Royal Ballet School

Summary of activity

During 2021 The Royal Ballet School undertook a ground-breaking project to recreate a ‘lost’ ballet choreographed by Ninette de Valois in 1925. De Valois and her assistant, Ursula Moreton, were among the original dancers of this short experimental piece, entitled ‘The Arts of the Theatre’, in which five womFen personified the theatre-arts of Music, Painting, Dancing, Comedy and Tragedy.

Working collaboratively under the guidance of the Special Collections Manager, five young dancers brought the performance back to life. A sixth student created a documentary film record of the process. The project formed part of their final year BA Degree dissertations and culminated with a live-streamed performance of The Arts of the Theatre in May 2021.

Image of ballet dancers posing in red, green, white, blue and yellow outfits

Image credit: Rachel Cherry

Challenges and opportunities

The recreation of this ballet was made possible by the discovery of an uncatalogued manuscript containing detailed choreographic notes for the piece. In July 2019, Anna Meadmore, Manager of The Royal Ballet School’s Special Collections, uncovered the The Arts of the Theatre manuscript while researching for her doctoral thesis on de Valois’ early career. Ninette de Valois was a dancer, teacher and choreographer. She was one of the founder members of The Royal Ballet and founder of The Royal Ballet School and Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Anna thought that reconstructing The Arts of the Theatre would highlight de Valois’ work while also offering students an opportunity to take part in a unique reconstruction as part of their degree.

In September 2019, Anna put out a call to third year students to see who would be interested in recreating The Arts of the Theatre. There were five dancer roles available. Students were offered the opportunity to base their final dissertation on the archive. Responses came from five female students, mirroring the five female performers in the original piece, whilst a sixth student created a film about the reconstruction of the performance.

Covid-19 made the project very difficult. The school shut down at the start of the pandemic and when restrictions were lifting students could only work on rehearsals in the school once a week. Students had to be very efficient with their time and they were not always able to prioritise this project alongside their other final–year commitments. This meant everyone had to be very prepared with the material. Anna was able to send images to the students in advance of rehearsals and a lot of practice was undertaken remotely – even in their bedrooms or kitchens while studying from home!

In addition to rehearsal challenges, the in-person attendance at the final performance was limited to third year students only. However, this provided an opportunity to livestream the performance. An edited film about the process was created for International Women’s Day.

Outcomes for service users

The project was a success for the participating degree students. All six students received their degrees, and it ignited their interest in the heritage of the school and forms of ballet. The students are now dancing around the world with ballet companies in Germany, Japan and the USA. The dancers noted that through the project they gained a greater understanding of stylistic nuance and the evolution of de Valois’ work.

The livestream event was a success with over 300 people attending, a larger audience than would have been able to attend the in-person event hosted at the school. The project has also informed Anna’s PhD research which is due for submission in 2023.

The project has also been welcomed by The Royal Ballet School’s communications department, who were able to use it to promote the school when so many other activities had to be curtailed due to Covid-19. They also used it to highlight the school as a place with a unique offer: an archive which inspires students and teacher training.

This project highlighted the importance of the hidden treasures within the archive. It raised the question of what else is in there. Some people didn’t see the immediate relevance of the archive, it was perceived as an added extra. This project highlighted that embedding the past to inform your future you can better understand where you are now. There is now a wider recognition of the value of the archive and the importance of embedding the history in the culture of the institution.

What was learned from the process?

What went well in this project was gaining an understanding of how practice-based research works. It was not known how to take the piece from paper to performance as this had not been done before.

It was not possible to recreate the performance exactly as it was 100 years ago. So many aspects would have been different, including the staging, fabrics and dancers’ skills and techniques. Acknowledging this was important in enabling the performance to progress. Using the original performance notes, subsequently annotated by de Valois as the performance developed, demonstrated the potential of the archive, and highlighted that it was possible to draw inspiration from historic material.

From the process Anna learned to have confidence in giving students complex amounts of material to work with. A lot of preparatory work was undertaken with the students in relation to the source, including where the piece originated, the context for the performance and the people involved.

What students learned from the process was how to engage with archival material and incorporate their learning into a contemporary performance. One of the dancers had English as a second language and she used images within the archive to inform her performance and this worked particularly well.

Key advice

The key piece of advice would be to give yourself enough time to do the supporting research and don’t get carried away by the documents themselves.

For this project to work it meant not only looking at and researching the documents but embracing the performance practice. That is where the creativity lies, and it is important to give enough time to creative experimentation. It was key to see the archive as something which can come to life, something which is deeply embedded within and driving the performance, not as a separate static document.

The project was a time-intensive exercise and therefore it needed to have a robust project structure in place; one which enabled the organisation to support students making time for rehearsals. It needed to be seen not as a burden but as something which met academic and student objectives, and which could be effectively managed alongside their other commitments.

At The Royal Ballet School Anna found a mechanism which enabled the project to happen, through her teaching on the degree course.

If you can make your project part of the infrastructure of course work it will happen

Anna Meadmore, Manager of The Royal Ballet School’s Special Collections

How will this work be developed in the future?

The performance is now in the repertoire of the School. Interestingly de Valois originally brought the choreographed piece to the School in 1925 and used it with students for seven years. There is an ambition to return to this, to use the performance as a stylistic training tool which helps students to understand the history behind their contemporary work. It is a 12-minute work with 5 performers which makes it quite flexible.

In future it could be used as a training tool for teaching recreated for significant events such as special anniversaries. The performances have been filmed and costumes which have been created are available for use in other performances.

The results of the project have also changed the focus of Anna’s PhD, it has provided a valuable insight into de Valois and the development of her choreographic style.

The findings of this work and the approaches may inform how the Frederick Ashton Foundation approaches its archive collection. The Frederick Ashton Foundation is working in association with The Royal Ballet School to preserve and promote the legacy of pioneering choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton.

Find out more about the case study by contacting Anna Meadmore, Manager of Special Collections