Ninette de Valois

(6 June 1898 – 8 March 2001) 

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Die junge Ninette de Valois
Die junge Ninette de Valois
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Ninette de Valois was an English ballet dancer, teacher, choreographer and classical ballet director. She was born in Edris Stannus on 6th June 1898, near the town of Blessington, Ireland. She moved to England in 1905 where she lived with her grandmother in Kent. De Valois started attending ballet lessons in 1908 at the age of 10. At the age of 13, she began her professional training at the Lila Field Academy for Children. It was at this time that she legally changed her name to Ninette de Valois and made her professional debut as a principal dancer in pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre in the West End. In 1919, at the age of 21, she was appointed principal dancer of the Beecham Opera which was then the resident opera company at the Royal Opera House.
In 1923, de Valois joined the Ballets Russes, a renowned ballet company founded by the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev. She remained with the company for three years, being promoted to the rank of Soloist, and creating roles in some of the company’s most famous ballets, including Les biches and Le Train Bleu. Later in her life, de Valois claimed that everything she knew about how to run a ballet company, she learned from working with Diaghilev.After leaving the Ballets Russes, in 1927, de Valois established the Academy of Choreographic Art, a dance school for girls. Her ultimate goal was to form a repertory ballet company, with dancers drawn from the school and trained in a uniquely British style of ballet. Students of the school were given professional stage experience performing in opera and plays staged at the Old Vic Theatre, with de Valois choreographing several short ballets for the theatre. Lilian Baylis was the owner of the Old Vic at that time, and in 1928 she also acquired and refurbished the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, with the intention of creating a sister theatre to the Old Vic. She employed de Valois to stage full scale dance productions at both theatres and when the Sadler’s Wells theatre re-opened in 1931, de Valois moved her school into studios there, under the new name, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School. A ballet company was also formed, known as the Vic-Wells Ballet. The Vic-Wells ballet company and school would be the predecessors of today’s Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet School. Under de Valois’ direction, the ballet company flourished in the 1930s, becoming one of the first Western dance companies to perform the classical ballet repertoire made famous by the Imperial Russian Ballet. She also choreographed a number of her own ballets, including her most notable works, “Job” (1931), “The Rake’s Progress” (1935) and “Checkmate” (1937). Eventually the company 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’s Wells Ballet was a sensation when they toured the United States. Margot Fonteyn instantly became an international celebrity. In 1947, de Valois established the first ballet school in Turkey. Formed as the ballet school of the Turkish State Opera and Ballet in Istanbul, the school was later absorbed into and became the School of Music & Ballet at Ankara State Conservatory, a department of the Hacettepe University.She was known as very stern and formidable, and perhaps for that reason someone gave her the nickname ‘Madam’. The nickname stuck, and from then on even in formal articles and interviews she was called ‘Madam’ She would good-naturedly sign ‘Madam’ in correspondence.

Ninette de Valois was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) on 1 January 1947 and was promoted Dame Commander (DBE) on 1 January 1951. She became a Companion of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) on 31 December 1981 and was honoured by HM The Queen with the Order of Merit (OM) on 2 January 1992.
She was appointed Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur on 1 May 1950 and received the Turkish Republic Honour of Merit (Liyakat Nişani) on 2 January 1998.

Ninette de Valois received the Bronze award presented for services to Ballet from the Irish Catholic Stage Guild in 1949. She was the first recipient of the Royal Academy of Dance Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award in 1953–1954. She was made Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Dance on 19 July 1963 and of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing on 8 March 1964. The Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal was awarded on 7 June 1977 and the Royal Opera House Long Service medal in 1979.
She received the Critics’ Circle Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts in 1989 and the Society of London Theatre Laurence Olivier Award Special Award in 1992.

The Royal Ballet continues to be recognised as Britain’s leading classical ballet company and one of the foremost companies of the 20th century and is based at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London.
In 1935, she married Arthur Connell, an Irish surgeon who died in 1986. They did not have children. Ninette de Valois was the cousin of author Wei Wu Wei. She continued to make public appearances until her death at age 102 in London.