Dame Ninette de Valois, a pioneer of British dance and founder of the Royal Ballet, died Thursday March 8 at the age of 102 at her home in London.
A small, formidable woman known throughout the ballet world as “Madam,” worked as a choreographer, teacher and director. Dame Ninette established ballet in a Britain that had no ballet tradition.
Her Royal Ballet School became the cradle of an English ballet style, and her dance company evolved into the renowned Royal Ballet of Covent Garden.
Ninette de Valois was the stage name of Edris Stannus, born into an Anglo-Irish military family in County Wicklow, Ireland, on June 6, 1898.
The family moved to England when she was 7, and at age 13 she was performing in Lila Field’s Wonder Children in commercial theater.
She went on to ballet, performed at seaside resorts when she was a teen-ager, and “danced the Dying Swan on every pier in England,” she said.
At that time, ballet in Britain was just a novelty in the variety theaters.
De Valois took lessons from Italian dance master Enrico Cecchiti, and joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company for two years. She gave up dancing at 26 when she learned she had been struggling with the effects of undiagnosed childhood polio. “It was no tragedy,” she said. “I wasn’t that great.”
In 1926, de Valois opened her London Academy of Choreographic Art, and formed a small group of dancers. She began a collaboration with Lilian Baylis at the Old Vic theater, teaching movement to the actors and giving ballet performances.
In 1931 she moved to Baylis’ second theater, Sadler’s Wells, persuaded Frederic Ashton from the Marie Rambert ballet company to join her company as choreographer, and signed Constant Lambert as musical director.
Young dancers who later achieved international fame — Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Michael Somes and Moira Shearer — performed with the company, which grew steadily and became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, then moved to the Opera House in Covent Garden in 1946. The company was renamed the Royal Ballet in 1956.
De Valois was head of the growing ballet school in those years and continued working with it until 1971. She stepped down as director of the Royal Ballet in 1963.
She was made a dame in 1951, and France made her a chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in 1950. In 1980, Queen Elizabeth II made her a member of the exclusive Order of the Companions of Honor.
She wrote three books, “Invitation to the Ballet,” in 1937, “Come Dance with Me” in 1957, and “Step by Step” in 1977.
In 1935, she married Arthur Connell, an Irish surgeon who died in 1986. They had no children.
When she was in her 90s and living alone in an apartment in southwest London, de Valois took to writing poetry. “I’d rather have been a writer than a dancer.” she said. “And I get more fun out of my poetry than I did out of choreography.”