Wednesday 21 February 2018

The Irish doyenne of British ballet

Our reporter on the Wicklow ­ballerina and muse to Yeats who fled the Nazis before luring a weary post-war Britain back into its glad rags

Child-star: Blessington-born de Valois formed the Royal Ballet in London
Child-star: Blessington-born de Valois formed the Royal Ballet in London

Joe O'Shea

She was the indomitable doyenne of dance, the Irish ballerina and muse to WB Yeats and Sergei Diaghilev who escaped the Nazi blitzkrieg and charmed the British royal family.

Dame Ninette de Valois, born Edris Stannus in Blessington, Co Wicklow, in 1898, moved with a steely grace through the artistic and social spheres of Europe through her long and remarkably successful life.

And over the last few months, her Royal Ballet, the British dance company she founded, have been celebrating perhaps the greatest night of her professional life, the gala première which marked the "rebirth of art and beauty" in a war-weary London just after World War II.

The Royal Opera Housein London's Covent Garden has just finished a three-month season of The Sleeping Beauty, marking the 70th anniversary of the production staged by de Valois in the same theatre in the early months of 1946.

Petipa and Tchaikovsky's great ballet was performed in a still smouldering London just months after the last V2 rockets had fallen on the city, by a company of dancers who had themselves barely escaped the German blitzkrieg of May 1940.

It was a Royal Command Performance, staged in what had been a shuttered opera house and featuring dancers who had been, in many cases, hastily recalled from war service all over the globe.

The production would be the first major artistic and social event in London in the immediate aftermath of the war. De Valois later recalled an audience wrapped in "the overpowering odour of mothballs". Their tuxedos and tiaras had been fished out of trunks and attics for the first time since September 1939.

The Irish woman chose The Sleeping Beauty at the personal request of the brilliant economist and newly created tsar for the arts in Britain, John Maynard Keynes. It was the ballet in which he, as a young man, had first glimpsed the Russian dancer Lydia Lopokova who would become his wife.

This triumphant, defiant production of The Sleeping Beauty became an allegory for the reawakening of an exhausted nation and what one arts historian calls an "affirmation of beauty and civilisation" after the horrors of World War II.

It began to come together early in the bitter first winter after the war, as small groups of dancers, some still deeply sunburnt from service overseas, began to arrive through the snow to the stage door in Covent Garden. Some of the male dancers were still in army greatcoats, uniform and boots.

Most of the ballerinas had spent the war years with a touring company in Britain and further afield, performing for civilian audiences and for the troops. All had been touched, often cruelly, by the war.

In May 1940, as part of de Valois' Sadler's Wells touring company, many of these dancers had barely escaped the German invasion of the Netherlands, making a dash across the battlefield and then the English Channel in the cargo-hold of one of the last ships to leave for Britain. The ballerinas had seen German paratroopers fall from the sky and fled The Hague with a band of Polish escapees from a Nazi concentration camp.

De Valois later recalled how she had left her "best opera gown" hanging in a hotel room in The Hague.

Now, five long and weary war years later, in the midst of the worst winter to hit Britain in 300 years, they had been reunited by their great doyenne.

The formidable de Valois, the company director known only as "Madam", faced what seemed to be an impossible task, even with a talented company led by the brilliant Margot Fonteyn.

The Royal Opera House had been made into a dance hall for the troops during the war and looked more shabby provincial ballroom than grand opera house.

De Valois' company, the 70 musicians needed for the orchestra, even the stagehands, design and wardrobe departments, had been scattered by the just-ended conflict.

Everything - food for the dancers, silks and satins for the costumes, coal to heat the rehearsal rooms - was in short supply or simply unavailable. When the set designers came to make the backdrops, they found the only paint available was in camouflage colours.

But JM Keynes and Ninette de Valois were undaunted. In the brutally cold winter of 1946, The Sleeping Beauty would be an act of thanksgiving, proclaiming hope and beauty for a the nation. Royal Ballet School historian Anna Meadmore says that 1946 production was more than just the rebirth of ballet after the war.

"It was the rebirth of civilised life. They had prevailed over a terrible evil, they had come through together, and civilisation could now sail forward," says Meadmore.

"It was really JM Keynes, as the head of what became the Arts Council, who said this little company, the Sadler's Wells, has spent the whole war touring the country, performing through the Blitz, through the bombs, it has become a national institution.

"The company had become a symbol of the resilience and worth of the arts in Britain. We could see this production of The Sleeping Beauty, in the most difficult of circumstances, as an affirmation of sublime beauty and civilisation, an allegory for a reawakening."

The Royal Ballet School historian says de Valois was initially daunted by the task of not only putting together a company, orchestra and production, but by the grubby, chaotic state of the Royal Opera House.

"She said it was as if she had been handed a single feather-duster and asked to clean the whole of Buckingham Palace."

However, it was a task that de Valois threw herself into with characteristic iron-willed determination. In her memoirs, she spoke of how the story of the ballet, in which the Lilac Fairy reawakens a castle that has been in a cursed sleep for 100 years, became the story of the production. "The Royal Opera House became our Lilac Fairy," she wrote.

"She waved her wand and the stalls reappeared, red silk chairs were coaxed up from the dirty rabbit warren of storage under the stage. The wand waved again and the stage reappeared, the great orchestra pit, the boxes. The rats, dust, dirt, could not withstand the challenge - they fled."

De Valois, who always said "my heart is Irish", had grown up in a shabby country house close to Blessington, idolising her father, a British army colonel who fell in World War I. The Sleeping Beauty held a special place in her heart.

"I had once found The Sleeping Beauty in far-off Dublin. It was the key that unlocked the first theatre door for me. She was wondrously beautiful. And her beauty had haunted my childhood," she wrote.

A child star of the ballet, she had worked as a choreographer at the Abbey Theatre for WB Yeats and later for the great Russian impresario (and founder of the Ballets Russes) Sergei Diaghilev.

The lady who was addressed (and would sign her letters) only as "Madam", spent that bitter December and January watching the stage door as her "boys and girls" reappeared from the four corners of the world.

"The boys were returning from the forces. They turned up at the theatre in uniform and army boots. For the first time, the great Tchaikovsky score would have its 70 players."

On the opening night, she went to see the royal family, great patrons of the ballet, and reassured the young princesses who had heard whispers of last-minute costume problems backstage.

De Valois later recalled: "During an interval, in the reception room at the back of the royal box, I am standing, talking, answering the kindly questions of King George VI and the Queen. The two young princesses stand out so clearly; particularly, I can recall, 15-year-old Princess Margaret's concern because someone has hinted that Margot Fonteyn's third act costume was not yet finished!"

The princesses need not have worried. Keynes, Winston Churchill's brilliant wartime economist, had quietly helped with "precious coupons for silks and satins". There were people in tears at that opening night on February 19, 1946. The ballet was sublime, even if, as de Valois recounted, "backstage, all was in turmoil".

The 1946 production of The Sleeping Beauty had become more than a theatrical event. The Sadler's Wells Ballet had come home from war to reawaken a country in the depths of a bitter, weary winter.

The child dancer from Co Wicklow would go on to establish the Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School. When she died, aged 103, in 2001, she had become known as "The Mother of British Ballet".

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