John Walsh recalls a past encounter
It’s not every day you meet an authentic legend of 20th-century culture; and it’s pretty rare to meet a centenarian who ticks you off like a headmistress. But I encountered both when I visited Dame Ninette de Valois in 1998.
Her reputation had always been formidable. She personally founded Sadler’s Wells Ballet, which became the Royal Ballet in 1956. She discovered Margot Fonteyn, Rudolph Nureyev, Robert Helpmann and Frederic Ashton. She was taken up by Serge Diaghilev of the world-conquering Ballets Russes. In ballet circles, she was basically God Almighty.
You can imagine my nerves when I knocked on the door of her Thames-side house in Barnes. I’d been briefed by one of an army of helpers about what to expect. ‘You’ll have to shout because she’s rather deaf. You can’t shake her hand because her fingers are frail, but you can offer a nosegay of violets. And if she wants to visit the bathroom, she’ll say, “I want to change my position”, at which point you must summon one of her lady helpers.’
I found the Dame sitting in an armchair wearing a purple frock with a pink silk scarf at the throat. She was friendly enough but she dropped the Kind Old Lady routine when the interview began.
‘Can we talk about English ballet?’ I began. ‘Is it true to say...’
‘You’ve got to face me more,’ she said. ‘Turn your chair that way. And sit up straight. You look most uncomfortable.’
‘Is it true to say,’ I tried again, ‘that there’s a quintessence of English ballet that makes it distinct from Italian or...’
‘I can’t understand what you’re saying,’ she said. ‘And stop waving your hands around.’ I tried again. ‘Can one talk about English ballet as a combination of folk tradition and foreign influence, mostly French and Russian, or is it more...?’
‘Ask simple questions!’ she shouted. ‘You are speaking gibberish. And stop waving your hands like that. In fact, sit on your hands. I will not answer any questions until you sit on your hands.’ Sulkily I did what she said. ‘What,’ I asked, ‘makes English ballet English?’
‘There,’ she said triumphantly. ‘A perfectly good question. And I can hear you now. You were putting all your energy into your hands.’
So we talked through her life. She was born in County Wicklow, Ireland, in 1898. Her family decamped to London when she was seven, she took dance lessons and at 24 she joined the Ballets Russes. At 27 she set up the Academy of Choreographic Art, to train dancers in a specifically English ballet style. With the help of Lilian Baylis she moved into the dilapidated Sadler’s Wells theatre in Islington – and that was that.
Dame Ninette was sought after as a cutting-edge dance director. Lots of people asked her advice. One was a certain poet.
‘This distinguished, white-haired Irishman in his sixties invited me to lunch,’ she recalled, teasingly. ‘He said he was staging some plays with dancers at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and wanted to know what kind of fabric his performers could hold while dancing across the stage, in order to resemble smoke. I said, “You need the finest gauze chiffon, that will hang suspended in the air for several seconds.” I gave him the address of a little shop in Paris. He was very pleased.’
An amazing, impossible thought came into my head. ‘You don’t mean...?’
‘Yeats, you know,’ she said.
‘For God’s sake!’ I shouted. ‘You had lunch with WB Yeats! That’s like saying you had dinner with Napoleon!’
Before I left she asked me to make us both a brandy and soda. I handed her the glass. My fingers brushed hers. I wondered if some sub-atomic particles of Yeats might have adhered to them from their meeting, and might now be on mine. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to a handshake with history.