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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Birth of Actress Margaret “Peg” Woffington

peg-woffingtonMargaret “Peg” Woffington, well-known Irish actress in Georgian London, is born of humble origins in Dublin on October 18, 1720.

Woffington’s father is believed to have been a bricklayer and, after his death, the family becomes impoverished. Her mother is obliged to take in washing while Peg sells watercress door to door. It is said that she is walking through a marketplace as a pre-teen and happens upon Madame Signora Violante, a famous tightrope walker. Violante is so immediately enthralled by Peg’s beautiful face that she accompanies her home and asks her mother permission to take her in as her apprentice.

Around 1730, Violante features Woffington as Polly Peachum in a production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. This serves as a springboard for her fame in Dublin, and she continues dancing and acting in the area playing Dorinda in an adaptation of The Tempest at the Theatre Royal, Dublin in 1735 and joining the Smock Alley Theatre to perform with well known actor David Garrick.

Woffington dances and acts at various Dublin theaters until her success as Sir Harry Wildair in The Constant Couple leads to her being given her London debut at Covent Garden. She becomes well known as an actress thereafter.

Woffington enjoys success in the role of Sylvia in The Recruiting Officer. She performs at Drury Lane for several years and later returns to Dublin, appearing in a variety of plays. Her most well-received performances are in comic roles, such as elegant women of fashion like Lady Betty Modish and Lady Townley, and breeches roles. She is impeded in the performance of tragedy by a harsh tone in her voice that she strives to eliminate.

Woffington lives openly with David Garrick, the foremost actor of the day, and her other love affairs are numerous and notorious. She becomes friend and mentor to the socialite/actress sisters, Elizabeth and Maria Gunning, and also shares the stage with the likes of Charles Macklin, Kitty Clive, and the tragedienne Susannah Maria Arne.

Though Woffington is popular with society figures, she is not always favored by her competition. She tends to create rivalries with similar-type actresses at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Her fiercest rivalry is with “equally peppery” actress Kitty Clive. According to Garrick biographer Thomas Davies, “No two women in high life ever hated each other more unreservedly than these two great dames of the stage.” When she returns to Covent Garden, rivalries with these women and with the manager, John Rich, eventually send her back to Dublin, where she is unrivaled and celebrated at the Smock Alley Theatre.

Rich decides to start a Beefsteak Club in 1749, also known as the Sublime Society of Steaks or “the Club.” Some of its members include Garrick and William Hogarth, as well as many other London celebrities. Not only is Woffington the first female member of the all male dining club, in 1750 she becomes president of the club by election. She also educates and supports her sister and cares for and pensions her mother.

For whatever reason, Woffington leaves Garrick in about 1744 and moves to Teddington, into a house called Teddington Place. In 1754 she becomes the beneficiary of the will of the Irish impresario Owen Swiny. In 1756, she performs the part of Lady Randolph in Douglas, a part which finds a later exponent in Sarah Siddons.

On May 3, 1757, Woffington is playing the part of Rosalind in As You Like It when she collapses on stage. She rallies but would never act again, lingering with a wasting illness. She dies in Queen Square, Westminster on March 28, 1760. She is buried in St. Mary’s Church, the parish church in Teddington.