A Brief History of Ballet in London

History of Ballet in London

Beginning this autumn, English National Ballet performs four works on its national tour, bringing Song Of The Earth/La Sylphide, Nutcracker, and Le Jeune Homme Et La Mort/La Sylphide to the London Coliseum. And while this year marks the Company’s 68th season, ballet in London has an even longer history. 

Ballet's Re-Introduction

Before 1931, ballet was a niche artform in the UK. But that year ballet was re-introduced to Londoners by Ninette de Valois, a former dancer with the accomplished Russian company Ballets Russes. Hoping to replicate the excellence of her former company, de Valois founded the Vic-Wells Company, the original iteration of today’s Royal Ballet. By the mid-1930s, de Valois had enlisted a roster of talented dancers as well as choreographers such as Frederick Ashton, a choreographer whose works continue to exert influence on contemporary ballet. The high-calibre performances drew appreciative audiences, though these audiences were limited to the upper-class set. 

War Dance

The outbreak of World War Two in 1939 inspired de Valois to embark the Company on a tour of Great Britain. With its male dancers conscripted into military service, the Company reworked its repertoire for female dancers. This tour provided the fledgling Company the opportunity to entertain war-weary Britons seven nights a week - compared to the typical two weekly London performances staged previously. 

The group spent the war years touring Great Britain and Europe, performing for a wide audience that included Allied troops. The Company's tours fundamentally changed the public perception of ballet, from that of something foreign and inaccessible to that of part of the national culture, ultimately reshaping the artform as entertainment for everyone and creating fans throughout the country. 

Move to Theatreland

After the war, the popular ballet Company was ushered into London theatre, debuting at the Royal Opera House on 20 February 1946 with King George VI, his wife Queen Elizabeth, and the two princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in attendance. By 1956, the dance outfit officially became the Royal Ballet.

Origin of English National Ballet

Capitalising on the rising national interest in ballet, dancers Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova, and Julian Braunsweg founded the Festival Ballet Company in 1950. Like the Royal Ballet, Festival Ballet regularly toured throughout England as well as overseas. And though near-bankruptcy jeopardised the company’s very existence in 1965, its future was saved by a grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain, given in recognition for the group’s efforts to advance ballet in England. 

Growing Significance 

In 1968 the Festival Ballet Company began performing at the London Coliseum, home to the English Nation Opera. In 1980, London Festival Ballet became the first British classical ballet company to establish a formal outreach and education programme, culminating in the 1988 opening of the English National Ballet School. In 1989 the Company’s name changed to English National Ballet. 

Now cultural institutions, both the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet still honour the traditions of classical ballet while continuing to innovate, bringing ballet to the widest possible audience both here with London shows and abroad. 

Guest post by Matt Schneiderman

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