Dame Ninette de Valois (Edris Stannus) by Paul Tyrrell
When I first heard the two names Dame Ninette de Valois and Edris Stannus I thought ‘they’ were two different women. Too my surprise I discovered “they” were one and the same person. This confusion arose because one of the names is a stage name and the other is a birth name. No marks for guessing which one is which!! In time I will come to explain the origin of the stage name.
So who was Edris Stannus? She was born on 6th June 1898 in the townland of Baltyboys. She was born at home in Baltyboys House, into an Anglo-Irish Protestant family and community. Baltyboys House is a Manor House located 2miles (3.2km) west of Blessington village in County Wicklow on the Blessington Lakes.
Baltyboy’s House: Front & Back
Parents: Elizabeth Graydon Smith and Thomas Stannus
Elizabeth & Children: 1904
Children: Thelma (1896-1967), Edris (1898-2001), Trevor (1900-70),Gordon(1902-1989). (Edris is the child closest to her mother in the photograph.)
With a view to gaining a comprehensive understanding of Edris’s life and career it is important to contextualise significant aspects of her life in Baltyboys.
Family: Edris’s parents, Thomas Stannus and Elizabeth Graydon Smith had long family histories in Ireland. They married in 1895.Thomas was from a military background and participated in the 2nd Boer War (1899-1902) and WWI (1914-1917). He achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded the DSO medal posthumously.
Elizabeth Graydon Smith was the only child of the marriage between John (Jack) Graydon Smith and Fanny (Frances) Harvey (1871). Elizabeth, as the only remaining heir of the Smith family, inherited Baltyboys house & lands in 1874 (approx. 1200 statute). Elizabeth was a creative and talented person who was recognised as a distinguished glassmaker known as ‘Lilith’ or ‘Lily’ and noted amateur opera singer and often written about in newspapers as ‘‘Queen of Song’’
Edris Stannus: Baltyboys- 1898-1905
Edris spent the first seven years (7) of her life at Baltyboys. These years, as acknowledged in psychological literature, are some of the most formative years of a child’s life. These early years, in terms of nature and nurture, are the ones which have a major impact on a child’s personality and temperamental development. In the case of Edris this is borne out when you read Ninette de Valois’s (Edris Stannus) memoir ‘Come Dance with Me’. In the memoir she recalls many aspects of her family life in Baltyboys during those seven years.
Arising from my research into this memoir I have managed to build a pen picture of Edris’s personality and her early life in Baltyboys. In the memoir Ninette describes herself as a ‘‘delicate, undersized child….intensely reserved and stubborn as a mule.’’ In conjunction with this latter description Ninette goes on to note other characteristics of her personality as a child; stubborn, feisty, single mindedness, vivid imagination, competitive and creative. These personal traits mark Edris out as a strong, creative and determined personality. The latter is evident from a young age, as noted by Ninnette, where her behaviour could be awkward and temperamental towards family and staff members. Notwithstanding this, in time, these characteristics were the foundation stones of her personal development throughout her teenage years and into adult life. In many respects these were the defining characteristics upon which she built her career and achieved worldwide success both as ballet dancer and choreographer.
Edris was, primarily, cocooned within the privileged social class of the Anglo-Irish protestant community. It was as the memoir states a ‘‘….quite country existence we were cut off from all communal interests and school life’’ This very sheltered upbringing resulted in her early life experiences being confined predominantly to her immediate family surroundings within the Baltyboys domain. There was the occasional venture out into the ‘real’ world. The latter consisted of the following; trips to Blessington to attend Sunday service, to collect the English mail, visits to Blessington Fair and occasional trips to Dublin to attend the theatre.
Within the context of her immediate family and her own developing personality Edris would have experienced and imbued the tenderness and creativity of her mother Elizabeth while been instilled with the focus and discipline of her father Thomas. Alongside these significant influences was her contact with the domestic staff, in particular Kate Finnigan(sic) the family cook. It was Kate who taught Edris the Irish jig which she performed at a birthday party. This event Ninette, in her memoir, recalled as ‘her first public performance’, and recounts the ‘inspiration’ and freedom of ‘self-expression’ which she experienced arising from occasion. This experience had a major bearing on the career path Edris was to follow into her teenage and adult life. This is acknowledged by Ninette in her memoir when she states ‘‘Kate singled me out and taught me to execute an authentic Irish jig on the stone floor of that kitchen. If she had not done so,……., I might never have become a dancer.’’ This enthusiasm for dance and performance were fortified further when her mother, on her trips to Dublin, took her to the Gaiety theatre to see a pantomime performance of ‘‘Sleeping Beauty.’’ Arising from these experiences it is more than safe to conclude that the genesis of Edris’s ballet dancing career was nurtured in Baltyboys initially. In fact, on her 100th birthday (June 6th 1998) Carolyn Swift of The Irish Times nominated Ninette as the ‘‘Irish woman who became the mother of British ballet’’
Family locates to England:
In Spring of 1905 the Stannus family departed Baltyboys house with a heavy hearth. This is evident from Ninette’s memoir when she states that on the day of departure ‘‘There and then, I deliberately tore my hearth out and left it, as it were, on the nursery window sill.’’ Throughout her life Ireland, its countryside and its people were, and had remained, intrinsic to Ninette’s whole being. The circumstances surrounding their departure were linked, primarily, to the economics of running and maintaining a sizeable manor house. A further and significant issue was the changing political, religious and social circumstances pertaining in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite the necessity of this move Edris’s mother maintained the ownership of Baltyboys house into mid-1930.
The family moved to England and resided with Elizabeth’s mother Frances (Fanny) Smith in the seaside village of Walmer in Kent. Even with the trauma of the move from Baltyboys, where according to Ninette ‘we children lived long happy days’, Edris and her family settled into Walmer with relative ease. Edris’s grandmother enrolled her in a local dancing school, which Ninette describes as a ‘‘new found secret happiness’’ Within her dancing classes Edris’s natural talent combined with her propensity for dance and movement flourished and she was singled out by her teachers for particular mention. This was communicated to her mother who took a strong interest in her burgeoning dancing talent, recognising the creative instinct attached to this development.
Lila Field’s Academy for Children:
Edris spent three years (3) in Walmer and in 1909 the family moved to London where her mother has secured accommodation. Edris’s mother, Elizabeth, acknowledging the feedback of Edris’s dance teachers and wanting facilitate her further development as a dancer enrolled her in Mrs. Woodworth’s Edwardian School of Deportment. The dance school provided tuition in what was called ‘‘Fancy Dancin’’, this was a combination of recreational ballet, tap & jazz dancing. It was while in this school that Edris’s focus turned to ballet. This was supported fully by her mother as evidenced by the fact that she brought Edris to see the prima ballerina Adeline Genee in ‘‘Belle of the Ball’’ at the Empire Theatre, the Diaghilev Ballet at Covent Garden and the Coliseum and Anna Pavola at the Palace Theatre. At that time (c1909) no English ballet companies existed. Her mother, recognising the limitations of Mrs. Woodworth’s Edwardian School of Deportment, enrolled Edris in a recognised professional training school for dancers called, Lila Field’s Academy for Children (Edris was 12years of age). It was in this school that Edris was chosen to specialise in classical ballet. She trained and performed with this academy from 1910-1914. Within the academy she was selected to be a member of a special group called ‘‘The Wonder Children’’.
‘‘The Wonder Children’’
(Edris is the girl in the white dress, fourth from left)
This ballet group toured extensively throughout England, this was in 1913, performing in variety shows which included many ballet performances. This experience combined with the intensity and discipline of performing on a nightly basis consolidated Edris’s future career path as a classical ballerina. Ninette, in her memoir, recalled ‘having danced on every old pier theatre in England. With the outbreak of WW1 all touring stopped and the ‘‘The Wonder Children’’ group was disbanded. Below are some examples of the ballets Ninette performed in when touring with ‘‘The Wonder Children’’ group.
Notwithstanding the war Edris continued to hone her dancing skills as a classical ballerina by taking lessons from the ballet masters residing in London at that time. These included; Edouard Espinosa, Enrico Cecchetti and Ferdinand Ambrosine. In conjunction with the latter Edris further enhanced her ability as a dancer and performer through her appearances in the following; opera ballets, pantomimes, musical comedies and music halls. So by the age of 21 she had acquired a wide and diverse range of dancing and performance experiences. Arising from these endeavours Edris’s reputation, as a classical ballerina with a unique dancing and performing skill set was growing, with the result that she was invited to perform, sometimes as the principal dancer, at the following venues, Lyceum Theatre, London Palladium, Theatre to Royal Opera House and Convent Garden. All of this took place in the timeframe of 1914-19.
From the beginning, Edris’s mother, with her creative instinct, was a major driving force in her life as a dancer and she ensured that Edris was enabled to avail of the best and appropriate opportunities for advancement of her career. It was during this period, when Eris’s reputation and stature as a classical ballerina was beginning to flourish, that her mother conceived the idea of changing Edris Stannus’s name to a more fitting stage name to enhance her ballet career. She was of the belief, mistakenly, that there was a connection between her ancestors and the French royal house of Valois kings. Arising from this belief she decided to change Edris’s the name to Ninette de Valois.
Following WW1 Ninette de Valois, formerly Edris Stannus, toured with English Musical Hall productions and Revues until 1923. This experience further enhanced her understanding of the performing arts. Following on these experiences Ninette was invited to join Ballet Russes, in Paris, which was an Avant-Garde dance troupe which was famous for their innovative artistic collaboration between talented choreographers, composers, artists and dancers. The director of this troupe was the great ballet master Sergei Diaghlive. Ninette found this to be an invaluable experience and maintained that everything she knew about running a ballet company she learned from working with Diaghilev.
Ninette, on her return to England from Paris in 1925 came with a vison for the future of ballet in England. She knew from her own ballet dancing experience in England that ballet as an art form was not recognised within the British theatre circles. There was nobody, within the dancing fraternity, co-ordinating ballet performances. All of the professional ballets preformed in England, at that time, were by visiting Russian companies. It was the absence of this proper training for English dancers that inspired Ninette to established in 1926, at the Age of 28 years, a dancing academy named; The Academy of Choreographic Art. The aim of the academy was to teach the art of ballet and choreography to those who aspired to become ballet dancers. The prospectus also contained courses in folk dance, production in costume design and mime. In entering into the role of a teacher, the commitment associated with that and the running of the academy Ninette stepped back temporarily, but not completely, from her role as a performer. In doing so she was embracing three realities in her life at that time; her age, undiagnosed polio and the onerous task and responsibility of setting up and establishing a new dance school. It was established that Ninette had suffered, unknowingly, from polio since her teenage years.
As the saying goes; ‘‘Fortune favours the Brave’’ and with a touch of serendipity Ninette crossed paths with Lilian Baylis in 1926. Lilian had inherited the ‘‘Old Vic’’ theatre from her aunt and transformed the theatre into a venue providing opportunities from drama, opera and ballet dancing. She invited Ninette, in conjunction with her academy; to supply dancers, to teach choreographic movement to her players and create ballets vignettes for her shows. This coming together of entrepreneurship and a creative ballet visionary proved to be a momentous event in the future development and success of English ballet under the guidance and direction of Ninette de Valois. Lilian went on to purchase the derelict Sadler’s Well theatre in Islington. Eventually, emerging from this coming together of energies and personalities, the Vic- Wells Theatre came into existence which in turn led to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company and from this the Royal Ballet Company at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden which would become the National Theatre on the South Bank. Along with establishing The Royal Ballet she also played a major part in establishing Birmingham Royal Ballet and The National of Turkey. It was arising from the maelstrom of these events that Ninette went on to create her own ballets; ‘‘Job’’, ‘‘Bar aux Folies-Bergere’’ & ‘‘The Rake’s Progress’’.
W.B.Yeates & The Abbey Theatre School of Ballet:
The success of Ninette’s Academy of Choreographic Art resulted in an invitation to perform and choreograph ballet performances at the Festival Theatre, Cambridge in 1926. This represented a major move forward for Ninette and her academy as this theatre was engaging in the use of Central European expressionist’s techniques using dance & drama movement in conjunction with mime and masks. It was as a result of her performances at this theatre that W.B.Yeates sought to collaborate with her in the Abbey Theatre School of Ballet, in Dublin. The latter came to fruition and Ninette was appointed in 1927, at age 29 years, Choreographic Director of school. Their collaboration last from 1927-34
Abbey Theatre: 1904
During her period of collaboration Ninette worked with Yeats producing and performing in his ‘‘Plays for Dancers’’ while travelling between London-Cambridge-Dublin. Ninette’s final performance as a ballet dancer was at the age of 39 years. This captured in the picture below.
‘A Wedding Bouquet’ 1937
What was not known generally was that Ninette de Valois wrote poetry also. See bibliography for details
The Sadler’s Wells School:
As part of her strategic vision to establish and grow ballet in England she sought to establish a full-time educational school to contain and complement the vocational training which she was engaged in on a daily basis. This long cherished hope was realised in 1947 with the opening of Sadler’s Wells School. Eight years later, in 1955, it moved to White Lodge in Richmond Park and following the granting of royal charter it became the Royal Ballet School.
The Royal Ballet School
In recognition her life achievements in the area of ballet she was conferred with many honours. The list of honours is as follows:
⦁ Come Dance with Me – A memoir 1898-1956- Ninette de Volois
⦁ An English Ballet- Ninette de Volois
⦁ Ninette de Valois- Katherine Sorely Walker
⦁ Collaborations- Ninette de Valois and William Butler Yeats- Richard Allen Cave
⦁ Ninette de Valois- Selected Poems –Caranet Press