Ninette de Valois Bequest and Papers

Ninette de Valois rehearsing 'A Wedding Bouquet'

A key figure in 20th-century British ballet, Ninette de Valois (1898-2001) was the Founder of The Royal Ballet, The Birmingham Royal Ballet and The Royal Ballet School. She was born Edris Stannus on 6 June 1898 in County Wicklow, Ireland, and moved to England in 1905. At the age of 13 she started her professional dance training at the Lila Field Academy for Children. In 1914 she made her professional debut as a principal dancer in pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre, under the name Ninette de Valois. By 1919 she was principal dancer with the Beecham Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. During this period, de Valois studied with renowned ballet teachers Edouard Espinosa, Enrico Cecchetti and Nicholas Legat.

In 1923 she joined Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, creating roles in Les Biches and Le Train bleu and rising to the rank of soloist in 1925. In 1926 de Valois left to found her own school, the Academy of Choregraphic Art, knowing that, to achieve her ambition of creating a British ballet company, she must have a school from which to draw dancers and establish a national style. To give her pupils professional experience she offered them to Lilian Baylis, Director of the Old Vic Theatre, to appear in opera and Shakespeare plays, with de Valois as choreographer. Over the next four years she produced several small ballets for the Old Vic. In 1931, when Lilian Baylis reopened Sadler’s Wells Theatre, de Valois moved her school into that theatre and founded a ballet company of six women, with herself as leading dancer and choreographer.

Breast Star of the DBE conferred upon Ninette de Valois

The Vic-Wells Ballet gave its first full evening of ballet on 5 May 1931 at the Old Vic, with Anton Dolin as guest star. The company’s first performance at Sadler’s Wells Theatre was ten days later. With the engagement of Alicia Markova as ballerina, de Valois was able to mount the great Russian classical ballets, thus setting a high classical standard for audiences and dancers. She also set about establishing a British repertory, engaging Frederick Ashton as Principal Choreographer in 1935. De Valois continued to create ballets herself and, during the 1930s, choreographed her three masterpieces: Job (1931), The Rake’s Progress (1935) and Checkmate (1937). In 1935, she married Dr Arthur Connell, a general practitioner.

During World War II, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, as it was then known, toured throughout England, building a national reputation and establishing ballet as a popular art. In 1946, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet became the resident ballet company at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and de Valois established a second company based at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. (This Company underwent several name changes and is now The Birmingham Royal Ballet.) In 1947 de Valois was made CBE and in 1951 was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

In 1963 de Valois retired, handing over the directorship of The Royal Ballet, as the Company had become in 1956, to Frederick Ashton. She subsequently devoted herself to teaching at The Royal Ballet School (until 1971), to directing the Turkish State Ballet (which she had helped found in 1947), and to reviving her own ballets. Turkish plaque given to Ninette de ValoisIn 1983 de Valois was made a Companion of the Order of the Companions of Honour, and in 1992 she received the Order of Merit. She was also the recipient of numerous honorary doctorate degrees and dance industry awards. De Valois published four books: Invitation to the Ballet (1937), Come Dance with Me (1957), Step by Step (1977) and The Cycle and Other Poems (1985). She died in London on 3 March 2001, aged 102.

Royal Opera House Collections holds two special collections related to Ninette de Valois: her bequest of awards, medals, and honours, and a small collection of correspondence, dating 1977-2000, donated by her family.

Acknowledgements: Peter Duckers of the Shropshire Regimental Museum for assistance in cataloguing the medals; Can Yuksel, Zeki Melek, and Mike Jones for the Turkish translations.