Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn perform Kenneth MacMillan’s version of Romeo and Juliet in 1966
The Royal Ballet is a princess who was once a pauper. Born in lowly circumstances, without the aristocratic heritage of the Mariinsky or the Paris Opera Ballet, she earned her crown with a mix of dazzling work and wilfulness.
Inspired by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Ninette de Valois founded the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1931 with the aim of establishing a ballet tradition in Britain. Although its resources were meagre, the company initially pulled in audiences through two former Ballets Russes stars, Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova. By the time they left in 1935, the Vic-Wells was already forging its own identity, with Constant Lambert as musical director, choreography by De Valois and Frederick Ashton, and a new generation of dancers including Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn.
De Valois continued to follow her vision of establishing a core repertory of Russian classics and nurturing homegrown talent in choreography and dancing. The results were greater than she could have imagined: Ashton, who became resident choreographer in 1935, went on to become one of the century’s greatest choreographers. Fonteyn won an equivalent reputation as a dancer, and the company itself is now regarded as one of the world’s best.
Despite the privations of the second world war (during which it was almost trapped by the German invasion of Holland), the company – which changed its name to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1941 – went from strength to strength. In 1946, it moved to the Opera House in Covent Garden and set up a smaller touring group based at Sadler’s Wells. Ten years later, the company was granted a royal charter, and gained its current name. The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age, with Frederick Ashton as director, Kenneth MacMillan as chief choreographer (then director), and a stellar lead couple in Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
The Royal’s fortunes faltered in the late 1970s under the directorship of Norman Morrice but rallied again in the 1980s under Anthony Dowell. It also hit a wobbly patch under Ross Stretton in 2001, but with Monica Mason at the helm since 2002, it is once again on the ascendant.
Watching the Royal Ballet
The Royal Ballet built a reputation for a particular lyrical-dramatic style – a fluid way of dancing combined with an expressive style of acting. Classics are at the core of its repertoire, along with 20th-century works by its two world-renowned choreographers, Frederick Ashton (more lyrical) and Kenneth MacMillan (more dramatic).
The current artistic director is Monica Mason. Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan were the two choreographic masters of the company. The Royal’s two best-known dancers were undoubtedly Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Other stars have included Lynn Seymour, Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell from the 1970s, and more recently Sylvie Guillem, Carlos Acosta and Darcey Bussell.
Freddie Mercury danced for the Royal Ballet [scroll to 1min20s]. He performed in specially choreographed versions of Bohemian Rhapsody and Crazy Little Thing Called Love at a charity gala in 1979. A few years later, as a kind of cultural exchange, the Royal Ballet danced for Freddie Mercury, in the video for Queen’s I Want to Break Free.
In their own words
“People didn’t believe there could be a British company, they thought the British didn’t have the temperament.” – Dancer Beryl Grey, remembering De Valois’s determination. (The Royal Ballet: the First 75 Years by Zoe Anderson, 2006)
“[Ashton’s] steps do not look like school steps (though they are as a matter of fact correct); they are like discoveries, with the deceptive air of being incorrect and accidental that romantic poetry has.” – Edwin Denby, Modern Music, 1939
“Kenneth [MacMillan] pushed ballet so far forward in his time that he frightened the living daylights out of some people.” – Lady Deborah MacMillan on her late husband. (Interview with Ismene Brown, Telegraph, 2002)
In other words
“One of the few things in dance to match the Royal Ballet’s curtain calls is the Royal Ballet’s dancing.” – Clive Barnes, New York Times, 1966
“The Royal didn’t just continue dancing through the war years – it heroically danced for Britain.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2007
“The Fonteyn-Nureyev phenomenon was a major contributor to the ‘dance boom’ of the 1960s and 70s. They made the art more popular than it had ever been.” – Joan Acocella, The New Yorker 2007
“People have called Bussell’s style ‘un-English’ because of its apparent unrestraint, but nothing could be more English than the yearning that it expresses. People love Bussell because she dances what they feel. And for this, as they did Diana, they will forgive any amount of Sloaney daftness.” – Luke Jennings on Darcey Bussell, Observer, 2007
“The Royal Ballet must remain the guardian of two major artistic legacies: Frederick Ashton’s and Kenneth MacMillan’s.”
Surnames. If you want to sound like a proper Royal Ballet watcher, use first names only when referring to the company: Carlos, Marianela, Edward, Alina etc. The same applies to stars from the past: Darcey, Sylvie, Irek, Antoinette and Anthony, Margot and Rudi. Partial exceptions: Frederick Ashton is “Sir Fred”, Ninette de Valois is “Madam”.
Birmingham Royal Ballet
English National Ballet
Now watch this
Rare footage from 1939: The Sleeping Princess with June Brae and Margot Fonteyn
Monica Mason, Lynne Seymour and corps in Giselle (1979)
A 1982 production of Ninette de Valois’s The Rake’s Progress (1935)
A 2007 production of Symphonic Variations (1946), one of Frederick Ashton’s masterpieces
A modern twist: Infra (2008) by newly appointed resident choreographer Wayne McGregor
Where to see them next
See the Royal Ballet website for performance dates.