes: Coppelia - Choreography Ninette de Valois 
       The Royal Ballet. Opus Arte/BBC (2010)
[2]  Ninette de Valois -Idealist without Illusions 
       Katherine Sorley Walker  pub. Hamish Hamilton 1987
[3]  Valois, Ninette de - Invitation to the Ballet. 
       London pub. Bodley Head 1937
[4]  Secret Muses: The life of Frederick Ashton 
       Julie Kavanagh  pub. Faber and Faber 2006
[5]  Invitation to the Ballet
[6]  Ninette de Valois -Idealist without Illusions 
[7]  Ibid.
[8] Walker citing Evening News 6 September 1943


*  Valois, Ninette de - Invitation to the Ballet. London: Bodley Head pub. 1937
*  Valois, Ninette de - Come Dance with Me; A Memoir, 1898-1956. London:           pub. Hamish Hamilton. 1957
*  The Royal Ballet 75 Years Zoe Anderson pub. Faber and Faber 2006
*  Ninette de Valois - Idealist without Illusions -Katherine Sorley Walker pub.           Hamish Hamilton 1987


* Delibes:Coppelia - Choreography Sergey Vikharev after Petipa and Cecchetti.     Ballet of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia.  
   Belair Classiques: BAC463  (2019)

* Delibes: Coppelia - Choreography Ninette de Valois. 
   The Royal Ballet. Opus Arte/BBC (2010)

* Checkmate and The Rake's Progress Choreography De Valois  
    Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet  VAI  (1982)  

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Margot Fonteyn Centenary

Born on May 18th 1919, Margot Fonteyn was one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. In addition to her dedication and technical skills, Fonteyn had the good luck to be coached firstly by the Russian dancer and ballet teacher Serafina Astafieva (1876-1934) then through joining the Vic-Wells company directed by its visionary founder Ninette de Valois (1898-2001) at a time when British ballet itself developed and came of age.  

Over the course of decades, Fonteyn, along with Irish-born Ninette de Valois, and choreographer Frederick Ashton (1904-88) established ballet as a popular and serious art-form for Britain audiences. It can even be said that the rapid development of ballet in Britain as an art-form from circa 1935-1960 was primarily through the talents of Fonteyn as prima ballerina , the high standards instilled in the Corps de ballet by company director de Valois and the 'in-house' choreographic skills of Frederick Ashton. These combined factors contributed towards making what was to become the Royal Ballet, a company equal in stature to long established  Russian ballet companies such as the Bolshoi and Kirov.
Fonteyn joined Ninette de Valois's Vic-Wells company (later Sadler Wells, later still, the Royal Ballet) in 1935 when precociously young. She soon found herself selected by de Valois for the highly responsible role of prima ballerina of the Company.

In her detailed biography of Fonteyn, author Meredith Danemann notes that it was also at this time that the ballerina had an on-and-off affair with the stage-conductor and composer Constant Lambert (1905-51). According to friends of Fonteyn, Lambert was the great love of her life and she despaired when she finally realised he would never marry her. Aspects of this relationship were symbolised in Lambert's astrologically-themed ballet Horoscope which was first performed on January 27th 1938. Tragically, Lambert was to die of alcoholism in 1951, only six weeks after his ballet Tiresias with its violent, sexual storyline had received hostile, damning reviews. Lambert's friends claim it was these reviews which  led to the composer drinking  even harder, effectively destroying himself at the age of 45.

Margot Fonteyn endeared herself to the British public by performing throughout the Blitz of the war-years. Undaunted by bombs, she refused to evacuate to a safer location and instead catered for the growing demand for ballet during the war, performing sometimes four or five times in a single day. After the war Fonteyn and the Sadler Wells Ballet company enjoyed worldwide fame following a rapturous reception in New York in 1949. They subsequently toured Australia to equally rave reviews. In 1956 Sadlers Wells was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth II and became the Royal Ballet.  

Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann in 'Sleeping Beauty' (1946)
In 1962 at an age when most ballerinas would be considering retirement, Fonteyn embarked upon a second career, partnering the charismatic dancer Rudolf Nureyev (1938-93) who had recently defected from the USSR. The ever-astute De Valois describes her first impressions of Nureyev during his curtain-calls after his first performance in London in 1961 thus-

'I saw an arm raised with a noble dignity, a hand expressively extended with that restrained discipline which is the product of great traditional schooling. Slowly the head turned from one side of the theatre to the other, and the Slav bone-structure of the face, so beautifully modelled, made me feel like an inspired sculptor rather than the director of the Royal Ballet. I could see him clearly and suddenly in one role - Albrecht in Giselle. Then and there I decided that when he first danced for us it must be with Fonteyn in that ballet', [1]

Others wrote more dramatically of Nureyev's performance, one dance critic stating it, 'produced the shock of seeing a wild animal let loose in a drawing-room'. [2]

In her book 'Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet' Judith Holman assesses Fonteyn and Nureyev's relationship and the reception of their first performance together in Giselle  on 21 February 1962 thus-

'At first glance, they seemed unlikely match: he was twenty-four and had a sweeping Soviet style, while she was forty-three and the paragon of English restraint. Yet together they created a potent mix of sex and celebrity that made them icons of the 1960s and "swinging" London's permissive scene:... It was pure populism, ballet for the youth generation and a mass consumer age,.. Fonteyn and Nureyev fashioned themselves into balletic rock superstars.

'How did they do it? The onstage chemistry between them has often been explained by sex: that they had it, wanted it, or suppressed it (they never told). But their partnership also stood for something much larger. In their dancing, East meets West: his campy sexuality and eroticism (heavy makeup with teased and lacquered hair) highlighted and offset her impeccable bourgeois taste. Nureyev played his role to perfection: even in the most classical of steps, he flirted with the image of the Asian potentate, and his unrestrained sensuality and tiger-like movements recalled a cliched Russian orientalism (first exploited by Diaghilev's Ballets Russe), which also linked to the escapist fantasies of 1960s middle-class youth: Eastern mysticism, revolution, sex, and drugs.

'The East was one thing; age was another. Nureyev had a gorgeous, youthful physique; Fonteyn was old enough to be her mother. And although her technique was still impressive, she looked her age. Indeed, as Fonteyn's proper 1950s woman fell into the arms of Nureyev's mod man, the generation gap seemed momentarily to close. .. Not everyone was happy with the result: the prominent American critic John Martin lamented that Fonteyn had  gone "to the grand ball with a gigolo". None of this meant , however that Nureyev was disrespectful. To the contrary, when he partnered Fonteyn he did so with supreme respect and perfect nineteenth century manners. To the British, this mattered: Fonteyn, after all, was still "like the Queen" and during the curtain-call of their first performance of Giselle, Nureyev accepted a rose from Fonteyn and then instinctively fell to his knee at her feet and covered her hand with kisses. The audience went wild'. [3]

Fonteyn spoke of Nureyev's gesture after their first performance together thus-

'It was his way of expressing genuine feelings, untainted by conventional words. Thereafter, a strange attachment formed between us which we have never been able to explain satisfactorily, and which, in a way, one could describe as a deep affection, or love, especially if one believes that love has many forms and degrees. But the fact remains that Rudolf was desperately in love with someone else at the time, and, for me, Tito is always the one with black eyes'. [4] 

More objectively, one dance-critic succinctly noted of the relationship -

'One unforeseen result of Nureyev's advent was a new lease of life for Fonteyn. Since Ulanova's retirement, she and Maya Plisetskaya of the Bolshoi shone above all rivals, but now there were sall signs of a possible end to her supremacy through declining technique and confidence. Nureyev changed all that. Responding to his highly charged stage presence, Fonteyn found a dramatic power that had previously eluded her. In place of the formerly reserved, carefully balanced dancer emerged a woman who threw herself impetuously into her roles. Consequently, she went on to many more years of recognition as a unique artist. [5]

Much has been written and speculated upon Fonteyn and Nureyev's relationship on and off-stage, Rudolf Nureyev is recorded as saying of Fonteyn - 'At the end of Lac des Cygnes (Swan Lake) when she left the stage in her great white tutu I would have followed her to the end of the world'. Nureyev later embarked upon a successful career as the director of the Paris Opera Ballet where he continued to dance and to promote younger dancers. He held this appointment as chief choreographer until 1989. Nureyev tested positive for HIV in 1984 and died tragically young from an AIDs related illness in 1993 aged just 54. 

Equally tragic, Fonteyn's husband Tito was shot during an assassination attempt in 1964 resulting in his becoming a quadriplegic, requiring nursing for the remainder of his life. In 1972, Fonteyn went into semi-retirement, although she continued to occasionally dance until late in her life, partly through a need to subsidise her paraplegic husband's medical bills.  

In 1979, as a gift for her 60th birthday, Fonteyn was fêted by the Royal Ballet and officially pronounced the prima ballerina assoluta of the company. The title was sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth II as patron of the company. Dame Fonteyn retired to Panama, where she spent her time writing books, raising cattle, and caring for her husband. She died from ovarian cancer on February 21st 1991, exactly 29 years to the day after her premiere with Nureyev in Giselle. 

The first global super-star ballerina, Margot Fonteyn placed English ballet on the world-stage. She remains inspirational to dancers and loved by balletomanes throughout the world, still alive in spirit, one hundred years old today.

                                           *   *  *  *

There is one role which Fonteyn identified with, the water-spirit Ondine, choreographed especially for her by Frederick Ashton.  Princess Aurora in Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty is another role she made her own. The 'Rose Adagio' in The Sleeping Beauty in which the ballerina remains balanced en pointe whilst receiving a rose from four suitors is considered to be a formidable technical achievement for a ballerina. 

This rare colour film of the first Act of 'Sleeping Beauty' was found in a disused Norfolk barn in the 1990's.  The 'Rose Adagio' starts at 12 minutes. 


Some of Fonteyn's greatest roles were filmed. Mostly inexpensive on DVD, they also reflect the technology of the era, filmed over half a century ago; nevertheless they remain valuable records of Fonteyn as a ballerina. 

* Swan Lake - Fonteyn and Nureyev  Philips 1966

* The Royal Ballet - Firebird (Fokine) and Ondine (Ashton) 1960 Network DVD

* Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet 1966 Network DVD. 
    Grainy colouration 

* Sleeping Beauty 1955 VAI  b/w

Recommended Books

*Margot Fonteyn- Meredith Daneman
  pub. Viking 2004  654pp.

*Apollo's Angels- A History of Ballet- Jennifer Homans
   pub. Granta Books 2010 643pp.

* Invitation to the Ballet -Ninette de Valois
   pub. Bodley Head 1937


[1] Ninette de Valois - Step by Step W. H. Allen 1977 cited by Daneman
[2] Alexander Bland Observer 5th November 1961 cited by Daneman
[3] Apollo's Angels- A History of Ballet-Jennifer Homans. Granta Books 2010 
[4] Fonteyn Autobiography cited by Daneman
[5] Modern Ballet - John Percival pub. The Herbert Press 1970 rev. 1980

Documentary/Biopic DVDs

* Fonteyn and Nureyev -The Perfect Partnership 1985
* Margot Fonteyn - A Portrait Arthaus 1989
* Margot - BBC 2009

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sir Thomas Browne and Japan

The physician-philosopher Thomas Browne (1605-82) can truly be said to have achieved worldwide fame with his inclusion in the Japanese author Natsume Sōseki’s novel Sanshirō (1908-09).

Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石, 1867 – 1916) is considered to be one of Japan's greatest writers. He studied at what was the Tokyo Imperial University and became Japan's first official English Literature scholar, spending two unhappy years resident in England circa 1900-2. Eventually Sōseki became a professor of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University. It would appear however, that no earlier English translation of Sanshirō was made before Jay Rubin's 2009 translation, perhaps due to negative historical/cultural reasons.

In Sōseki's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Sanshirō is a naive and dreaming student who discovers his rural upbringing to be a disadvantage in the metropolitan city of Tokyo. The early twentieth century witnessed a period of rapid industrialisation and adoption of Western ways in Japan. A photo dated circa 1905 (top) gives some indication of how rapid the industrialisation of Japan was, resulting in a certain amount of psychic dissonance, as indicated in the above photo, with both traditional costume and  modern electrification visible.

Sanshirō's class-mate Yojirō expresses the excitement of modern Tokyo when he exclaims to him - 'Get on the streetcar and ride around Tokyo ten or fifteen times. After a while it'll just happen -you'll become satisfied'.   

In what is a narrative of gentle awakening in matters of romance, sex and learning, Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia plays a small part in Sōseki's novel. It is the enigmatic scholar Professor Hiroto who makes psychological observations such as - 'Look at England. Egotism and altruism have been in perfect balance there for centuries. That's why she doesn't move. That's why she doesn't progress. The English are a pitiful lot - they have no Ibsen, no Nietzsche. They're  all puffed up like that, but look at them from the outside and you can see them hardening, turning into fossils'.

Professor Hiroto lends Sanshirō an edition of Hydriotaphia (Urn-Burial). Browne's philosophical discourse assists the youthful’s protagonist’s intellectual development, for during his meditation upon it, he witnesses a child’s funeral. The combination of Browne's stoical prose and child's funeral awakens in the dreaming student an acute awareness of his own mortality. Here's the full, relevant text, including a passage in which Browne's literary voice is likened to the lingering reverberation of a giant temple bell sounding faintly throughout the centuries, a particularly original homage.

 Buddhist  Bell Temple, Nara, Japan

'He read the concluding paragraph of Hydriotaphia as he ambled down the street toward Hakusan. According to Professor Hirota, this writer was a famous stylist, and this essay the best example of his style. ‘That’s not my opinion, of course,’ he had laughingly confided. And in fact Sanshirō could not see what was so remarkable about this style, The phrasing was bad, the diction outlandish, the flow of words sluggish. It gave him the feeling of looking at some old temple. In terms of walking distance, it had taken him three or four blocks to read, and still he was not very clear about what it said'.

'What he had gained from the paragraph wore a patina of age, as if someone had rung the bell of the Great Buddha in Nara and the lingering reverberation had faintly reached his ears in Tokyo. Rather than the meaning of the passage itself, Sanshirō took pleasure in the shadow of sentiment that crept over the meaning. He had never thought keenly about death; his youthful blood was still too warm for that. A fire leapt before his eyes so gigantic that it could singe his brows, and this feeling was his true self.........'

'As he glanced in through the gate, Sanshirō twice muttered the word hydriotaphia. Of all the foreign words he had learned thus far, hydriotaphia was one of the longest and hardest. He still did not know what it meant...... Just to learn hydriotaphia was a time-consuming effort, and saying it twice caused one’s pace to slacken. It sounded like a word the ancients had devised for Professor Hirota’s personal use'.

Tokyo 1905
Although Browne wrote on almost every topic under the sun,  little on the Land of the Rising Sun (Nippon) can be found in his writings, other than  mention of the Northeast passage to China and Japan, via the Arctic circle (Miscellaneous Tract 12). Browne's relative silence on Japan is reflective of Japanese insularity from Western missionaries, traders and explorers during his era. 

In May 2011, the University of East Anglia (UEA) which is located in Sir Thomas Browne's home-city of Norwich, established a new Centre for Japanese Studies. The University of East Anglia is also where the Nobel-laureate Sir Kazuo Ishiguro (b. Nagasaki, 1954) studied for his Master's degree in creative writing.  

A final connection between Japan and Sir Thomas Browne remains. One of the very first installations by the site specific installation artist Tatzu Nishi (西野達) (born 1960 Nagoya, Japan) was at the Art East International at Norwich in 1998. Using scaffolding, cladding, wood, and furniture, Nishi constructed a 'living-room' around Henry Pegram's 1905 statue of Thomas Browne, effectively allowing the Norwich philosopher-physician a brief respite from the season's weather to rest and philosophize indoors for a short while.

See also 

Kazuo Ishiguro

Sir Thomas Browne and China

Tatzu Nishi