DANCE / Where would we have been without her?: Dame Ninette de Valois celebrated her 95th birthday yesterday. Judith Mackrell reviews her ballet Checkmate and Louise Levene wonders how dance would have looked if she had not been born

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The Independent Culture
IN 1926, when Ninette de Valois first set her cussed and visionary heart on establishing a native British ballet, all things dance were meant to come from Russia. The staple classical repertoire had been created in 19th-century St Petersburg while the chic 20th-century avant-garde was monopolised by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. English girls who wanted a serious career in ballet were generally obliged to Russianise their names - Alice Marks became Markova, while Hilda Munnings suffered briefly as Munningsova before becoming Lydia Sokolova.

De Valois certainly couldn't afford to spurn outside influences when she built up her fledgling Vic Wells Ballet. Russian classics such as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake became cornerstones of her repertoire, elements from Russian training and technique were basic to her school. And her principal players were hardly Home Counties born and bred. She herself was Irish, Margot Fonteyn was raised in Shanghai, Robert Helpmann was Australian and Frederick Ashton was born in Ecuador.

Yet despite the company's scattered international elements, the identity that emerged was recognisably British. The native folk dances that were taught in the school contributed a deftness and precision to the English style, while the ballets of Frederick Ashton developed its lyricism and elegance. De Valois and Ashton also surrounded themselves with a coterie of British composers and designers who would further define this home-grown style - among them Constant Lambert, Lord Berners, John Piper and Cecil Beaton.

In some of De Valois' own ballets too, English culture was deliberately evoked. Not only did she collaborate with artists such as Arthur Bliss, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Rex Whistler, her sources were also rooted deep in English tradition - Hogarth's paintings for The Rake's Progress, Blake's illustrations for the ballet Job. And De Valois' choreography was in certain respects even more British in temper than Ashton's - uncluttered, clear- eyed, and almost literary in its detailed realisation of character and plot.

Only a handful of her ballets survive (she had neither the time nor creative will to choreograph a huge body of work). Yet Checkmate, which was made in 1937 and is currently being danced by the Royal Ballet to celebrate her birthday, still looks vigorous and fresh - combining as it does the sureness of De Valois' dramatic instincts with the passionate meticulousness with which she approached the crafting of dance.

Given the inspired and wily strategist she turned out to be, chess was De Valois' perfect subject - yet the ballet functions on other levels. A brief Prologue, where Love and Death sit facing across a chess-board, sets in play the old identification between Chess and Fate. As the ballet details the gradual outwitting of Red pieces by Black, it also enacts the drama of a peaceable civilisation being laid waste.

These large ideas don't, however, emerge through hazy or grandiloquent rhetoric, but through a close-worked attention to character and steps. De Valois herself didn't play chess (her Pawns move on the diagonal) but her collaborator Bliss suggested several chess strategies that she used to frame the choreographic action.

What's all her own, though, is the way the pieces are characterised to create a hierarchy of rank and type. The pawns are the chattering masses, their bodies brisk with quick and tiny movement. As they prance in zigzags round the board, their wrists are cocked, their heads archly turned. The Knights are big-hearted, chivalric innocents - jumping and turning with their arms bravely braced and their chests handsomely free. The Castles stomp in menacing blockish strides and the Bishops glide with ecclesiastical dignity.

The Blacks are dominated by their Queen, whose high-slicing legs and stabbing pointes make her a glittering implacable force. It is she who's at the heart of the ballet's action - calculatedly seducing the Red Knight so that he's unable to kill her, then tauntingly leading the Blacks' attack on the old king.

That Checkmate looks nowhere near its 56 years is partly due to the still-startling elegance of E McNight Kauffer's designs, but what makes the ballet a classic is ultimately its dance material. Nothing dates so fast as a cliche - and, though De Valois' vocabulary is grounded in pure academic technique, its steps are inflected, made new, by the characters who dance them. Rich in sculptural detail and human motive, the choreography in Checkmate makes its dancers look vigilantly articulate and purposeful - qualities that pretty much sum up the character of Ninette de Valois herself.

FIRST LADY OF THE DANCE

'Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?' So says Clarence, the second-class angel, in Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. In the case of Dame Ninette de Valois the size of the hole in 20th-century dance had she never existed would be almost incalculable.

Would the Royal Ballet have ever come into being? Would Fonteyn's potential have been recognised? Would Nureyev ever have danced with her? Would Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan have choreographed so much and so well without her guidance and encouragement? Would Turkey have a ballet company?

No doubt a major British company of sorts would have come into being but would its founder have shared her determination to foster the native dance tradition that underpins the great ballet companies of the world, to insist on that Baylis-bred concept of national theatre? Anthony Dowell, director of the Royal Ballet, is reluctantly drawn down this dark hypothetical alley and concedes, 'It's possible that without her a company could have formed but it would have been very much a classical company preserving the classics and not reaching out and experimenting and stretching the dancers. The Royal Ballet had stars but the choreographers were very much stars too. She knew from the start that the choreographer in a company is its life blood.'

And what about those choreographers? Would a man of Ashton's gifts have stuck around without De Valois's encouragement? Without the muses she had found and fostered? America beckoned and Ashton liked America. Instead he stayed to create masterpieces with an emphatically English character that showcased the neat footwork, the sly humour and the gift for character that De Valois had united in the new English style. Who else could have steered MacMillan so firmly and surely down the choreographic path after his first terrible attack of stagefright in 1952? Who else would have had the formidable eye that unerringly selected the finest dancers for him to work with?

Dancers frankly acknowledge her profound influence on their careers. Lynn Seymour has written, 'Without her trust I might have wilted away. Without Ninette de Valois there would be no Lynn Seymour.' How many other careers were directly influenced by her judgement? And what about the greatest British dancer of all? De Valois's own early training with Edouard Espinosa had made her something of a foot fetishist. He had made the young dancer leave off her point shoes for four months while her feet unlearnt their bad habits. As a result, her first glimpse of Fonteyn (then plain Peggy Hookham) led to the diagnosis: nice little dancer, lovely proportions but 'we must do something about saving those feet'. And if she hadn't? Would Fonteyn have been there to inspire Ashton to greatness, to win her company 47 curtain calls in New York in 1949? To dance with Nureyev?

The Royal Ballet's director took a huge gamble when she invited the young Kirov defector to join her company. Having so carefully nurtured an English style, she was ready to endanger her winning formula by adding a large measure of temperamental talent: 'One must be prepared to risk toppling something over, to find out whether it has been built securely,' she said. This calculated risk paid off in spades: a new partnership for a flagging Fonteyn, an example in virtuosity and artistry to the diffident Royal Ballet danseurs and a succession of superlative performances that made the Royal Ballet front page news.

Could any of this have happened without her? No doubt even artistic natures abhor a vacuum and all that budding talent would have found an outlet somewhere, but would all those artists really have got the right opportunities and the right guidance at the right time if it had not been for her? On viewing the sheer scale of Ninette de Valois's wonderful life in dance, it is hard not to believe that an awful lot of them would have just slipped through the hole in the ice.

10 GREAT NIGHTS

1913-1914 On tour with Lila Field's 'Wonder Children'. It was at this time that De Valois perfected her party piece: 'I was Pavlova and danced The Dying Swan - dying twice nightly on all the coastal piers, for my 'death' was always ferociously encored.' The plump, pretty child 'gave promise of great things' according to one far-sighted reviewer.

24 December 1914 The 16-year-old Ninette de Valois makes her West End debut at the Lyceum Theatre in the pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk. Ballet in Britain at this time was largely just a novelty turn staged in variety theatres.

25 November 1923 Makes her debut with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo, dancing a Polovtsian Maiden in Prince Igor. Her time with Diaghilev taught her the importance of varied programming as well as the dangers of a ballet company entirely dependent on commercial forces and at the whim of popular tastes.

13 December 1928 Premiere of Les Petits Riens, her first piece of choreography for Lilian Baylis's Old Vic. The first fruit of a theatrical partnership that led to the establishment of a small ballet company based at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1931.

5 July 1931 Premiere of Job (one of her most enduring works) at the Cambridge Theatre. Anton Dolin creates the role of Satan. Vaughan Williams, who had composed the score, had originally envisaged it as a folk dance. De Valois, noted for her obsession with national dance, was soon able to persuade him. Gwendolen Raverat's designs were modelled on William Blake. The Times called it 'that rare thing, a completely satisfying synthesis of the arts', a review that must have been particularly satisfying to a woman who shared Diaghilev's belief in uniting the arts in the theatre.

20 February 1946 The Royal Opera House (which had been converted to a wartime dance hall) reopens with The Sleeping Beauty, produced by De Valois, Ashton and Nicholas Sergeyev and designed by Oliver Messel. Covent Garden became the new home of the Sadler's Wells Ballet. Aurora is danced by Margot Fonteyn. As De Valois put it: 'As she stepped on to the stage that night she was not a stage princess celebrating her birthday but a great dancer celebrating her birthright. It had taken English ballet just 15 years to prove its worth.'

9 October 1949 Sadler's Wells Ballet makes its New York debut with Sleeping Beauty, fast becoming the company's signature work. The combination of the sumptuous, wholehearted fairy- tale production and Margot Fonteyn's never-ending balances in the Rose Adagio send the audience into ecstasies that endure for 47 curtain calls. The company's international reputation is assured but, more tellingly, the national reputation is suddenly secure. The company was on its way to becoming the Royal Ballet (in 1956).

June 1961 The Royal Ballet makes its Leningrad debut with Ashton's Ondine. Anthony Dowell regards this as a key moment in De Valois's career: 'The first Russian tour was very important for her. Taking the company she had moulded to where ballet is considered to have started.' Kruschev's comment on the opening night was characteristic: 'Look at those girls, they might all be Russians]'

21 February 1962 Nureyev makes his Covent Garden debut dancing Giselle (at De Valois's insistence) with Margot Fonteyn. His interpretation of Albrecht as a heartless aristocrat transformed by remorse astonished the audience, as did the performance he drew from Fonteyn. There were 23 curtain calls, one of which was a romantic ballet in itself as the ballerina handed the young man the customary rose from her bouquet only to have him fall to his knees and press her hand to his lips.

7 May 1964 Her retirement as director of the Royal Ballet is marked by a grand defile of the company, staff and school who crowded on to the Covent Garden stage to pay homage to the woman who had moulded their lives.

(Photographs omitted)

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