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The Dance Insider Interview,
Dame Ninette de Valois
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, Gielgud
was recently appointed Artistic Director of Boston Ballet, effective
next July. For more on Gielgud, see Flash
News & Interview, 9-15: Boston Taps Gielgud.)
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
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
MG: And the building
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
MG: They are properly
paid now, and the studios are quite beautiful and they've got lovely
MADAM: How lovely.
MG: They've even got
a little balcony, a little terrace --
MADAM: Are they dancing
MG: They're dancing very
MADAM: Have they any
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
MG: He's a guest artist,
and he's started teaching.
MADAM: So we're doing
MG: How do you feel about
the new Opera House?
MADAM: Is it lovely?
MG: It's beautiful, just
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
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
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
MG: Do you worry that
classical ballet will not survive?
MADAM: Classical ballet
will never die.
MG: What makes you say
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
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
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
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
MG: What advice to young
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
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
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
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
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
MG: Did Diaghilev watch
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
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,
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
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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