Interview: Dame Ninette de Valois: Doyenne of the dance

Dame Ninette de Valois is 100 today. John Walsh meets the Grand Dame of English ballet

She is older than the century, older than the Queen Mother, older than the house in which she sits and older than the whole history of English ballet. She was alive when Victoria was on the throne. She was performing on the London stage before Archduke Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo. She was taken up by Diaghilev and congratulated on her common sense by Lilian Baylis. She discovered Margot Fonteyn, Rudolph Nureyev, Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton. Her choreography was scored for orchestra by Ralph Vaughn Williams and Constant Lambert who, like everyone else who came into her regal presence, addressed her as "Madam". She is a figure who dwells outside ordinary time in an eternal historical present as one of the Olympians of the 20th century, but she is also very much alive and drinks in a pub by the Thames. It is the damnedest thing to find yourself talking to Dame Ninette de Valois about a gentleman with whom she used to discuss matters of stagecraft in her younger days in Dublin, and reminding yourself that the friend she's recalling with such animation is WB Yeats.

Dame Ninette, OM, is 100 years old today. She was born Edris Stannus on 6 June 1898 in a house called Baltiboys in Co Wicklow, Ireland, but has spent the most of her epic life in London, masterminding, setting up, then running, the Vic-Wells Ballet, which became the Sadler's Wells Ballet, which in 1956 graduated to the Royal Ballet. She is an impresario of rare skill and energy, a passionate teacher and a balletomane to the pointes of her toes. But the quality for which she is best known is her martinet strictness, her power to terrify, her determination to get her own way. This evening, BBC2 screens Ross McGibbon's tribute to the great dame, entitled Call Me Madam, in which ex-students, retired dancers, critics and choreographers reminisce about de Valois's imperious ways, intercut with some wonderful footage of her ballet classes. The first words you hear her say to a luckless hoofer are "Someone isn't using her arms", in a tone that would freeze mercury. When Huw Weldon asks her about her vision of a national ballet and how her pursuit of this dream had "something impressive and ruthless about it", she sleekly murmurs. "But why do you call it ruthless?" just as a torturer in the Spanish Inquisition might ask, "But in what sense am I being cruel?" Strong men, tough women, heads of state, arts commissars and professional interviewers have all quailed in their time before her killer-shark mouth, her devastating eyebrow, her Venus-flytrap brain that jumps without mercy on any sloppiness of thought or equilibrium.

It is, therefore, with the faintest trepidation one sets off to interview Dame Ninette at the flat in Barnes, south London, where she has lived for years. Prior to the interview, I was briefed by a press officer about what to expect. "You'll have to shout because she's rather deaf," I was told, "and she tends to tune in and out of the conversation, so you must be patient. Oh, and if she wants to visit the bathroom, she'll say, 'I want to change my position.'" I arrived at teatime, and was brought in with the white china and the fondant fancies. Dame Ninette sits in a chair surrounded by a television, a walking frame, a number of books and a photograph of her late husband, who has the moustache and the jaunty, well-travelled look of Alan Whicker. Her eyes are clouded with cataracts, but she appears to be in sprightly form, dressed in a purple frock with a pink silk scarf at the throat. "Ah The Independent," she says. "And is it still as independent as it used to be?" Well, that's the marble count taken care of, I thought. "The top storey's all right," she confirms, "but everything else has gone. My limbs are very crochety now." Her days pass in a series of routines with two professional helpers at her beck and call. "I get up, I wander around, I get taken out in a bath chair to Barnes village, I meet lots of pals in the shops, and there's a sweet pub I go to still." Dame Ninette, displaying just a touch of vanity, is concerned that I shouldn't specify which pub she frequents - or which paper she reads, or which dancers she likes - because "it wouldn't be fair on the others", as if she were a style guru for Nineties drinkers, readers and dance-watchers. She does, however, enthuse about her favourites, like Wayne Sleep who had dropped in to see her the day before. "I remember his teacher coming up to me and saying, 'Madam, I don't know what to do with Wayne, he's so naughty.' I said, 'Never mind about that, he's got talent.'" She sighs. "He was a wonderful dancer - I remember him as a little boy packing the Albert Hall all alone, how he just came on to the centre of that huge auditorium and galloped and galloped. They used to worry about him not growing, you know. I said, 'Stop worrying - look at the talent.'" It's not clear if Sleep's naughtiness resided in his being an inattentive scholar or a moral backslider, although the Dame uses the same word (with emphasis) to describe Robert Helpmann. You get the impression she is tremendously indulgent towards naughty boys. What she can't stand are amateurs and people who don't do as they're told.

And people who ask her the wrong things. It took barely 10 minutes of our conversation before she drops the Sweet Old Lady routine and went straight into termagant mode. "You've got to face me more," she says. "Get your chair and turn it more that way. And sit up straight. You look most uncomfortable."

Do you think, I ask, there is such a thing as a quintessence of English ballet, rather than the work of individual British dancers?

"What? I can't understand a word you're saying. Speak more slowly."

OK. Can one talk about an essence of Englishness, rather than ...

"Ask me short, straight questions," she commands.

Jesus. Take a deep breath. What makes English ballet English?

"That's better. The quality of our dancing comes more from our feet and legs than from our bodies. It's interesting that, for example, sword dancing was born in the British Isles. No other country was doing it, and it's far more famous than the national dances of many other countries. We've got this lovely footwork that's completely natural to us. I always say that everything we do springs from English country dancing."

It strikes me that the most precise musical footwork comes from Scottish and Irish jigs and reels. Could it be that her own Irish background had contributed more than people realised to the quality of English ballet? "No, no, it's nothing to do with my being Irish. Step-dancing is part of English footwork. The English know what it is to dance only from the waist down. A hundred years ago, up in the north, competitions were judged with judges not looking at the dancers but getting under the stage and looking at the footwork."

As a teacher, Dame Ninette, were you ever afraid of stifling your charges' individualism by being too strict a teacher?

"By being a what?" she snaps.

A too-strict teacher, I say.

"What? Have I been to six teachers? I don't know what you're talking about. Ask me short questions. And stop waving your hands around. The less you gesticulate, the better." I had never been stage-directed in an interview before. Feeling about five years old, I solemnly sit on my hands.

About running a ballet school . . .

"There you are," she says, triumphantly. "I can hear you better already. You were putting all your energy into your hands."

Though Madam can be rude, direct, abrasive and frankly impossible, she does have a habit of turning out to be right. Without her, the history of English ballet this century would be very different - a more cautious, insular, hidebound thing, lacking in the injections of Russian physicality and French avant-gardisme that made it cosmopolitan and endlessly refreshed with outside influences. She always knew she was right. Ninette de Valois took dancing lessons at seven, and at 13 joined Lila Field's Wonder Children with whom she danced in The Children's Dream, at the Kilburn Empire. The Wonder Children's repertoire climaxed with juvenile impersonations of well-known theatre artists. De Valois's contribution was to do the great Anna Pavlova, whose movements in the Dying Swan she had faithfully notated while watching Pavlova in the Palace Theatre. At 16, Ninette was performing solos for her parents' friends in Earl's Court Square, and appearing at the Lyceum, Covent Garden, in the ballet segment of the annual pantomime. Was it an ordeal for the young ingenue? "Not in the least. We'd lived in London for years, and I was used to it. I adored the Lyceum. I was there five years running. It was a big pantomime house with plays in between, but it wasn't an international house. It was a commercial company." Dame Ninette tends to wrinkle her nose at the word "commercial", as a dowager might at the word "trade". It was a growing dislike of the West End theatre that led her, at 21, into the arms of Serge Diaghilev, whose Ballet Russes had become a hotly anticipated annual ticket for London audiences. She joined the company for two years and later claimed that she learnt everything about running a ballet company from him.

Did she mean management or vision? "Everything. Diaghilev just managed the whole company. He knew all about the different teachers. He knew the types of teachers he wanted, he knew the types of ballet he wanted. He was a musician - at least he taught music - and he ran everything." Did he worry about money? "He was always worried about money. Of course it wasn't a [sniff] commercial job. He was always having to get people to help him. But most people were willing to help him because he was a very great name."

Thus encouraged, de Valois, at 27, set up the Academy of Choreographic Art, to train dancers in a specifically English ballet style. The official biography, Ninette de Valois: Idealist Without Illusions by Katharine Sorley Walker (reprinted this week by Dance Books, price pounds 12.95) tells how she met Lilian Baylis, the formidable founder of the Old Vic theatre, and struck a deal that, if Ninette helped her stage the dances in Old Vic plays, Lilian would help her find a ballet studio - and she did in 1931, when she resurrected the Sadler's Wells theatre in Islington. Ninette and six young dancers moved in, and that was that. The Sadler's Wells corps touched a chord of national feeling with its wartime tours and in 1946 was chosen to re-open the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden with Sleeping Beauty, starring Margot Fonteyn. Meanwhile, the Sadler's Wells Ballet School at White Lodge recruited promising talents, put them through the terpischorean ordeal that was Dame Ninette's teaching regimen, and offered them a glowing future in the dance companies.

Did she look after the girls body and soul? Did she need to know all about anatomy and physiology? Did she worry about their psychological make-up, their virtue, their bunions? The Dame nods vigorously. "Of course. We had to worry about everything. When you're making a dancer... " She sounds as if she was talking about modelling clay. "One thing you have to worry about is this." [She taps her head.] "They had to have good memories, they had to be good quick students. There's a lot to do outside just the dancing, you know. We often used to say of a girl, what a lovely dancer she'd make if she wasn't such a fool."

But isn't dancing more to do with instinct than intelligence? "No. I don't believe in this nonsense about instinct. To me you can have a certain talent, but talent springs from something in your brain. Instinct is such a silly word."

Thinking of the drawn faces of her ballet students in the TV documentary, I ask: Why was it important that the people you taught did exactly what you said? The Dame takes it on the chin. "It's important that they reflect on everything you say, and then as they get older they can decide, this isn't for me and drop it. But you must learn from all good teachers the whole time you're growing up, and decide, when you're old enough and know what you're doing, which teacher is the best for you." Though she retired at 65, she was still putting dancers through their paces at 80, a magnificent, alarming presence.

Like Diaghilev before her, de Valois learned over the years to cherry- pick the best talent available and add it to her corps de ballet like a new flavour, whether or not it was English. She was joined at the Vic- Wells Ballet by Alicia Markova (who had also been with the Ballet Russes), and signed up Constant Lambert as musical director and Frederic Ashton as resident choreographer in 1935. She praises Lambert to the skies. "He gave his life to us. He joined when I came to the Old Vic and stayed with us right through his life. He was a wonderful man, the core of the English Ballet in my opinion. Mind you stress him above everybody else."

Margot Fonteyn (nee Peggy Hookham) drew from de Valois at her first audition the comment, "We must do something about that girl's feet." What was wrong with them? "There was nothing wrong with them. They were just not very strong. But they were very beautiful and supple and that's often more important. Strong feet can be very ugly." Dame Ninette chuckles over the tale of Fonteyn's eyes. "Margot lived for years in the East with her parents. Her father had a job out there. And it seems that many of the children when they were small got so used to looking into Chinese faces when they were small, they wouldn't open their own eyes properly, and they'd become rather slit-eyed. I remember I was teaching the class one day in London, and some celebrated dancer came in and watched them all, and said: 'Who's the little Chinese girl on the left?' Bang bang! went my stick and I said, she's not Chinese, she's English."

We pause for more tea. Dame Ninette rejects it at first, then accepts a cup. Beneath her fingers, the pink fondant fancies look foolish, immature little things. You could swear they're crouched over with embarrassment, like first-years at the barre, under the gaze of this Eternal Headmistress. Age has conspicuously not mellowed her. Nor has any timor mortis. She doesn't worry about death. "I don't think about it at all. I just leave it. I'll either be here or I won't, and I don't see that it matters. I just go from day to day. I read. I love the newspaper and the television. I'm interested in films. I naturally see the ballet and I grow with it. I'm not one of those people who say, 'They don't know how to dance these days' - because they do know, and they're much better than we ever were. I hate these oldies who say there aren't any good dancers now."

These oldies indeed. Here is one supreme oldie who shows little sign of performing a final entrechat just yet. At the end of our talk, she says, "Have you finished your tea? Have something stronger. Go behind that screen and see what you can find." Behind the screen lurked a bottle of brandy, from which Dame Ninette enjoys the occasional reviving slug. One of her helpers pours a glass for each of us, but hers is too strong and she directs me to lighten it with soda. We drink to her birthday, which she coquettishly refuses to believe could be the Big H.

"A hundred? No, I'm not 99 yet, my dear. A whole year and two months off being a hundred, I think ... Oh, am I really? In two weeks' time? Well, you are an optimist. It means I've got 13 days left to die in."

What a dame. At the end of the BBC film, David Bintley, the Royal Ballet's boy wonder, remembers the time she stormed into the rehearsal room where he was being taught the steps to one of her own ballets, poured scorn on the puny efforts of the teacher, seized Bintley's hand and proceeded to teach him her own choreography in person. "It was like holding hands with God," breathed Bintley. By the end of an hour in her regal, assertive, invigorating, combative presence, you feel privileged indeed. It's something to tell my grandchildren, that I once mixed a brandy and soda for the godmother of English ballet

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