De Valois, the black queen
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Ninette de Valois, the founder of the Royal Ballet, and, incidentally, the woman who urged Peggy van Praagh to move from Britain to become the Australian Balletâs first artistic director. The anniversary is being marked on April 1-3 by a conference at the Royal Ballet School, Covent Garden, with a line up of lectures, papers, panel discussions, performances and a new film documentary on de Valois, directed by Lynne Wake, a former Sadlerâs Wells Royal Ballet dancer.
Few people know a person as well as their siblings and I like the description of de Valois by her brother, Gordon Anthony. In his book, A Camera at the Ballet, Anthony wrote: âI always think of her as a cross between Florence Nightingale and Good Queen Bess, particularly the latter, rolling heads in the dust one moment in a flaming rage and in the next roaring with laughter at some absurdityâ.
All the dimpled cuteness of her look in 1920 had long gone.
A less carefully veiled description of de Valoisâs manner appeared last month in the Telegraph newspaper in London, when the theatre critic, Charles Spencer, described an excerpt from a documentary in which de Valois, then in her 80s, was rehearsing her ballet, The Rakeâs Progress.
âShe was absolutely merciless, especially to the women, clapping her hands with exasperation, fixing offenders with her gimlet eye and shouting âNo! No! No! Keep together. I donât want all that flapping of your hands everywhere! One poor girl is even given a sharp slap, the one moment when the old boot really seems to be enjoying herselfâ.
De Valois â known to all as âMadam – had absolute power of her fiefdom, as Elaine Fifield discovered. In her memoir, In My Shoes, Fifield explains how her career in Britain fell apart in 1957 after de Valoisâs decided not to send her to Australia as one of four Royal Ballet dancers to appear as guest artists with the Borovansky Ballet. The group included Margot Fonteyn, Bryan Ashbridge and Michael Somes. Fifield, the first Australian to become a ballerina at the Royal Ballet, expected to be chosen as the fourth dancer on the tour, but instead, Rowena Jackson was selected. This followed a series of casting disappointments for Fifield who wrote to de Valois: âDear Madam, I wish to terminate my contract. I do not wish to sign a contract here for any further work. I have finished, sincerely, Elaine Fifieldâ.
De Valois tried to talk her out of the decision but Fifield stood firm, and returned to dance with the Borovansky Ballet in Australia.
The following year, when the Royal Ballet toured Australia, Fifield met de Valois, admitted that she had made a mistake, and begged to be taken back.
âElaineâ, de Valois replied, âIt is quite out of the question. I never take dancers back once they leave of their own accordâ.
Fifield later told a close friend that âMiss de Valois could understand you having a pain anywhere but your heartâ.
The ballets choreographed by de Valois are seldom performed today but in May, her Checkmate will be part of the Australian Balletâs season, British Liaisons. In the 1937 ballet, a chess game pits the evil Black Queen against the Red Queen, the Red Knight and final the Red King. The role of the Red King was first danced by Robert Helpmann. He gave âa tremendous performance of nervous terror that has never been approached by any of his successorsâ, in the opinion of the editor and author, Mary Clarke.
British Liaisons, Sydney, May 3-21, Melbourne, August 25 – September 3.