Collection of material relating to Ninette de Valois

Scope and Content

This collection contains papers relating to Ninette de Valois’ work as a ballet dancer, teacher, choreographer and founding director of The Royal Ballet School and Companies; also as founder of the Turkish State Ballet School and Company.

Correspondence includes a handwritten letter from Enrico Cecchetti to de Valois (13 July 1925); a typed letter from Lilian Baylis to Ursula Moreton (31 March 1937) outlining the dates of forthcoming work and tours; two handwritten letters from de Valois to Joy Newton (13 May 1954 and 6 May 1962). Also, a series of correspondence between de Valois and The Royal Ballet School (1979 – 1999).

Material relating to Ninette de Valois as a choreographer includes:

  • Loose typed choreographic notes by de Valois with her pencil sketches indicating body positions for her ballet Job (1931) and her pencil tracings of William Blake’s drawings (undated).
  • De Valois’ notebook with detailed handwritten choreographic notes and diagrams for Job (undated).
  • Handwritten piano score, possibly scribed by the composer Geoffrey Toye, for The Haunted Ballroom (undated, c. 1934).
  • Notebook with handwritten notes by de Valois, for her ballet Orpheus and Eurydice (1941). Second page is marked: ‘Act I, Scene I, The Tomb of Eurydice’. There are pencil sketches of dancers in tableaux positions alongside the notes (undated).
  • Folio of drawings of de Valois’ 1935 ballet The Rake's Progress; no.1 of the English Ballet series, by Sheila Graham and P.W. Manchester (1945).
  • Piano rehearsal score of 'Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky' for de Valois’ short ballet The Muses (1962), created for students of The Royal Ballet Upper School on the occasion of the opening of the Waverley Studio, Barons Court (6 June 1962) and performed at Coventry Cathedral (8 June 1962).

Material relating to Ninette de Valois as a dance writer and theorist includes:

  • Original manuscript of Invitation to the Ballet handwritten by de Valois (undated, pre-dates publication in 1937).
  • Handwritten manuscript on various dance-related topics written by de Valois (1939) inscribed ‘For Arnold Haskell...In friendship, gratitude and appreciation’. Headings include ‘The Choreographers’, ‘The Academic Viewpoint’, ‘The English Dancer and his foreign contemporary’, ‘A memoir of the Diaghilev Ballet’, ‘The Ballet Lovers Library’, and ‘Design in the Theatre’.

There are 24 theatre programmes of performances featuring Ninette de Valois in her early career, most are originals, others are photocopies. For example, programmes for Thais at the Royal Opera House (May 1919), a gala performance of the opera Louise at the Royal Opera House (31 July 1919), and the Diaghilev Ballets Russes at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées (May-June 1924), Teatro Di Torino (December 1926), His Majesty’s Theatre (June 1926 and June 1928), and the Coliseum Theatre (undated).

Material relating to various awards includes: handwritten certificate awarded to Ninette de Valois, written and signed by Enrico Cecchetti, in French (1919); invitation to Ninette de Valois to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford (22 June 1955); signed certificate (in Latin) presented by Smith College to de Valois and a typed short paragraph (in English) paying tribute to her work as Director of The Royal Ballet and founder of The Royal Ballet School (1957); a typed report about Ninette de Valois’ receipt of an the Award for ‘Distinguished Service to Turkish Culture' (1971); also a publication by the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation for the Erasmus Prize, which contains black and white images alongside text relating to Ninette de Valois’ receipt of the 1974 Erasmus prize. Includes an address by HRH The Prince of the Netherlands, and an address by Ninette de Valois (1974).

A set of press cuttings includes:

  • An article written for The Dancing Times by de Valois about the Sadler's Wells Ballet in Vienna (1946); an image of de Valois with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet on the last night of their first New York season (1949); illustrated press coverage of a Sadler's Wells Royal Gala at Sadler's Wells Theatre attended by HRH The Princess Margaret (May 1950); cuttings showing de Valois with fellow recipients of honorary degrees at Oxford University (23 June 1955).
  • Reports on de Valois’ retirement as the Director of The Royal Ballet and an interview with her a week after resigning (1963); a short article about Léonide Massine's intention to teach at The Royal Ballet School (1968).
  • A copy of Dance Gazette (July 1981) featuring de Valois on its cover and an article by Peter Williams, ‘The Vision of Madam or How the Battle for British Ballet Was Won’, and another by Fernau Hall, ‘Fifty Years of the Royal Ballet’.
  • Press coverage of de Valois' 90th birthday (June 1988) and her 100th birthday (June 1998). Also, obituaries and tributes to de Valois following her death (March 2001).
  • An article in The Independent (May 2007) reporting the story of de Valois’ association with Anna Pavlova’s The Dying Swan (choreographed by Fokine), recounting why she chose to teach Marguerite Porter the solo, and how the dance was passed on by Porter to Marianela Nuñez in 2007.

Assorted material includes:

  • Copies of publicity material relating to the Academy of Choreographic Art and the Vic-Wells School of Ballet (1926, 1927, 1928, 1932, and 1933).
  • Flyer giving the programme for the season, with handwritten annotation possibly by de Valois, of the Sadler's Wells Ballet at the New Theatre, London (November-December 1943).
  • Signature book of members presented at a dinner given in honour of Ninette de Valois at Claridge’s Hotel, London (15 June 1947).
  • Commemorative scrapbook presented to Ninette de Valois on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Sadler's Wells Ballet (5 May 1956). Includes black and white photographs and cuttings of the celebratory performance at the Royal Opera House, featuring the premiere of Frederick Ashton's ballet Birthday Offering. It also includes historic programmes, congratulatory telegrams, a typescript of de Valois's speech for the occasion and the official press release announcing Ashton's new ballet. Among those pictured are: André Levasseur, Annette Page, Beryl Grey, Bryan Ashbridge, Brian Shaw, David Blair, Desmond Doyle, Elaine Fifield, Violetta Elvin, Frederick Ashton, Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes, Nadia Nerina, Philip Chatfield, Robert Helpmann, Rowena Jackson and Svetlana Beriosova.
  • Typed two-page document setting out protocol on how members of The Royal Ballet should address "persons of rank" and how they should answer formal invitations (undated).
  • An album presented to Ninette de Valois on her retirement as director of The Royal Ballet (1963) contains original press cuttings and black and white photographs.
  • Presentation book produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation for the programme This Is Your Life featuring de Valois and a script marked ‘Jean Bedells’ with some handwritten annotations (programme broadcast on 5 April 1964). It contains black and white photographs featuring Ninette de Valois, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Antoinette Sibley and Merle Park, among others.
  • Unattributed music score: setting of the poem 'The Contented Ghost' by Ninette de Valois, dedicated in her memory (c. 2001).
  • Chronological list outlining Ninette de Valois's career from 1914-1965 (uncredited and undated).
  • Bound volume with handwritten list of contributors towards an 80th birthday present for Ninette de Valois (6 June 1978).
  • Two-page leaflet produced by The London Ballet Circle with information including a list of honorary members and reference to Ninette de Valois (undated).
  • Contains administration records and memorabilia (7 January – 10 June 1998) of ‘The Royal Ballet School Golden Jubilee of Dame Ninette de Valois’, an event held at The Royal Ballet School, White Lodge, to celebrate de Valois’ 100th birthday. Correspondence is mainly from Mrs. Bee Tucker Abel, Personal Assistant to Merle Park, Director of The Royal Ballet School, and Ninette de Valois’ secretary, Helen Quinnel. Other records include schedules of events, lists of performers and guests, and the programme for the performances.
  • Papers (June – September 2001) relating to the service of thanksgiving for the life and work of de Valois, held at Westminster Abbey on 28 September 2001. Includes press announcements, emails and letters requesting tickets to the memorial service; a list of The Royal Ballet School staff requiring tickets, and a copy of the Order of Service at Westminster Abbey.
  • Coloured lithographs by Lane after Chalon depicting Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide (1845). Provenance: de Valois’ bedroom in her Barnes flat (de Valois bequest 2001).
  • A folder with two colour photographs of four members of de Valois' family at the planting of a memorial tree in her name in the grounds of White Lodge (undated). Correspondence from de Valois' family to members of staff of The Royal Ballet School thanking them for a ceremony held at the School in memory of de Valois (June 2006).

Material kept separately from this collection and incorporated into The Royal Ballet School reference collections includes books housed in the Arnold Haskell Dance Library, White Lodge: these largely focus on ballet history and the developing ballet scene in Britain from the late 1920s to the early 1960s. The books are usually identified as de Valois’ either because she wrote her name in them or they are inscribed to her.

Administrative / Biographical History

Ninette de Valois (6 June 1898 - 8 March 2001) was an Irish-born British dancer, teacher, choreographer and director; she was the principal founder of The Royal Ballet School, The Royal Ballet and Royal Birmingham Ballet. Born Edris Stannus in County Wicklow, Ireland, she moved to Walmer in Kent aged seven, where she began to learn ‘fancy dancing’ with Mrs Wordsworth. She progressed to the study of ‘operatic dancing’ (ballet) at the Lila Field Academy, and later sought a more rigorous Classical training at the London studios of three great ballet masters of the French, Italian and Russian Schools: Édouard Espinosa, Enrico Cecchetti and Nicolas Legat.

At the age of fourteen, having adopted a foreign stage name in accord with the prevailing fashion, Ninette de Valois became a leading member of the touring troupe known as ‘Lila Field’s Wonder Children’. She left the group after the outbreak of war in 1914, and began to feature as a Soloist in London’s major venues, including the Lyceum, the Palladium, and the Coliseum. In 1919, at the age of 21, she was appointed Principal dancer of the Beecham Opera and Ballet Company, then resident at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In 1922, she appeared with the Massine-Lopokova Company in London; the following year – on the recommendation of Cecchetti – she joined the Diaghilev Ballets Russes (1923-25, returning as a guest artist in 1926). This experience was formative: it gave de Valois the opportunity to perform alongside dancers trained in the Imperial Russian tradition; to work with great choreographers such as Bronislava Nijinska and George Balanchine; to observe Diaghilev’s collaboration with the leading composers and designers of the day, and to learn from his refusal to compromise standards of production.

De Valois determined that England should have an indigenous ballet, built upon the model of the old Schools attached to the Paris Opéra, La Scala in Milan, and the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg. To that end, de Valois left the Ballets Russes, and in the same year, 1926, opened her own school, The Academy of Choreographic Art. Intending to attach her students to a repertory theatre, she approached Lilian Baylis, the Manager of the Old-Vic, who agreed that de Valois could arrange dances for the theatre’s dramatic repertoire, performed by her students. In return, de Valois’ school would eventually be housed at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, then being re-built under Baylis’ direction. This plan came into effect in 1931, by which time six of de Valois’ graduates had formed the core of a repertory company; this now performed in both of Baylis’ theatres, becaming known as the Vic-Wells Ballet.

De Valois’ multiple talents set the rising standards in every sphere of School and Company life, as Principal dancer, director and teacher; she was also a highly versatile choreographer. Performing in her own dance compositions at Terence Gray’s experimental Cambridge Festival Theatre (1926-31), her work also became central to the dance-dramas of William Butler Yeats at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin (1927-34). For the Camargo Society she created Job (1931), and for her own Company The Haunted Ballroom (1934), The Rake’s Progress (1935), Barabau (1936), Checkmate (1937), and The Prospect Before Us (1940). Each work was a testament to de Valois’ conviction that ballet is an expressive and collaborative art, while reflecting her determination to work with British artists, including Vaughan Williams, Arthur Bliss and Rex Whistler. De Valois’ principal contribution as a choreographer was made between 1928-43, after which her duties as Director became paramount. Her Company grew steadily - re-named the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1941 it became a household name through extensive touring during WWII. As the Company took up permanent residence at the Royal Opera House in 1946, a second touring Company was formed at Sadler’s Wells (the predecessor of today’s Birmingham Royal Ballet). The School and both Companies were awarded a Royal Charter in 1956. De Valois retired as director of The Royal Ballet in 1963, and was succeeded by Frederick Ashton. She continued to play an active role until she was well into her nineties, as a Life Governor of The Royal Ballet School and Companies.

De Valois was also the founder and director of the Turkish School of Ballet in Ankara (1948) and the Turkish State Ballet (1956). She was married to Dr Arthur Connell in 1935, and published three volumes of autobiographical and critical writing during her lifetime: Invitation to the Ballet (1937), Come Dance With Me (1957) and Step By Step (1977); she was also a distinguished poet. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1951, a Companion of Honour in 1983, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1992.

Access Information

This collection is open for consultation and can be viewed by appointment only. Please contact White Lodge Museum via our website at The Royal Ballet School, White Lodge Museum

Custodial History

Much of the material in this collection was placed with The Royal Ballet School Collections by Ninette de Valois during her lifetime; some was bequeathed to the School in her Will (2011). A few additional items were acquired after her death, given by de Valois’ former colleagues and students (names and dates individually recorded).

This collection is augmented by other collections held by The Royal Ballet School, White Lodge Museum, particularly: The Collection of material relating to the Stannus Family (RBS/STA) and The Joy Newton Collection (RBS/JN).