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 Ballet’s 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 Sadler’s 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: “I 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 absurdity”.
All the dimpled cuteness of her look in 1920 had long gone.
A less carefully veiled description of de Valois’s 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 Rake’s Progress.
“She was absolutely merciless, especially to the women, clapping her hands with exasperation, fixing offenders with her gimlet eye and shouting ‘No! No! No! Keep together. I don’t 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 herself”.
De Valois – known to all as “Madam – 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 Valois’s 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: “Dear 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 Fifield”.
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.
“Elaine”, de Valois replied, “It is quite out of the question. I never take dancers back once they leave of their own accord”.
Fifield later told a close friend that “Miss de Valois could understand you having a pain anywhere but your heart”.
The ballets choreographed by de Valois are seldom performed today but in May, her Checkmate will be part of the Australian Ballet’s 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 “a tremendous performance of nervous terror that has never been approached by any of his successors”, in the opinion of the editor and author, Mary Clarke.

British Liaisons, Sydney, May 3-21, Melbourne, August 25 – September 3.

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Ninette de Valois in 1920, Bassano studios, currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London