Saturday, June 12

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

“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.”

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.

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.

The film offers a rare glimpse of Fonteyn in her offstage role at the Royal Academy of Dance, Ms. Fitzpatrick 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. Fitzpatrick 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. Fitzpatrick 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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