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Flash Flashback, 1-27: The Dance Insider Interview:
Dame Ninette de Valois

(Editor's Note: The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archives. This Interview originally appeared on October 11, 2000. On Tuesday, Dame Ninette de Valois's great and glorious project, the Royal Ballet, turns 75.)

By Maina Gielgud A.O.
Copyright 2000 Maina Gielgud A.O.

(Editor's Note: She's the greatest living giant, and one of the greatest giants period, of twentieth century dance: Dame Ninette de Valois. Founder of the Royal Ballet, pupil of Cecchetti, dancer for Diaghilev. Born in 1898, she has witnessed -- and created -- much of the century's ongoing legacy to the art. Dame Ninette de Valois, or "Madam" as she is often referred to by those who have worked with her, was interviewed for The Dance Insider by Maina Gielgud. Former Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet and The Royal Danish Ballet.)

LONDON -- "Would you like a glass of sherry?" -- "Have they offered you a cup of tea?" -- And, with a twinkle in the eye: "And what was your name again? (Maina) -- Moira, yes of course."

For the past 25 years, going to have tea with Madam, Ninette de Valois, has been a regular, I would say at least bi-annual, treat.

"Take the bus to Barnes Bridge" she would say on the telephone. Among many well-known habits, Madam is known for always taking public transport (and for not remembering names) -- even in her nineties, she would shun the taxi ordered for her by Royal Ballet staff, and take the tube back to Barnes after any rehearsal or performance she had attended.

I did not work with Madam while she was the Director of The Royal Ballet, although I did audition for her when in my twenties -- something which, to my amazement, she did remember much later: When I was already directing The Australian Ballet, one day we were in a lift at Covent Garden, and she said, "You know I have always regretted that I couldn't take you into the company that time you auditioned, but we just had too many tall ladies at the time." It was a very special moment...

I did work with her though, when, around 1976, she was instrumental in my obtaining a guest engagement with the Sadlers Wells Ballet (under the directorship of Sir Peter Wright), and asked for me to perform the role of The Black Queen in her ballet, "Checkmate." Madam had the reputation of being something of a dragon in rehearsal -- and I noticed that when it was announced that she would be taking a rehearsal, all the staff, and any dancers who had been in the company when she was directing, trembled in advance. However, I found her quite wonderful to work with, learned a great deal and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I gather she had mellowed....

It was Madam too, I found out, who had highly recommended me for the post of Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet, the company I directed for 14 years. She later allowed the company to perform her "Checkmate," in which it was very successful, both in Australia and during our 1992 London season at the Coliseum Theatre. Already in her nineties, she rehearsed the ballet herself, astounding the dancers with her vitality -- and loud (and witty) asides!

I spent much of my career overseas, but whenever I arrive back in London I have always rung Madam, and she has always asked me to come and have tea with her. It has never failed to be a wonderful experience. Madam is not only one of the key dance personalities of the twentieth century, but is utterly fascinating to listen to, whether she is reminiscing about her dancing days before and during her days with the Diaghilev company or the early days of Sadlers Wells and the Royal Ballet; or is giving her very definitive views on anything to do with dance. She has Irish blood, and this is apparent in her wonderful sense of humor; she is not averse either to hearing the latest gossip by any means -- indeed one of her favorite conversational openings is, "Now tell me the latest gossip!"

These are extracts from my interview/conversation (done with her permission), recorded while I was having tea with her last December. Madam is now 102 years old, and although she has virtually no memory of recent events (and, since her eyesight has now failed, the twinkle in her eye is obviously there, but not visible any more), she is wonderful company, and loves to reminisce. Her views on the future of dance have mellowed somewhat, and her perception of the way cross-fertilization has always been a major factor in the progress of classical ballet, and its need to continue to do so, should perhaps be heeded by those with a more blinkered outlook....

(Not caught on my tape recorder: I had asked Madam how she was, and she had replied that she felt that it was time for her to die!)

MADAM: We should believe in going to God, and I think I've been long enough on this earth. Do you think that's wrong?

MG: Not wrong, but it would be a great shame Madam, you've got so much to give.

MADAM: Well, I've done a lot, and there are lots of people to go on doing it now, better, because they're younger and stronger than I am, and they know a lot of new things. So I don't see that it matters to the world that I die, but I know that as far as I am concerned, I would love to go to God.

MG: Madam, you know that the Opera House opened last night?

MADAM: Was it exciting?

MG: Very exciting.

MADAM: Was the Queen there?

MG: The Queen was there and the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret, and the only person that we missed terribly was you. It was a wonderful night.

MADAM: Good. Was the program very exciting?

MG: Very. It started with the Rose Adage --

MADAM: Did anybody speak?

MG: Anthony Dowell spoke.

MADAM: Was he good?

MG: He was very moving, and he was very moved, and he spoke of course about you, and there was a big portrait, a big photograph of you, which came down on stage at the beginning of the program and at the end. It (the program) was like a history of the ballet. Starting with "The Sleeping Beauty," and a lot of divertissements. And it finished with one of the later pieces by Twyla Tharp, and Darcey Bussell danced the Rose Adage beautifully. I think you would have been very very very proud, Madam

MADAM: Good.

MG: And the building is magnificent.

MADAM: Is it?

MG: And I've been to see the rehearsal studios, and they are huge. There's lots of light. The ballet company (dancers) has moved into the ballet studios at Covent Garden, and they are so happy!

MADAM: Are they properly paid?

MG: They are properly paid now, and the studios are quite beautiful and they've got lovely dressing rooms.

MADAM: How lovely.

MG: They've even got a little balcony, a little terrace --

MADAM: Are they dancing well?

MG: They're dancing very well Madam.

MADAM: Have they any great teachers?

MG: They've got some guest teachers now, Irek Mukhamedov, do you remember him? The Russian dancer who used to dance Spartacus.

MADAM: Is he still with us?

MG: He's a guest artist, and he's started teaching.

MADAM: So we're doing very well.

MG: How do you feel about the new Opera House?

MADAM: Is it lovely?

MG: It's beautiful, just beautiful.

MADAM: What have they done with the old one? Pulled it down?

MG: The theatre looks the same, but the sightlines are better, and the stage is larger.

MADAM: But haven't they improved the stage?

MG: Yes, they've made it bigger, and they should be able to move the scenery much more easily, and have the latest lighting equipment -- although it doesn't quite work as it should yet.

MADAM: Are the artists properly paid?

MG: Yes, they're properly paid now, and they have a home now, so they're really happy. It's such a huge step that has happened, in a short time really, if one thinks of you moving in, in 1946 wasn't it?, to the Opera House.... And you had such a triumph with "The Sleeping Beauty" didn't you? And later in New York -- that first season in 1949, wasn't it?

MADAM: Oh yes, after the war, and we were all starving -- we had no proper food or anything -- no proper shoes. So I told them whatever they did, poor little things, (because the journey made them worse).... I told them don't dance properly at the dress rehearsal, save everything for the performance. Now there was a catty jealous Russian lady there, very important lady in America, and she came to watch the dress rehearsal, and she knew me from the old Diaghilev days. And she came and watched, what I must admit, was not a good dress rehearsal -- because I told them not to -- because I knew they hadn't the strength to do a good performance and a good dress rehearsal, so I said "mark the dress rehearsal, but for goodness sake give a good performance." Well, they did. And she came out of the dress rehearsal, nobody knew it was an underdanced dress rehearsal (we couldn't tell them!), and she said to all the students that couldn't get in: "You have nothing to fear...!!" And then the curtain went up on the first night, and I said, "Now go for it," and they danced as even I hadn't ever seen them dance anywhere, and I thought the roof was going to come down at the end, there was such terrific applause. And I still remember the dear old Irish Ambassador out front. And he came 'round to me and whispered in my ear, as the house went into an uproar, "You're in Ma'am, you're in." I'll always remember that remark. I've never heard anything like the success! I had told them not to try and dance, they were too tired, poor little things, and too hungry, and if they danced properly at the dress rehearsal, they might possibly have danced badly on the first night. So I chose then to disappoint the invited audience, who'd only come to see what they were like. And so they did, and they did disappoint them.... "You have nothing to fear," I'll never forget the first night -- when there was something to fear...! They shrieked at us.

MG: Do you think it had a big impact on American dance afterwards, do you think American dancers were influenced by British dancers?

MADAM: And we were influenced by them. We've always been very good friends because of the language. And we share everything now.

MG: What about the choreographers? Did George Balanchine have a big influence on British Ballet?

MADAM: Yes, the American influence sprung from us, and our influence sprang from America. You see it's all going very well, and soon no one's going to care where you come from as long as you dance well, and that's what matters.

MG: But don't you think that the individual styles of different companies -- do you think they should be kept?

MADAM: Oh, they will be kept. You might as well say Do you think a country should be allowed to speak its language? You can't stop what comes into a country, you can be influenced, but you can't stop it, you shouldn't, because it makes all the others interesting, we all get muddled up together, and produce something that belongs to everyone. That's right.

MG: But you think we retain our own styles anyway?

MADAM: Of course, that's how we do it, the way I've just told you. We all influence each other.

MG: Do you worry that classical ballet will not survive?

MADAM: Classical ballet will never die.

MG: What makes you say that?

MADAM: Because it's the core of the whole thing. Where did the five positions come from? The classical ballet. Where did the pirouettes come from? It's an alphabet.

MG: But what happens if the big ballets like "Swan Lake" and "The Sleeping Beauty" and "Giselle," etcetera, become too expensive to stage, because of the sets and costumes? People are saying that the full-length classical ballets will die, they're too expensive.

MADAM: Oh, I don't know dear, it'll all even itself out gradually.

MG: And the large ballet companies, they're so expensive to run.

MADAM: Well it, nothing is done easily, you first have the thing, then the thing has a success, then all sorts of difficulties arise through the success. Then you have put each difficulty right. So it takes years to make a solid company. It's all right, it's all quite natural.

MG: Do you think the teaching of class has changed a great deal?

MADAM: Well, naturally: languages change, our clothes change, everything changes. It's either not good enough and dies altogether, or it develops.

MG: There's a great emphasis on very beautiful foot work nowadays.

MADAM: Yes, because we wanted it.

MG: It wasn't as good in your day?

MADAM: I think it was, but we were developing so much else at the same time. And pioneers always suffer from people thinking they weren't good. But if somebody hadn't been a pioneer there wouldn't be anything good now....

MG: How do you feel about the Russian school as opposed to the French School?

MADAM: Well, we've all got to have schools. We don't say what do we think about the French language, what do we think about the Spanish language, what do we think -- you speak them, it's competition.

MG: How would you define the British style?

MADAM: Very interesting, and what is very important, it's very British, that means it's quite new. Somebody must always be doing something new, or life would get very dull.

MG: What were you looking for most to show the audience?

MADAM: Well, it's (teaching presumably MG) all divided up. You know, all the divisions, with the feet, with the legs, with the arms, with the body, and the head is very important. Yes, improve each group, and when they go together next time -- they're better. You improve them all separately.

MG: There's much less attention nowadays on the head and arms and upper body, epaulement.

MADAM: Well, I mean, we are developing the other parts, and we can't give quite all our attention to the upper part, but soon the lower parts will be developed, and the upper part and the lower part will become partners, that will be wonderful.

MG: Do you think that dancers now have stronger technique than in your day?

MADAM: Oh yes, technique has definitely advanced. But you never advance without losing something en passant, and you lose it because you're paying so much attention to the new thing. Therefore, it's very very important to look after the old things, because in a few years time you'll find all the new things will be turning backwards, and saying "how did they do that twenty years ago, now I want to know." And all those that are just twenty years.... There's a partnership in life, there's a partnership in everything -- and the greatest partnership is between Heaven and Earth....

MG: Madam, was your time with Diaghilev very important for your vision for British Ballet?

MADAM: There would never have been a British Ballet without Diaghilev. He had a wonderful influence. He had a very interesting background. He loved having English dancers in the company. He said we were very talented, and we had something basic (that's on the ground) to give, and that's true. Now there are so many big companies, everybody says if you want to see really beautiful footwork, go to England.

MG: Thanks to you, Madam.

MADAM: No, it's thanks to the whole of Europe, because a whole lot of us went out and collected things that were the best in every country, and put them together and made them ours. And the countries that stayed absolutely alone, as they have, some of them, for the last fifty years, are falling backwards. No no, we ALL teach each other, whether it's dancing, whether it's singing, whether it's talking, we all listen to each other. That's progress.

MG: Madam, what do you think of ballet companies nowadays?

MADAM: I think they're beautiful, they're different to us. I don't say I like all of it, but then you don't like all the languages you learn, but you know perfectly well how useful they are.

MG: Advice for an artistic director?

MADAM: First of all, the most important, that is to learn everything good that has survived from other times, and carefully to watch the bad -- and throw it out.

MG: What advice to young dancers?

MADAM: To go into what is accepted as a good school and study, and some people are better in one school then another. And it's better for them to go the school that they're good in. It's like the voice. We don't force a voice which we decide is lower than a lot of others, we teach it to sing in what we call their key, don't we? Well, it's the same with the ballet, you teach dancers to be classical, that's pure classical like pure soprano, and then you have demi-character, which is like contralto, do you understand?

MG: And I suppose the same applies to a dancer in a company, find the right --

MADAM: Divided into so many, dancers in heels, dancers in bare feet. Demi-character, that is to say dance on their toes quite well, dance on the flat of their feet quite well, they do everything quite well. And then you have the classical ballerinas, they're like sopranos. Applied to the dance. And we test people's voices just like we test people's feet and legs in the dance world.

MG: But a lot of dancers nowadays do a lot of different styles.

MADAM: Well, yes, well even when you're talking, you have low voices, middle voices, high voices, don't you? The high singer is called soprano. All the children in the school should learn the steps of everything, before they learn the thing, then they know which step they're doing better, because your voice is in certain steps and has to do most of the things that have been composed in those steps. Otherwise you hurt the voice, and you can hurt the feet and legs the same way. Someone who is a classical dancer, has to have very special pretty feet, she has to have slim well-made legs and so on. Well, when you come to a character dancer, the thing is to have strong muscles, strong feet, not necessarily anything like as pretty as the others are, and if you muddle them and put character strong feet with pretty classical feet, you can hurt the pretty ones, and you will have everyone saying the other one's no good (laughs). It's very interesting, after all God did it with our voices. Nearly everything in life goes in threes and fours.

MG: Do you remember classes with Cecchetti?

MADAM: Very well. Do they do them any more? As time goes on, all schools only get left alive if they have found something special themselves. Hardly any generation wants to take the whole of the last generation, it just wants to take its best bits.

MG: You worked with Cecchetti himself.

MADAM: Yes, I was a Cecchetti scholar, I worked with him for about five years. His classes were very difficult, but once you knew them, it was dangerous to do nothing else, because it was a such a struggle to learn them that in the end you COULDN'T do anything else. So gradually we insert the high points in his classes into the general teaching. The best way to study is to go to the Cecchetti method for about a year and draw onto all the highest points and then put that into the general method. Then go to another school, take their high points, just like you build a language. And you also build everything the same way, by taking all the best out of what went before.... And if something very bad turns up, a lot of it may come out of badly chosen pasts, and a lot of brand new bad -- (laughs) but there's also a lot of brand new good. It's very interesting!

MG: In Cecchetti classes, the barre is very short?

MADAM: Cecchetti barre work is, I think, too small -- the other schools are better. But he had a wonderful theory of movement space, and that every school should eventually know. It's gradually creeping into the other schools, even under different names, just the same as his special things are creeping into ours, and a long way ahead, I think there'll be, just like languages, certain places that we have special methods and that's that; but otherwise we'll all know how to dance, just like we all know how to speak.

MG: Do you think that barre work should be a certain length -- maybe half an hour?

MADAM: Oh yes, because it is only the center work done in square, left, right, down, up -- how to illustrate. All that's got to be learnt slowly, but when you're very young, you can hurt yourself doing it all too soon. That's why it's all divided into little bits, that's why children aren't allowed to lift their legs very high, etcetera. Do you understand? It's very important.

MG: It seems fashionable now for dancers to work at the barre for over an hour.

MADAM: I think it's rather unnecessary. It doesn't hurt you, but it doesn't give you enough time to dance in the center, and in the end your dance has no life in it, and you haven't got any balance, because you've been holding on to something all the time. The classes should be divided: The barre work, that's half an hour, then you come into the center, and a certain number of those exercises which are possible are done in the center, which are arms held out in the second, held above your head, or held down by your waist, do you understand? All right then, after that you start to lift one leg and leave the rest of your body, doing what the whole of your body did a little while ago, and everything must be done on each side like that. Then, you start to stand on one leg, then the other, then you start to jump on both legs, then on one. You understand the division.

MG: Do you think the exercises should be kept simple in class?

MADAM: Well, they must be both, but you must start several years with everything very simple, then when you're strong on both sides alone, then try and get strong on both sides together, then try and get strong dancing. Don't start the other way 'round, and do all the dancing first; there is natural dancing like there is natural walking, which you learn to do without turning your feet out too much and all that sort of thing, you learn that from a little child, but you know that, don't you?

MG: Yes, but it's important to keep both going, to have a natural dancing quality.

MADAM: Absolutely right. Also, if you have an accident, you can't start to dance again at the top, you're too weak; you start with the easy things -- the way you did them when you were young, and come up up up, the way you did then. Is that taught now?

MG: Yes it is -- there's a lot more care for injured dancers.

MADAM: Yes, and the best way is to do these exercises very carefully and to do them right on until they do them easily, and then put them together into steps, but you can't speak until you've learnt some words. Exactly the same with dancing, you can't dance until you've learnt steps, the things your feet can do.

MG: Madam, I have always been fascinated by the period with Diaghilev. What sort of man was he?

MADAM: Very difficult, very aloof, he was what we call today, a homosexual, you know? He was one. He never had anything but boys 'round him. But he was very good with women, very severe, very strict that we behave properly, very firm that we knew nice men -- funny, wasn't it? Because a part of him was sort of "bad man," and the rest of him was almost too good. For instance he didn't like his girls picking up men in the audience and gong out with them, they had to get to know them.

MG: Did he talk to you much?

MADAM: Yes, he used to tell us a lot about the ballets, what was good and what was bad, and it was he who discovered pretty legs, ugly legs, good feet, bad feet, all those sorts of things. And he had some wonderful teachers who knew all the exercises, but didn't know how the technique should be taught. And he was so clever, he knew what the exercises were all about, and saw we did them properly, and developed what we call teachers -- which you all know now. Teaching goes back oh such a long way.

MG: Did Diaghilev watch classes, rehearsals?

MADAM: Diaghilev didn't dance, he didn't teach, he criticized. If a man came up he would say, "I think that man is going to be a good teacher," and he'd direct him a certain way, in talking. Well, we do that now in the Royal with everything.

MG: Was he often watching in the rehearsal room?

MADAM: He didn't teach in the studio, he only looked in the studio, and said: "That girl, the fourth from the left, will be a good dancer; that man over there will be a good character dancer; that man over there will be a good classical dancer," and he got experts around us, not only from the dance world. Diaghilev was the first to notice good character dancers and that sort of thing.

MG: Did he socialize with you much?

MADAM: Not much -- he was a homosexual you know, and so he didn't have a lot of women around him. But he was very friendly with us all, and gave us lovely lectures and talks and things, and he decided who was going to be good, and he was always right....He talked to everybody and he was wonderful.

MG: What do you feel about the very high extensions of present dancers?

MADAM: Oh, I don't think it matters provided it's used for the right dances. Don't invent a lovely dance of praying and high kick your way through it.

MG: The ballet press, any comments?

MADAM: Oh, it's inevitable. Can't stop people criticizing in words, you can't stop them criticizing in writing -- in drawing, in everything.

MG: Some seem very bored, even blase with classical ballet.

MADAM: Well, they're going through phases like everything else. You can't expect the press to stand still and not to want to change their minds, and develop something you and I haven't noticed. They've got a right to go up up up just like we have.

MG: So you don't think they can harm the art form?

MADAM: Sometimes they're bad, and so are we bad. There's nothing in the world that isn't good, bad, and indifferent.

MG: Madam, anything you would like to say to American dancers?

MADAM: We don't know them very well (Presumably remembering some 20 years ago -- MG). We ought to get to know each other, and the best way to do that is for our two countries to get to each other's countries as they are now, and then we will get to be friends when we're dancing there, and we each take from the other something we like.

MG: You're virtually saying the most important thing is that ballet should be totally international?

MADAM: Yes, but in every country it should be allowed to develop its own style, because after all that's the way we get languages, isn't it? Well, you must let ballet develop in the same way. God gave us all exactly the same fingers, arms, legs, and feet, but in our different countries we divided them all a little differently as we feel it, do you understand? Won't you have some sherry?

It was time to take my leave of an extraordinarily special lady....

 

 
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