Dame Ninette de Valois, founder of Britain's Royal Ballet, one of the world's top five classical ensembles, died Thursday at her home in London. She was 102.
Her influence on ballet in the last century was enormous. There was no continuity of ballet tradition in England before she and a handful of others created the schools and companies from which generations of great choreographers and dancers emerged. Among the epochal artists she nurtured were choreographer Frederick Ashton and ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
"With the death of Dame Ninette de Valois, we acknowledge the passing of one of the 20th century's greatest and most influential figures in the world of the arts," said Sir Anthony Dowell, director of the Royal Ballet.
Moira Shearer, who danced with the company for a decade and starred in a number of ballet films, including "The Red Shoes," once called De Valois "a choreographer of immense talent and perception, and also a ruthless dictator. . . . But performing these ballets were a delight."
A former dancer, teacher, choreographer and company director known affectionately in the ballet world as "Madam," De Valois was born Edris Stanus on June 6, 1898, in Blessingham, County Wicklow, Ireland. The first dance she learned was an Irish jig. However, she also remembered being enchanted by a Dublin version of "The Sleeping Beauty" and it was this ballet that became the touchstone of her career.
Raised in London from the age of 8, she studied dancing at the Lila Field Academy and, later on, with a number of important teachers, including Enrico Cecchetti, whose stylistic priorities put their stamp on what would become the fine-grained, sculptural Royal Ballet technique.
She danced with Field's group of "Wonder Children" in 1913 (at which time her mother chose De Valois as her stage name) and made her debut in 1914 as a principal dancer in "Jack and the Beanstalk," a traditional Christmas pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre, returning annually to Lyceum pantomimes for the next five years.
De Valois also soon began dancing in musical revues and operas, performing for the first time at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (future home of the Royal Ballet) in 1919. After appearances in musical comedy and on the music hall circuit, she joined the small Massine/Lopoukhova company (featuring dancers and repertory from the Sergei Diaghilev Ballets Russes) in 1922 and the next year the Diaghilev company. There, in what represented the mecca of serious ballet, she soon rose to the rank of soloist.
The Diaghilev aesthetic--respect for 19th century traditions but a commitment to working with the finest visual artists and composers of the 20th century--inspired and influenced her, and even after she left the company in 1925, Diaghilev would send for her to dance in the fairy divertissement in his production of "The Sleeping Beauty" (a.k.a. "The Sleeping Princess" and, later, in a shortened version, "Aurora's Wedding.") This production had first enchanted her in 1921 and it was to shape her vision of classicism, just as Diaghilev became the most important influence on her as teacher, choreographer and artistic director.
During her Ballets Russes period, she created an important role in Bronislava Nijinska's "Les Biches" and worked with George Balanchine in operas he choreographed for Diaghilev, including "Le Rossignol." Returning to England, she founded the Academy of Choreographic Art in Kensington in 1926 and the same year approached the director of London's Old Vic Theatre with a plan for developing a repertory ballet company in that venue.
It started small, with curtain-raisers, interludes and dances in Shakespearean plays, but her work there and at the Festival Theatre in Cambridge led to her founding the first government-supported ballet school in Britain--at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, where she worked as a choreographer until 1934.
She choreographed her first ballet, "Les Petits Riens," in 1928 for the Old Vic and in the early 1930s choreographed for the Camargo Society, a pioneer British ballet organization. In 1931 she moved her London-based school to the newly opened Sadler's Wells Theatre, where she presented periodic performances that soon led to the formation of the Sadler's Wells Ballet.
De Valois was now established as a prominent teacher, choreographer and company director, tirelessly building a repertory and the stature of British-born dance artists--most notably that of choreographer Ashton. She continued to dance until 1937.
When the Sadler's Wells Ballet lost the services of Alicia Markova in the mid-1930s and needed a star ballerina, De Valois developed one from a promising teenager named Margaret Evelyn Hookham, who had started in the company in 1934 as a dancing snowflake but within a year was performing Markova roles under the stage name Margot Fonteyn. De Valois also brought other dancers to international prominence but allowed no one to eclipse Fonteyn, a source of company resentment later on.
De Valois also remained devoted to the 19th century Franco-Russian repertory, hiring Nicholas Sergeyev, the former ballet master of the Imperial Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg, to restage the masterworks he had known, and notated, as authentically as possible in the 1930s and early 1940s. Later on, she restaged them herself. Her greatest triumph? "The Sleeping Beauty."
Somehow she also found time to marry, wedding Irish surgeon Arthur Connell in 1935. They had no children, and Connell died in 1986.
During World War II, the destruction of the company's sets, costumes and scores, the departure of its male dancers into military service and the closing of the Sadler's Wells Theatre tested De Valois' courage and resourcefulness, but in 1946 her survival skills and high artistic standards won the Sadler's Wells Ballet a new home at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Her production of "The Sleeping Beauty," with Fonteyn as Aurora, created a sensation when it made its American debut in New York City in 1949, and on Oct. 31, 1956, Queen Elizabeth II became the official patron of the company and school, granting a charter under the title "the Royal Ballet."
De Valois retired as director of the Royal Ballet in 1964 (with Ashton as her successor), but stayed at the head of the school until 1970. In 1977, she mounted a new production of "The Sleeping Beauty" at the Royal Ballet, one widely regarded as the finest in the world up through the end of the century.
The Royal Ballet celebrated her 100th birthday in 1998 with a gala performance of her most enduring ballet, "The Rake's Progress" (1935), as well as excerpts from other works. Interviews published on that occasion showed her to be as sharp as ever.
"I'm not one of those people who say, 'They don't know how to dance these days,' " she said. "Because they do know, and they're much better than we ever were. I hate these oldies who say there aren't any good dancers now."
By her centenary, she had long since acquired honors galore. In 1951, De Valois had been made a Dame of the British Empire, the equivalent of a knight, and France had made her a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur as early as 1950. She received the Erasmus Prize from the Dutch government in 1954 and in 1964 the Albert Medal of the Royal Society (the first woman so honored since scientist Marie Curie in 1910). And in 1981, Queen Elizabeth II made her a member of the exclusive Order of the Companions of Honor.
De Valois wrote four books over nearly 50 years: "Invitation to the Ballet" (1937), "Come Dance With Me"(1957), "Step by Step" (1977) and "The Cycle," a volume of poems (1985).
She began writing poetry after her retirement, commenting that "I'd rather have been a writer than a dancer. And I get more fun out of my poetry than I did out of choreography."
Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.