Dancing to the music of time

The rats are still there, but standards have never been higher. In a rare interview, Dame Ninette de Valois recalls the night she brought ballet back to the Royal Opera House, 50 years ago this month
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"It made a lovely dance hall. I went one evening. We all sat round the stalls and danced in the middle. Little did I think that we would ever open it and turn it back into an opera house." Yet a short while later, in February 1946, Ninette de Valois's ballet company was to give its first triumphant performance at Covent Garden.

Next Tuesday will be the 50th anniversary of the Opera House's postwar re-opening. The decision to award the curtain-raiser to the Sadler's Wells ballet company was a practical one. "The ballet had more easily survived the war than the opera because we could take our performers so young, while all the opera singers were called up." The dancers had spent the war barnstorming the provinces with shoestring productions of classic and modern work with hardly any men and an orchestra consisting of two pianos.

"We had no men at all," recalls the 97-year-old Dame Ninette. "It was terrible, but we managed. I don't know what we'd have done without Robert Helpmann. He was wonderful to us. He could have hopped over to America and had a marvellous time but he didn't, he stuck by England. And I don't think I'd have survived without him, I really don't. Naughty boy all the same." The naughty boy was to star in the new production of Sleeping Beauty dancing both Prince and Bad Fairy. His partner would be Margot Fonteyn.

Although we now think of Sleeping Beauty as a popular classic, this was not always the case. Diaghilev mounted it splendidly in London in 1921, but it was a box-office failure. To untrained eyes, used only to the exotic modernism that made up the rest of the Ballets Russes repertoire, Sleeping Beauty looked pompous and old-fashioned. Yet by 1939 the smaller, less glamorous Sadler's Wells Ballet, with its unremarkable Nadia Benois designs, had succeeded where Diaghilev and Bakst had failed. "Nothing to do with the production," insists Dame Ninette. "It was to do with the audience. In 1921 the English had only just learnt to swallow modern ballet and therefore they thought the old classical ballets were nonsense, they didn't know anything, you see. They didn't understand how one had sprung from the other or anything like that; all that had to be learnt. The idea of us putting on Sleeping Beauty was thought very old and extraordinary by a lot of the modern people because they didn't know. They do now, we have no trouble. We have a proper classical audience - but we had to educate it at the beginning."

Dame Ninette was continuing an education begun by the Ballets Russes. "We owe everything to Diaghilev," she says. "People try to say they owe it to me: they don't, they owe it to him. If that company hadn't come here every year and if I hadn't been a member of it for two years, we'd have been much slower getting where we are. Everything I learnt about running a company I learnt from Diaghilev - he taught me everything I know."

Diaghilev's chief lesson for the young Ninette de Valois was how the trinity of choreography, music and design can be fused into great art. Her company's Opera House debut (it was only to be renamed the Royal Ballet 10 years later) gave her an opportunity to synthesise those elements on a grand scale.

The Sleeping Beauty that re-opened the Royal Opera House was a very different affair from the penny-pinching, emasculated works that the company had toured during the war. The big new production in the famous old Opera House was a challenge, but it was one for which the young company had been meticulously prepared in wartime. "Some of the theatres in England are enormous: places like Liverpool to this day have bigger stages than Covent Garden. The dancers were adaptable because they were never on the same stage for two weeks running; they took the Opera House in their stride. What they also took in their stride was having a full orchestra for once."

While Constant Lambert was spring-cleaning Tchaikovsky in the pit, Oliver Messel was eking out clothing coupons to somehow create unimaginable glamour in the teeth of austerity. "It was very hard for any designer because the theatre was being rebuilt round us."

The dance-hall years may have kept the auditorium in reasonable nick, but backstage was a different story. "The place was in a terrible state with all the rats running round. They used to run across the gallery at night. You'd hear the audience rustling because a few rats had run across." The rats are still there (backstage at least). On learning that they recently munched through the costumes for Kenneth MacMillan's Anastasia, Dame Ninette is undismayed: "They found a good one to eat anyway."

The rats never got a chance to get their teeth into Messel's designs for Sleeping Beauty, which were in constant demand for over 20 years. Those 1946 sets, with their receding vistas of turrets and colonnades and lavish costumes, were to set the standard for three-act ballet stagings for years to come. Indeed, some ballet-goers never really recovered when Messel's masterpiece was replaced by a new production in 1968. The old guard's glasses grew rosier still in 1994 when they compared Messel's restrained grandeur with Maria Bjornson's flashy, attention-seeking effort (as seen on BBC2's The House).

So does Dame Ninette never feel the urge to see the Messel designs revived? "I don't know that one can answer that. It's too long ago to know how the costumes would affect me if I saw them: I might love them; I might hate them. All I know is what a tribute we ought to pay Messel for what he did for the opening of the Opera House: his sets and costumes were a huge success and everybody loved them. But times change, the Opera House itself changes, its audience changes, dancers change."

For someone with 97 remarkable years to look back on, Dame Ninette is curiously anti-nostalgic: "I hate old people who say, 'Oh, if you had only seen it the way we did it!' It's not true. The standard of the Royal Ballet is miles higher than when we opened after the war. But people love to say it isn't."

Dame Ninette's loyalty to present-day dancers is unwavering, but so too is her admiration of the dancers whose careers she moulded. Margot Fonteyn, then already emerging as a great dancer, became a star from the moment Aurora peeped out from behind the balustrade in 1946. Unlike many ballerinas of today, Fonteyn was able to combine youth with experience. Although only 26, she had been dancing major roles for 11 years and was still nowhere near her peak. Her dancing burned into the memories of all who saw it.

Fonteyn's greatness is often attributed to her exquisite physique. Dame Ninette shuns such over-simplification: "Her proportions were wonderful. But then, there are lots of girls with very good proportions and no talent - there is such a thing as talent, you know."

Dance critics are forever looking for "the new Fonteyn", a practice that enrages her mentor: "I never take any notice of those sort of notices, they're quite silly. A great dancer is a person in their own right. There may be a resemblance but it's mainly in school, if they only realised it. But they don't. I think to compare ballerinas is one of the silliest things in the world. What matters is what's good. I hate this knocking the present all the time. It's a sort of sentimentality with them all. Of course we had some marvellous stars in those days: Margot Fonteyn, Helpmann and people like that. They were wonderful dancers, but it's absurd to say we haven't produced some great dancers since then, we definitely have - lovely dancers. Every generation does its duty - in the end."

n Gala performance of 'Sleeping Beauty' to mark the 50th anniversary of the re-opening of the Royal Opera House, in the presence of HM the Queen: 7pm Tuesday 20 Feb. Booking: 0171-304 4000