The Royal Academy of Dance: From Music Hall to Ballet Royalty

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“It is absolute nonsense to say that the English temperament is not suited for dancing,” Edouard Espinosa, a London dance teacher, said in 1916. It was only a lack of skilled teaching, he added, that prevented the emergence of “perfect dancers.” Espinosa was speaking to a reporter from Lady’s Pictorial about a furor that he had caused in the dance world with this idea: Dance instructors, he insisted, should adhere to standards and be examined on their work.

Four years later, in 1920, a teaching organization that would become the Royal Academy of Dance (R.A.D.) was founded by Espinosa and several others, including the Danish-born Adeline Genée and the Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Today, the academy is one of the major ballet training programs in the world, with students in 92 countries following syllabuses and taking its exams governed by the organization. And as the exhibition “On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100,” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, shows, its history is synonymous with the history of ballet in Britain.

“A lot of British dance’s legacy started with the R.A.D.,” said Darcey Bussell, a former Royal Ballet ballerina who has been the president of the academy since 2012. “It’s important that dance training and teaching are kept entwined with the professional world, and the R.A.D. has done that from the start.”

There wasn’t yet a national ballet company in Britain when the Royal Academy was formed. But there was plenty of ballet, said Jane Pritchard, the curator of dance, theater and performance at the Victoria and Albert museum. She curated the exhibition with Eleanor Fitzpatrick, the archives and records manager at the Royal Academy of Dance. “The Ballets Russes were there, Pavlova was performing in London, and there were excellent émigré teachers arriving,” Ms. Pritchard said. “So the R.A.D. came into existence at just the right moment, taking the best of the Italian, French and Russian schools and bringing it together to create a British style, which it then sent out into the world again.”

The exhibition, which runs through September 2021, had its scheduled May opening delayed by Covid-19 restrictions. It opened on Dec. 2, but was shut down again when Britain reimposed restrictions in mid-December. While we wait for the museum to reopen, here is a tour of some of the exhibition’s photographs, designs and objects, which touch on some of the most important figures in 20th-century ballet history.

Adeline Genée (1878-1970), who spent much of her career in England, reigned for a decade as the prima ballerina at the Empire Theater, where she appeared in variety programs. She was both revered as a classical dancer and hugely popular with the public; Florenz Ziegfeld billed her as “The World’s Greatest Dancer” when she performed in the United States in 1907. Genée became the first president of the Royal Academy of Dance, and her connections to royalty and her popularity with the public made her an excellent figurehead.

The 1915 photograph shows Genée in her own short ballet, “A Dream of Butterflies and Roses,” in a costume by Wilhelm, the resident designer at the Empire Theater and an important figure on the theatrical scene. “It’s a really good example of the kind of costume and the kind of ballets that were being shown at the time,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said. “Ballet was still part of music-hall entertainment.”

This 1922 poster of weekly variety-show offerings at the London Coliseum suggests how ballet was seen around the time that the Royal Academy of Dance was founded. “It was part of a bigger general picture, and this shows it visually,” Ms. Pritchard said. “Sybil Thorndike was a great British actress and would have given a short performance of a play or monologue; Grock was a very famous clown. Most of the Coliseum bills had some sort of dance element, but it wasn’t always ballet.”

Jumping Joan was one of three characters danced by Tamara Karsavina in “Nursery Rhymes,” which she choreographed, to music by Schubert, for an evening at the Coliseum Theater in London in 1921. Unusually for ballet at the time in London, it was a stand-alone show rather than part of a variety program. Karsavina and her company performed it twice a day for two weeks.

“People associate Karsavina with the Ballets Russes, but she also had her own group of dancers, which performed regularly at the Coliseum,” Ms. Pritchard said. “She was really an independent artist in a way we think is very modern, working with a major company but also having an independent existence.”

She also tried to promote British artists; the costume design was by Claud Lovat Fraser, a brilliant theater designer who died in his early 30s. “I think Lovat Fraser is the British equivalent of Bakst,” Ms. Pritchard said. “His drawings are so animated and precise, and he uses color wonderfully to create a sense of character.”

In 1954, the Whip and Carrot Club, an association of high jumpers, approached the Royal Academy of Dance with an unusual request. Its members had read that in both Russia and America, athletes had benefited from taking ballet classes, and they asked the Academy to formulate lessons that would improve their elevation.

The outcome was a course that ran for several years, with classes for high jumpers and hurdlers and, later, “steeplechasers, discus and javelin-throwers,” according to a Pathé film clip, on show in the exhibition. In 1955, a booklet was produced, showing 13 exercises designed to help jumping, drawn by the cartoonist Cyril Kenneth Bird, known professionally as Fougasse and famous for government propaganda posters (“Careless talk costs lives”) produced during World War II.

“I love the photograph of Margot Fonteyn looking on in her fur coat!” Ms. Pritchard said.

Karsavina, vice president of the Royal Academy of Dance until 1955, developed a teachers’ training course syllabus as well as other sections of the advanced exams. As a dancer, she created the title role in Mikhail Fokine’s “The Firebird,” with music by Stravinsky, when the Ballets Russes first performed the ballet at the Paris Opera in 1910. Here she is shown coaching Margot Fonteyn, when the Royal Ballet first staged the ballet, in 1954, the year that Fonteyn took over from Genée as president of the Royal Academy of Dance.

“Karsavina had firsthand knowledge of what the choreographer and composer wanted, and is passing it on,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said. (“I never was one to count,” Karsavina says in a film clip about learning “The Firebird”; “Stravinsky was very kind.”) “There is a wonderful sense of handing things from one generation to the next.”

This relaxed moment from a 1963 rehearsal shows the ease and rapport between Fonteyn and the youthful Rudolf Nureyev, who had defected from Russia two years earlier. They were rehearsing for the annual Royal Academy of Dance gala, which Fonteyn established to raise funds for the organization. Her fame enabled her to bring together international guests, British dancers and even contemporary dance choreographers like Paul Taylor.

“The gala was also an opportunity for Fonteyn and Nureyev to try things that they perhaps wouldn’t have danced with the Royal Ballet,” Ms. Pritchard said. “Here, they were in rehearsal for ‘La Sylphide,’ because Nureyev was passionate about the Bournonville choreography. They really look like two dancers who are happy with one another.”

Stanislas Idzikowski, known as Idzi to his students, was a Polish dancer who had moved to London in his teens and danced with Anna Pavlova’s company before joining the Ballets Russes, where he inherited many of Vaslav Nijinsky’s roles. A close friend of Karsavina, he later became a much-loved teacher and worked closely with the Royal Academy of Dance. Always formally clad in a three-piece suit with a stiff collared shirt and elegant shoes, he was, Fonteyn wrote in her autobiography, “diminutive, dapper and precise.”

In this 1952 photograph, he is teaching fifth-year girls who were probably hoping to go on to professional careers. Idzikowski was also involved with the Royal Academy of Dance’s Production Club, started in 1932 to allow students over 14 to work with choreographers; Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann were among the early volunteers, and later a young John Cranko created his first work there.

This 1972 photograph of young girls about to begin a sequence called the “party polka” was taken by Fonteyn’s brother, Felix, who also filmed the demonstration being given by a group of primary school students for Fonteyn and other teachers. The footage, which had been stored in the Royal Academy of Dance’s archives in canisters marked “Children’s Syllabus,” was only recently discovered by Ms. Fitzgerald.

The film offers a rare glimpse of Fonteyn in her offstage role at the Royal Academy of Dance, Ms. Fitzgerald said, and it reflects an important change that the ballerina made during her presidency. “People really think about Fonteyn as a dancer, but she was very involved with teaching and syllabus development,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. Earlier syllabuses, she explained, had included mime, drama and history, but when a panel, including Fonteyn, revised the program in 1968, they did away with much of this.

“They wanted to streamline everything and make it more enjoyable for the children, and just focus on the movement,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “The party polka is a good example of that, with a great sense for the children of whirling around the room, and really dancing.”

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