Esprit de corps

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by Zoe Anderson
Faber £20, 336 pages

“It takes more than one person to make a ballet company.” So said Dame Ninette de Valois in later life as, characteristically, she fended off praise for her achievement in giving us the Royal Ballet. Today, looking back over the national ballet’s history as it celebrates its 75th birthday in May, we recognise that she was, of course, right.

The gloriously idealistic Lilian Baylis as theatre-owner, Constant Lambert as musician and artistic guide, and Frederick Ashton as choreographer helped to make the formerly Vic-Wells Ballet in its crucial early years. But it was Ninette de Valois’ driving personality, her extraordinary wisdom in planning, and her own experience that created and shaped our national troupe.

When Mary Clarke and I were helping Dame Ninette select pieces to republish from her four decades of writing, we suggested that the book should be called I Told You So!, because so much of what she had written had proved to be right. Dame Ninette giggled (she was given to wonderful bursts of laughter) and opted for Step by Step. And step by step is, indeed, how she made her company grow from its smallest and most careful beginnings in 1926.

De Valois knew that if she was to realise her dream she must provide security for her dancers and for the dance itself. This was only to be found in the English repertory theatre movement. So she went, having been ignored by Barry Jackson in Birmingham, to Lilian Baylis at the Old Vic. The timing was superb. De Valois had danced for two years with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, learning all she could. In 1926 she returned to London with her own vision for a ballet company, and opened a school. Then in 1931, with Baylis’s support, she was able to install her six permanent dancers and herself in the newly opened Sadler’s Wells Theatre, and take those first steps towards a national ballet. Not that it looked much like that at the time, to a world dominated by the ideals of the Ballets Russes. But when Diaghilev died in 1929 his company had fallen apart. De Valois learned a lesson from the impermanency of the Ballets Russes, which had no school, no home theatre and was always touring. De Valois believed that a home and a school - both of which she already had - were the proper and lasting foundation for her vision. Her Vic-Wells Ballet grew and won its laurels through hard work and dedication, especially during the war when ballet toured and boomed. In 1946 the now Sadler’s Wells Ballet was translated to Covent Garden and recognised as our national ballet. Fifteen years, of which five had been a war-time slog, had brought this tremendous reward.

The rest is history, and it is this history that Zoe Anderson aptly tells in The Royal Ballet. It is no easy task. Condensing 75 years of tremendous activity and massive achievement, placing every ballet and every major dancer in context, is a daunting task. It might have meant a laundry-list. Happily, Anderson has avoided this with skill. Mary Clarke’s brilliant history of the company’s first 25 years, published in 1955, was written when even the earliest days were fresh in the company’s mind. A later, less immediate history by Alexander Bland appeared in 1981 to mark the company’s half-century.

For her survey of the Royal Ballet at 75, Anderson has had to negotiate the company’s most difficult years, charting such fraught matters as the 1970 hand-over of the directorate from Frederick Ashton to Kenneth MacMillan, and of the Opera House itself from David Webster to John Tooley. She has also had to track the vexed matters of changes in aesthetic taste, ineffectual directors of the ballet, the dreadfully mishandled closure of Covent Garden itself, and the trauma of the year in which Ross Stretton’s directorate seemed a descent into chaos.

Anderson picks her way with admirable skill through a minefield of artistic and political inadequacies, as well as through the season-by-season history of the dance and its dancers. Her narrative is wisely and carefully factual, entirely proper for a celebratory history.

She does, though, happily succeed in setting events and personalities in perspective. The more cussed matters are given decent weight and a clear sense of what went wrong. These include the management’s obsession with Margot Fonteyn, which denied younger ballerinas many chances; the preferential treatment of opera, to the detriment of ballet performance and repertory; the mishandling of Ashton’s retirement; the suitability of later directors; and the mess of the Opera House’s closure, when the security for the dancers of year-round employment, which lay at the core of de Valois’ enterprise, was to be abandoned in favour of a 36-week contract.

The Royal Ballet, in sum, is a history well researched, well told and Anderson has a clean, succinct way with narrative. This is how it was, and the future can trust the telling of it.

Clement Crisp is the FT’s dance critic.

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