seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Ninette de Valois, Dancer & Choreographer

ninette-de-valoisDame Ninette de Valois, Irish-born British ballet dancer, choreographer, and founder of the company that in October 1956 becomes the Royal Ballet, is born Edris Stannus at Baltyboys House in Blessington, County Wicklow on June 6, 1898. She is influential in establishing ballet in England.

In 1908, at the age of ten, de Valois starts attending ballet lessons. At the age of thirteen she begins her professional training at the Lila Field Academy for Children. It is at this time that she changes her name and makes her professional debut as a principal dancer in pantomime at the Lyceum Theatre in the West End.

In 1919, at the age of 21, de Valois is appointed principal dancer of the Beecham Opera Company, which is then the resident opera company at the Royal Opera House. She continues to study ballet with notable teachers, including Edouard Espinosa, Enrico Cecchetti and Nicholas Legat.

In 1923, de Valois joins Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a soloist. At age 26, however, she quits performing after learning she is suffering from an undiagnosed case of childhood polio. In 1926 she founds her own school, the Academy of Choreographic Art, in London. She also produces dances for Lennox Robinson at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and for Terence Gray at the Cambridge Festival Theatre.

The success of de Valois’s ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing for the Camargo Society in 1931, followed by her association with Lilian Baylis, director of the Old Vic Theatre, leads to the founding in 1931 of the Vic-Wells Ballet Company and the Sadler’s Wells School. She traces the history of the company, from its founding until it becomes the Royal Ballet in 1956, in Invitation to the Ballet (1937) and Come Dance with Me (1957).

Besides directing the company that she created, de Valois choreographs numerous ballets, including Checkmate (1937) and Don Quixote (1950). By drawing from English tradition for her choreographic material, as in The Rake’s Progress (1935), inspired by William Hogarth’s series of engravings, and The Prospect Before Us (1940), modeled on Thomas Rowlandson’s caricature of the same name, she creates a uniquely national ballet company. Her narrative ballets include prominent roles for male dancers, giving them artistic opportunities often neglected by other choreographers.

In 1963 de Valois retires as director of the Royal Ballet, although she remains head of the school until 1972. She is created a Dame of the British Empire in 1951 and is named Companion of Honour in 1980.

de Valois keeps her private life very distinct from her professional life, making only the briefest of references to her marriage to Dr. Arthur Blackall Connell, a physician and surgeon from Wandsworth, in her autobiographical writings. In April 1964 she is the subject of This Is Your Life, when she is surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the home of the dancer Frederick Ashton in London. She continues to make public appearances until her death in London on March 8, 2001 at the age of 102.

(Pictured: Ninette de Valois, circa early 1920s)

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The Cork Opera House Fire

cork-opera-house-fire-1955The Cork Opera House is destroyed by fire on December 12, 1955. It is originally built in 1855, and is built on a template that the architect had used for the exhibition buildings at the Irish Industrial Exhibition. Since then it survives the burning of much of Cork by British forces in 1920.

“The final curtain has fallen. The Cork Opera House is no more. A hundred years of stage history has come to an end. Never had the last moments of any drama, played on this stage, such an audience as last night’s farewell one. In heavy rain, a vast crowd stood silently as flames enveloped a proud landmark in our city. They watched it from the short first burst of fire on its roof until the building crumbled before their eyes.”

So reads the main news in The Cork Examiner on Tuesday, December 13, 1955, after the disastrous fire tore at the heartstrings of the people of Cork, leaving the city without a major theatre for the first time in 250 years. It is the boast of the Opera House that its tradition is continuous. When fighting in the South was at its bitterest, even when most of Cork was burned down, the Opera House kept running, only closing for pantomime rehearsals and in Holy Week. It is during the rehearsals for the forthcoming Christmas pantomime that the fatal fire starts. Fortunately, all people are evacuated, but the building built entirely from wood does not stand a chance from the merciless fire. What begins as an electrical fault blazes into an inferno within minutes. Soon the skyline of the city is lit up as the fire does its worst.

Ten years later, on February 23, 1963, the tender of Messrs. O’Shea, South Mall is accepted for the rebuilding of the Opera House. A month later the work begins and the foundation stone is laid by Lord Mayor Seán Casey on June 21, 1963. The citizens watch the building construction with keen interest as the new building gradually takes shape. Finally the day arrives for the casting aside of hoardings and scaffoldings.

Immediately controversy begins regarding the much disputed North-Wall. Unfavorable comment and criticism is levelled at the lack of architectural or artistic embellishment on the exterior of the new building and the square, squat tower on top of the roof designed to ease set changing. This is a very natural reaction as the old Opera House had a very special place in the hearts of Corkonians of every generation during its existence. Most of the criticism is uninformed, for few are aware of the difficulties, financially and technically, that the project incurred. Despite the criticism about the exterior appearance, everyone who has an opportunity to inspect the interior of the theatre can find no fault. There is nothing but praise for the design, the decor, the layout of the seating accommodation and, above all, the intimate atmosphere which has been a traditional part of the venerable old building, and which is now faithfully preserved in the new.


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The Opening of the Gaiety Theatre

The Gaiety Theatre, a theatre on South King Street in Dublin off Grafton Street and close to St. Stephen’s Green, opens on November 27, 1871 with John Spencer, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, as guest of honour and a double bill of the comedy She Stoops to Conquer and a burlesque version of La Belle Sauvage. Designed by architect Charles J. Phipps and built in under seven months, it specialises in operatic and musical productions, with occasional dramatic shows.

The Gaiety is extended by theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1883, and, despite several improvements to public spaces and stage changes, it retains several Victorian era features and remains Dublin’s longest-established, continuously producing theatre.

Patrick Wall and Louis Elliman purchase the theatre in 1936 and run it for several decades with local actors and actresses. They sell it in 1965, and in the 1960s and the 1970s the theatre is run by Fred O’Donovan and the Eamonn Andrews Studios, until Joe Dowling, former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, becomes director of the Gaiety in the 1980s. In the 1990s Groundwork Productions take on the lease and the theatre is eventually bought by the Break for the Border Group. The Gaiety is purchased by music promoter Denis Desmond and his wife Caroline in the late 1990s, who undertake a refit of the theatre. The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism also contributes to this restoration fund.

Performers and playwrights associated with the theatre have been celebrated with hand-prints cast in bronze and set in the pavement beneath the theatre canopy. These handprints include those of Luciano Pavarotti, Brendan Grace, Maureen Potter, Twink, John B. Keane, Anna Manahan, Niall Tóibín and Brian Friel.

The theatre plays host to the 1971 Eurovision Song Contest, the first to be staged in Ireland, during the Gaiety’s centenary year. Clodagh Rodgers, a contestant in that particular contest, later presents her RTÉ television series The Clodagh Rodgers Show from the theatre in the late 1970s.

The Gaiety is known for its annual Christmas pantomime and has hosted a pantomime every year since 1874. Actor and director Alan Stanford directs both Gaiety productions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Irish entertainer June Rodgers stars in the Gaiety pantomime for years, until she begins to headline the equally established Olympia Theatre panto. The Gaiety shows have included Irish performers that appeal to home grown audiences, including a number of Fair City actors. Pantomimes in the 21st century have included versions of Mother Goose (2006), Beauty and the Beast (2007), Cinderella (2008), Jack and the Beanstalk (2009), Aladdin (2010), Robinson Crusoe (2011/12), Peter Pan (2013/14), Red Riding Hood (2014/15).