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The Establishment of British Ballet

The Rake’s Progress, black and white photograph, Sadler's Wells Theatre London, England, 1935. Museum no. 699-7

The Rake’s Progress, black and white photograph, Sadler's Wells Theatre London, England, 1935. Museum no. 699-7

Ballet in Britain was established by two former Diaghilev dancers, Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois. They ensured that ballet was a viable career for British dancers and challenged the myth that the British could not dance.

Marie Rambert formed the Ballet Club later to be known as Ballet Rambert. Ninette de Valois started the Vic-Wells Ballet which later became The Royal Ballet Company. These two companies made a major contribution to the development of British Ballet.

Opportunities for ballet dancers in the early 1930s were limited. Neither Ballet Rambert nor the Vic-Wells Ballet performed every night. To make ends meet many dancers appeared with both companies and also performed in revue and pantomime.

By 1935 de Valois could offer a year-long contract at the Vic–Wells Ballet. Marie Rambert couldn’t compete and there are stories about Rambert waiting outside Sadler’s Wells to try to woo her dancers back. By the end of the decade Rambert too offered full-time contracts and ballet became a realistic career for British dancers.

Lilac Garden, Ballet Rambert, black and white photograph, January 1936

Lilac Garden, Ballet Rambert, black and white photograph, January 1936

Ballet Rambert

In the early 1930s Marie Rambert established the Ballet Club at the Mercury Theatre in London’s Notting Hill. The stage was tiny and because of their small scale the ballets became known as ‘chamber ballets’. Marie Rambert had a flair for developing the work of choreographers, including Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Andrée Howard and Walter Gore.

Lilac Garden

The ballet Lilac Garden was choreographed by Antony Tudor in 1936. The story is set at a time of strong social conventions when marriages were still arranged by parents to gain position and wealth, not for love.

Amid the bustle of a party the night before her wedding, Caroline snatches a few moments to say goodbye to her lover, while her husband to be, 'The Man She Must  Marry', encounters his former mistress.

Lilac Garden was the first time Tudor used dance to explore the human psychology. The choreography contrasted the stiff formal, restricted movements of the characters' behaviour in public, where their feelings are controlled, with the private meetings when their movements were  much freer and more expressive. Caroline and her lover dance a duet (pictured here), as do her husband to be and his mistress, whose relationship is defined by her literally 'throwing herself' at him.

La Sylphide, Ballet Rambert, black and white photograph, 1961

La Sylphide, Ballet Rambert, black and white photograph, 1961

Gradually the company expanded and became Ballet Rambert. By the mid 1940s it had left the Mercury and developed a more classical repertoire. By the mid 1950s it was celebrated for its revivals of Giselle and Les Sylphides. However, Rambert still encouraged the work of major new choreographers like Norman Morris.

La Sylphide

La Sylphide was one of the few Romantic ballets to survive into the 20th century. The original choreography, created for Marie Taglioni in 1832 by her father, Filippo, had been forgotten, but an 1836 version by the Danish choreographer August Bournonville was still performed in Scandinavia.

It was this version that was staged by Ballet Rambert. Marie Rambert, the company's director, had wanted to stage the ballet for 30 years, but putting on a full evening ballet was expensive and needed a big corps de ballet.

Even when the money was found, the company could not afford extensive rehearsal time, so the dancers had only three weeks to learn the choreography and assimilate the tricky Bournonville style. It became one of the company's greatest critical successes, but audiences always confused it with Michel Fokine's ballet Les Sylphides.

Conflicts, Ballet Rambert, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, 1962

Conflicts, Ballet Rambert, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, 1962


Conflicts, choreographed by Norman Morrice in 1962 for Ballet Rambert, was a ballet about the process of creating a ballet. One reviewer described it as 'almost a documentary'. The story being rehearsed is not clear cut, but involves the relationships between four characters – notably a love affair between one couple which provokes the suicide of the man's former partner. Added to this are the personal relationships of the dancers and then their professional relationships and rivalries.

Ralph Koltai's design used a bare stage with slide projections of manipulated images of the dancers which illustrated their internal feelings. The ballet looks surprisingly 'modern' for a classical company.

Morrice was one of a new generation of choreographers nurtured by Marie Rambert. Since his first ballet in 1958, he had been working towards greater realism in dance. Four years after Conflicts, he was one of the forces behind the transformation of Ballet Rambert into a modern dance group.

Ziggurat, Ballet Rambert, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, about 1960

Ziggurat, Ballet Rambert, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, about 1960


Ziggurat (a 'ziggurat' is a Mesopotamian stepped pyramid)  was produced in 1967.

It was created by the American dancer Glen Tetley who had studied medicine before taking up a career in dance and making a reputation as a modern dance choreographer.

For the men's costumes, designer Nadine Baylis did not produce costume  designs in advance. Instead the whole company, men and women, including Director Norman Morrice, were shown how to crochet pieces of fabric out of millinery elastic. The designer then linked the pieces together to create the all-over costumes. Proficient crocheters were discouraged as their work produced too regular patterns.

Ziggurat dates from the time when Ballet Rambert had abandoned its classical ballet roots and was reinventing itself as a modern dance company. It was a very brave decision as it meant not only building a completely new repertory but finding new audiences.

Christopher Bruce in Pierrot Lunaire, Ballet Rambert, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, about 1967

Christopher Bruce in Pierrot Lunaire, Ballet Rambert, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, about 1967

Pierrot Lunaire

Tetley created Pierrot Lunaire (Moon Pierrot) in 1962 and had danced the lead himself, but Christopher Bruce was a huge success in the role and it established him as a leading dancer and a formidable dance actor. Tetley had worked with modern dance choreographer Martha Graham and inherited from her an interest in working with three dimensional structures.

Central to Pierrot Lunaire is the scaffolding tower, designed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, which serves as Pierrot's home, then his gallows, and finally his safe haven.

Tetley wanted the image of Pierrot in the tower to resemble a crescent moon in the sky, and the curving body shape is a movement that recurs throughout the ballet.

Cruel Garden, Ballet Rambert, black and white photograph, 1977

Cruel Garden, Ballet Rambert, black and white photograph, 1977

Cruel Garden

Cruel Garden was a ballet produced collaboratively with mime artist Lindsay Kemp and Christopher Bruce for Ballet Rambert in 1977.

The piece was inspired by the life and poetry of the Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. Lorca was arrested and shot in 1936 by fascist, nationalist troops during Spain's violent civil war because of his liberal views.

Kemp had trained with Marie Rambert as a young dancer, before moving on to form his own company and developing mime techniques.

Bruce was a leading dancer and choreographer with Rambert. The work was a phantasmagoria of Lorca's life, played out in the barreras (the wooden structure which surrounds Spanish bullrings), where the poet, danced by Bruce, was in continual fight with the 'bull' symbolising tyranny and prejudice. The scene here shows the beleaguered poet's vision of oppression.

Airs, Ballet Rambert, colour photograph, 1982

Airs, Ballet Rambert, colour photograph, 1982


Airs was created by American choreographer Paul Taylor, and first performed by his own company in 1978. It was a work that mixed steps based on ballet with those from court dances, country dances, gymnastics and everyday walking and running. What it did have was speed. Handel's music rarely stops and neither did the dancers.

In 1982 Ballet Rambert invited Taylor to mount Airs for the company. This is Lucy Bethune in the Rambert production. It is not easy for a company to master an unfamiliar style, even if, like Rambert's dancers, they were used to working with outside choreographers. Airs made new demands upon them and they rose to the challenge with enthusiasm.

Ballet Rambert continued to produce choreographers, including Richard Alston who went on to direct the company. Christopher Bruce went on to create 30 works for the company eventually becoming the director from 1994 to 2002.

Ballet Rambert is now known as Rambert Dance Company.

Ninette de Valois in Douanes, black and white photograph, 1932

Ninette de Valois in Douanes, black and white photograph, 1932

The Royal Ballet

Ninette de Valois realised the importance of creating a company of dancers who were all trained in the same style.

After dancing with Diaghilev in the early 1920s, she opened her own school in London in 1926. To give her pupils stage experience, she offered them to Lilian Baylis to dance in the operas at the Old Vic.

By 1931, with a nucleus of six girls and de Valois as principal dancer, the Vic-Wells Ballet Company and School were established at Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

De Valois decided to produce Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Princess in full. This was the first time classical ballets had been a regular part of a company’s repertory outside Russia.

Alicia Markova was the company’s ballerina. She left in 1935 to found her own company and developed an international career. De Valois and Frederick Ashton were the company’s principal choreographers. It was Ashton who established an English ballet style. He created many roles for Margot Fonteyn.

After she became world famous as director of The Royal Ballet, people forgot that de Valois had been a very good dancer and the lively Swanilda was one of her best roles.

She was fast stylish and had beautiful feet, so it is not surprising that, over the next half century, the company became famous for its speed, style and beautiful feet.

Ninette de Valois' brother, Gordon Anthony, was a well known photographer and  proved a very useful asset to the young ballet company. Anthony’s characteristic studio photographs, often using shadows to create an idea of the stage setting, were widely reproduced in the leading illustrated magazines and helped the company and its dancers become known to the general public.

Frederick Ashton's ballets were hugely important in establishing the style and the reputation of The Royal Ballet. He worked with the company from the early 1930s, becoming resident choreographer in 1935.

Among the ballets he brought with him was his 1931creation Façade, a witty take-off of popular dance styles of the period. It is still occasionally performed by The Royal Ballet and audiences adore it.

The Tango from Façade, commissioned by Camargo Society Ballet, black and white photograph, 1937

The Tango from Façade, commissioned by Camargo Society Ballet, black and white photograph, 1937

Ashton himself often danced in the Tango, a skit on the professional dancing partners, or gigolos, hired by all the major ballrooms in the 1920s.

In Ashton's Tango, the languid gigolo has only one thing on his mind, while his debutante partner is obviously too innocent to be allowed out.

At the beginning of the dance the girl stood with her back to the audience, and all one could see of her partner was his hand and fingers running down her spine.

It was a Gothic-Romantic work, in which the poet  followed, in a drug-induced dream, the ever changing figure of his ideal woman. Helpmann excelled in romantic parts, comic roles and dramatic roles.

For nearly 20 years he, not his partner Margot Fonteyn, was the undisputed star of the Sadler's Wells Ballet. And not only in ballet. At the same time, he was a successful actor at the Old Vic, at Stratford, in films and revue.

In 1950 he abandoned ballet for acting but in 1965 he became director of Australian Ballet.

Robert Helpmann in Apparitions, Sadlers Wells Ballet company, black and white photograph, 1936

Robert Helpmann in Apparitions, Sadlers Wells Ballet company, black and white photograph, 1936


He once said: 'Theatre remains the only thing I understand. In spite of jealousies and fears, emotional conflicts and human tensions, in spite of the penalty of success and the dread of failure, in spite of tears and feverish gaiety - this is the only life I know. It is the life I love'.

Alicia Markova was the first British-born ballerina to become an international star. She danced with the Diaghilev Ballet when she was only 14.

After Diaghilev's death she helped establish British ballet, dancing with Ballet Rambert, the Vic-Wells Ballet and touring with her own company in Britain.

She became a huge star in America. In 1951 she founded the company now known as English National Ballet.

Her greatest role was Giselle, the peasant girl who dies and becomes a spirit when she discovers her lover is an aristocrat and engaged to another. In the second act, shown here, Markova's gossamer lightness and fragility created an atmosphere of spirituality that made audiences forget she was human. Because of this ethereal quality, she was called the 'new Taglioni'.

Alicia Markova as Giselle in Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, black and white photograph, 1937

Alicia Markova as Giselle in Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, black and white photograph, 1937

She became so identified with the role that she called her autobiography, Giselle and I.

When Alicia Markova left the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1935, one of the young dancers wrote to a friend, 'Isn't it dreadful about Markova leaving? But even hard work can't make a Prima Ballerina if there isn't one'.

Ten years later that young dancer, Margot Fonteyn, was that Prima Ballerina. In the 1930s and 1940s, her partnership with Robert Helpmann was the most famous in British ballet and they enjoyed huge popularity, although, in the beginning, it was Helpmann, with his formidable theatrical personality, who was the public favourite.

They first danced Giselle together in 1937. Fonteyn was only 17, so the shy trust of Giselle's first love came easily to her. Mastery of the mad scene and the ethereal quality of the second act took longer to achieve.

Although many admired her in the role, others felt that she gave her greatest performances with Rudolf Nureyev, when she was in her 40s.

Horoscope was choreographed by Frederick Ashton for Michael Somes and Margot Fonteyn. Performed in 1938 by the Vic-Wells Ballet, it concerned the influence of the signs of the zodiac on two young lovers. The contrasting forces of Leo and Virgo struggle to keep them apart, but they are united by their common sign, the Moon in Gemini.

Helpmann and Fonteyn in Giselle, Sadler's Wells Theatre London, England, 1937

Helpmann and Fonteyn in Giselle, Sadler's Wells Theatre London, England, 1937

In 1940 the company was touring Holland when the German Army invaded, and the dancers only just managed to get back to England on the very last boat to leave Holland before it fell to the Germans.

They left behind the scenery, costumes and scores for all their ballets, including Horoscope. A few photographs and a recording of some of the music are all that remain of a ballet that earned the proud description of being 'truly indigenous to England'.

Fonteyn and Somes were to become the most famous ballet partnership of the 1950s, stars of the Royal Ballet and dancing with companies all over the world.

During World War II the company was renamed the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. They toured Britain, dancing through the air raids, and building a large audience for ballet.

In 1942, Robert Helpmann choreographed a sensational short ballet based on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Only 18 minutes long, it presented the action of the play as flashbacks in the mind of the dying Hamlet.

Margot Fonteyn danced the role of Ophelia who, in line with one of the current academic theories about the play, becomes confused in Hamlet's mind with his mother Gertrude.

Hamlet was highly theatrical, a dance-drama rather than a ballet. The sets and costumes were designed by the surrealist painter Leslie Hurry, his first work in the theatre. Ophelia's costume was asymmetical, one sleeve was puffed and the other tight-fitting.

In 1946 the company moved to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. At Sadler’s Wells de Valois established a second company, the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, where young dancers and choreographers could gain experience.

Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake, Sadlers Wells Ballet company, black and white photograph, about 1945

Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake, Sadlers Wells Ballet company, black and white photograph, about 1945

The Royal Ballet post 1945

Over the next ten years, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet achieved international fame, first in Europe and then America. In 1957 it became The Royal Ballet. The repertory included the major classical ballets, works by the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, and important revivals from the Diaghilev Ballet repertory. The company developed a new generation of choreographers who included Robert Helpmann, John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan.

From de Valois’ original six dancers, The Royal Ballet organisation now comprises the Covent Garden Company and a school training children full-time from the age of ten.

The Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet became the touring section of The Royal Ballet in 1957. It moved to Birmingham in 1990, becoming The Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The Royal Ballet has had a major influence on world ballet. Both the ballets it has created and the dancers it has produced have performed all over the world.

In the 1950s and 1960s The Royal Ballet was as well known in America as in Britain.

Nureyev in Ropes of Time, colour photograph, 1970

Nureyev in Ropes of Time, colour photograph, 1970

It had made a sensational debut in 1949, and visited America almost bi-annually thereafter. What had sent America into raptures were the full-length productions of the great Russian 19th-century classics, especially The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, which they had never seen before. In 1957, the Sadler's Wells Ballet was granted a Royal Charter and this was their first American tour under the new name, The Royal Ballet.

Rudolf Nureyev was the most famous male ballet dancer since Nijinsky. In the 1960s he became an icon of youth culture and helped popularise ballet.

This picture is from 1970, from a ballet The Ropes of Time devised for Nureyev by choreographer Rudi van Danzig.

Nureyev was born on a train in Russia in 1938. He did not take up serious dance training until he was 17, a very late age to begin. By 20 he was a soloist with the great Kirov Ballet.

When the company visited Paris in 1961 he was an enormous success but was reprimanded by the Russian authorities for being too friendly with the French.

Marguerite and Armand, colour photograph by Anthony Crickmay, about 1960

Marguerite and Armand, colour photograph by Anthony Crickmay, about 1960

Two Soviet officials tried to prevent him continuing the tour to London and force him onto a plane back to Moscow. Nureyev made a dash for freedom and sought political asylum. He was soon dancing as a guest artist for the most famous companies in Britain and America.

In 1963 Frederick Ashton’s ballet Marguerite and Armand was the first ballet created for Margot Fonteyn, Britain’s most revered ballerina and Rudolf Nureyev, the uninhibited, passionate young Russian dancer, 20 years her junior.

Fonteyn's regular partner, Michael Somes, had just retired and at 42, she was considering giving up dancing. Then came Nureyev. Despite the difference in their ages, the magic was there from the start and they became the most famous dance partnership in ballet history.

Marguerite and Armand was based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), a tragic love story based on Dumas’ own affair with the courtesan Marguerite Gautier. It became the basis of plays, films and Verdi’s opera La Traviata.

Les Biches, Royal Ballet, 1964

Les Biches, Royal Ballet, 1964

Les Biches was originally produced by the Diaghilev Ballet in 1924. In 1964 Frederick Ashton asked the original choreographer, Bronislava Nijinska, to revive it for the Royal Ballet.

Ashton had danced with Nijinska's company in the 1920s and had always admired her work. He wrote that 'the whole ballet is new, and yet it is at the same time composed entirely of classical movements with a new expression'.

The Royal Ballet began work on Les Biches with enthusiasm, although they had considerable communication problems. Nijinska was 73 years old, deaf and spoke almost no English.

The production was a triumph, especially for Svetlana Beriosova as the cigarette-smoking, pearl- twirling Hostess.

Lynn Seymour in Mayerling, colour photograph, Royal Ballet, 1978

Lynn Seymour in Mayerling, colour photograph, Royal Ballet, 1978

Lynn Seymour created the role of Mary Vetsera in Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Mayerling in 1978. The ballet was based on the true story of the suicide pact between the unstable, drug-taking Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his teenage mistress Mary Vetsera..

MacMillan wanted ballet to reflect human experience and dancers to look like real people. Seymour not only made his characters live but also revealed their motivations and emotions. For them, beauty lay in truth to reality, not in what Seymour described as 'a glossy, beautiful shell'.

In their hands, ballet became a truly meaningful medium for the late 20th century.

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