De Valois Super Sunday, Royal Ballet School – reviewed on 19th February
Ninette de Valois, or Madam, began passing on her wisdom to ballet teachers in 1947 when there were no other forms of dance teacher training. The advanced syllabus, which she shared with students and teachers alike, was demonstrated by girls from the Royal Ballet School in April 2011 as part of the Ninette de Valois: Adventurous Traditionalist conference. Yesterday, modern-day ballet teachers had the chance to learn the intricate and inspiring collection of 30 exercises from one of her first teacher training programme graduates, Denise Winmill.
The de Valois class commences with a reverence so that students can acknowledge each other and the pianist and say to the audience 'I am dancing for you'. At the barre, exercises begin with both arms in bras bas to ensure that students have correct posture with weight centred on both legs. De Valois was also resolute that students should master the early stages of technique before moving onto more advanced exercises. She advised teachers to “insist and insist until it was right”.
Winmill highlighted the importance of the eyes leading movements. Dancers should “look beyond the arm, drawing the audience in” and “smile with their eyes”. Madam also emphasised rigorous alignment and placement, particularly keeping the pelvis still and maintaining turn-out. Some of her exercises were designed to concentrate purely on technique whereas others focused more on beauty and expression. In the latter, she encouraged dancers to perform correctly and particularly always on the beat of the music, but also to develop their individual personality.
In the centre, Madam's exercises feature fast footwork which require absolutely secure weight placement and transfer. Anna Meadmore, Head of Academic Dance Studies at White Lodge, told me that dancers often described de Valois' classes and their rapid movements as “like knitting”. The exercises are composed of simple steps combined at speed with changing rhythms and directions adding complexity. And just when the tricky sequences were perfected, Madam would add further layers of difficulty by asking dancers to perform more quickly, in reverse or on demi-pointe.
A number of features of the de Valois training method stand out because of the way they differ from modern ballet education. Firstly, her exercises use a some delightful arm positions from classical repertoire that are often neglected in class, including the hands being placed behind the lower back like wings. Secondly, Madam’s syllabus is highly rhythmic, with complicated accents and sudden 'awkward moments' of stillness that challenge and develop students’ musicality to the high level required for professional choreography.
The day was punctuated by DVD extracts of the Royal Ballet School students performing the work. Winmill pointed out that even these very able dancers struggled with some of Madam's sequences. But while learning the syllabus they developed invaluable strength and precision.
Winmill described her own experience in de Valois' classes as wonderful but involving a lot of time crying through frustration, as she was often unable to perform the movements to the high standard demanded. “Madam was always so correct and I wanted to please her.”
Looking at the de Valois syllabus, it is clear to see how much we have to thank her for. The knotted footwork and detailed musicality that typify English ballet style are evident in abundance in her class. She gave students not only secure posture and positioning but also the ability to maintain these during high leg extensions, beated jumps and multiple pirouettes. And at the same time she encouraged dancers to use facial expression and engage the audience.
I reviewed the de Valois conference last year (see Madam: Evolution not Revolution) and described how it was Madam’s utter brilliance that secured the future of British ballet. De Valois’ legacy is clear in the Royal Ballet company and school, but it is fantastic to see that even 65 years after her initial work with ballet teachers, her training methods are still able to inspire dance educators.