Lillian Baylis – Facilitator Extrordinary
There should be no under-estimating the sometimes eccentric Lillian Baylis's role in
opening the door for Ninette de Valois to create a ballet company.
In 1898 a neice of Emma Cons, Lilian Baylis CH, an English Theatrical producer and manager took over the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells and produced an extensive run of Shakespeare's plays.
In 1925, Baylis began a campaign to re-open the derelict Sadler's Wells Theatre, something she finally achieved with a gala opening, on 6 January 1931, of a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night starring John Gielgud as Malvolio and Ralph Richardson as Toby Belch.
For the first few years the opera, drama and ballet companies, known as the "Vic-Wells" companies, rotated between the two theatres, but by 1935 the ballet and opera companies would be based at Sadler's Wells and the drama company at the Old Vic.
In 1919, at the age of 21, de Valois was appointed principal dancer of the Beecham Opera, which was then the resident opera company at the Royal Opera House having earlier studied with notable teachers, including Edouard Espinosa, Enrico Cecchetti and Nicholas Legat.
From 1923 to 1927 de Valois appeared with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe and through this experience she learnt how a ballet company should be run.
Determined to establish a ballet repertory company in England she chose to create a dance school for girls who would dance in an English manner(sic).
Students of de Valois would be given the opportunity to appear both in plays and operas at the Old Vic.
In 1928 Lilian Baylis decides to fully acquire the Sadler's Wells Theatre creating a sister theatre to the Old Vic and she engaged de Valois to stage full scale dance productions at both theatres when the Sadler's Wells theatre re-opened in 1931.
Lillian Baylis had few material resources but many friends who happily yielded to her persuasive ways. John Maynard Keynes, the influential British economist (whose wife Lydia Lopukhova was a Diaghilev dancer), was persuaded to divert his attention from Britain's economic problems to help raise money. On at least one occasion Keynes got economists who were attending a conference in London to pay for a performance by “ Ninette's” dancers.
Here de Valois nurtured the careers of dancers such as Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann, and her productions of classical work often featured guest appearances from Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. Musical direction was by Constant Lambert, and choreography for new works by de Valois and rising star Frederick Ashton.
Baylis was awarded an honorary Masters degree from Oxford University in 1924, only the second such honour to be given to a woman by the university. In 1929, she was made a Companion of Honour (CH) for service to the nation. In 1934 Birmingham University awarded Baylis an honorary doctorate. A Greater London Council blue plaque commemorates Baylis at her home, 27 Stockwell Park Road in Stockwell, South London.
After a long illness, Baylis died of a heart attack on 25 November 1937, aged 63, the night before the Old Vic was to open a production of Macbeth starring Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson. She was cremated at East London Cemetery and Crematorium, where her ashes were scattered at her own request. There is no memorial.
PS: Sorry for the bold and the underlining my computer has a mind of its own today.