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Memories of Madam

The indomitable Dame Ninette de Valois, who died aged 102, held a special affection for Turkey, where in the post-war years she created the national ballet from scratch. Two of her protégés reminisce to Elizabeth Meath Baker and her visits to Ankara are recalled by the former ambassador Sir Bernard Burrows

  • Ninette de Valois with Richard Glasstone
  • Turkish ballet's first students in 1948

When Ninette de Valois accepted an invitation in 1947 to come to Turkey to see about setting up a national ballet company, those who knew her well were probably confident that she could succeed, as she had in Britain, in creating a ballet company from scratch where there was no previous tradition. She was famous, indeed notorious, for her discipline, grit and determination, as much as for her greatness as an artist and teacher, and known as something of a martinet in what was then Sadler’s Wells Ballet, later to become the Royal Ballet. But surely no one could have anticipated the extent of her success and, more, the profound mutual affection which would develop between her and ‘Madam’s Turks’, as her protégés came to be called.

Richard Glasstone, who joined the fledgling company as resident choreographer in Ankara in 1965, was appointed by Dame Ninette. He felt the closeness of her relationship with Turkey came from many sources. One of these was her Irishness – she warmed to what she spoke of as an “Irishness” in the Turks. Another was the empathy she felt as a result of her own early struggles in establishing the English ballet at Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic under Lilian Baylis.

In her book Step by Step, she described the evolution of the Turkish ballet and she tells the story of how, at the age of ten, she was given a dancer’s charm, a tiny gold coin, by a visiting Persian prince, after performing for him in a London drawing room. Engraved on it were the words ‘Allah guide thy feet’ . In her words, ‘They were guided to the shores of Asia Minor in no uncertain fashion some thirty-five years later.’

It is unclear who actually decided she should be invited to Turkey. Turkish audiences had only seen occasional visiting ballet companies (the very earliest of these, courtesy of the Italian community in the sixteenth century, is briefly described in Metin And’s History of Theatre and Popular Entertainment in Turkey, published in 1964), but professional dancing for entertainment, however disreputable it might seem as a career, was still an historic institution and hugely popular.

By the time Richard Glasstone arrived, the Turkish State Ballet, from its small beginnings, was clearly well on the way to becoming a proper company. Glasstone himself was being handed an exceptional opportunity: born in the Belgian Congo, trained in South Africa and then in London, and having worked for two years in Holland, he did not have the profile to be taken on directly by the Royal Ballet. But by sending him to Turkey as her man, ‘Madam’ gave him the chance to prove himself with a young and enthusiastic company at his disposal. Later, she would see about finding him a place in London. She had also clearly detected the need for a choreographer who was a teacher too – after four years in Ankara, Glasstone went on to work for 17 years at the Royal Ballet School.

In those early days, only Dame Ninette could see off serious trouble. Her word was law. One of her great concerns was to ensure that the ballet did not play second fiddle to the opera. In London she had more or less succeeded in this. In Ankara, there were obstacles to overcome. The opera had been started well before the ballet; the music conservatoire was more established. Design, sets, wardrobe, lighting and stage management, all belonging to the opera, were run on German lines, and the approach could be less than flexible.

The designer Osman Şengezer began his career assisting the German stage designer, having done part of an architect’s training. At one meeting about sets for de Valois’ The Rake’s Progress (Hovardanın Sonu), with at least 15 people present, everyone was making excuses to her about how they could not produce the shades of ‘elephant’ grey needed for Hogarth’s seven great tableaux. A young voice, Şengezer’s, was heard: ‘I can make it,’ he said, and he did. He was just 19…

The indomitable Dame Ninette de Valois, who died aged 102, held a special affection for Turkey, where in the post-war years she created the national ballet from scratch. Two of her protégés reminisce to Elizabeth Meath Baker and her visits to Ankara are recalled by the former ambassador Sir Bernard Burrows

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Good places to stay
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Issue 23, 2001 Haute Ottoman
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