Saluting the woman who made British dance what it is

It all began with an Irish jig at the turn of the century, in a herdsman's cottage on the big family estate of Baltiboys, nestled under the Wicklow hills near Dublin.

On a recent summer evening, an 85th birthday gala night of dance was staged in honor of that jig dancer whose life has been dedicated to establishing a British style of dance. The petite, gentle, unassuming woman is Dame Ninette de Valois, founder and for over 30 years director of the Royal Ballet Company, and affectionately known to all as ''Madam.'' Her vision and unflagging perseverance led to the creation of a ballet company and school that are world renowned.

The gala (in aid of the Dance Teachers' Benevolent Fund) was a glittering evening of exciting dance, joyful reunions of former teachers, and royal patronage (the Duchess of Gloucester, wife of the Queen's cousin).

The evening was remarkable, too, for the simplicity and unpretentious manner of its honored guest. Madam, a one-time dancer with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, asked for ''no fuss'' on her birthday.

Arriving early at the Sadler's Wells Theatre, I went for a snack at the buffet, only to notice among the other diners Madam herself in a blue chiffon dress sitting at a table studying the program. Later she seemed surprised, when entering the auditorium to take her seat with all of us in the stalls (and not in the flower-bedecked royal box), that everyone should start clapping. And at the grand finale, when all dancers and teachers of the past were gathered on stage with her, she came forward to express gratitude for the evening and the wonderful memories it had evoked.

''I feel as though I should be wearing a banner that has printed on it 'Much ado about nothing, . . .' '' she said. ''So much has been done here tonight and I've done little. . . . It's these tMachers who train and give up their good pupils to us. . . . I hope they'll go on doing it!''

The natural ''one-of-us'' feeling in the tatty old Sadler's Well Theatre, where for more than 50 years Madam held classes and danced on stage at night, was a far cry from the opulent evening in 1980 at the gold and red Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, when the Bolshoi celebrated the 70th birthday of legendary ballerina Galina Ulanova. There was no opportunity to speak to that honored guest, as there was with Madam during the interval.

The conservative but honest show of affection of the British audience and its large basket of flowers and one bouquet reminded me of Ulanova's night when it rained flowers in Moscow - they came pouring down from the balconies, were tossed up from the stalls, and were brought on stage by the blue-uniformed, non-ballerina-like figures of the Bolshoi's women ushers.

Yet both evenings were magical. Ulanova's was one of speeches and slides and films of her career, followed by the ballet ''The Nutcracker'' danced by her pupils Vassiliev and Maximova.

Madam's was one of 12 excerpts, all with the Madam touch, danced by well-known members of leading companies. It opened with an Irish jig danced by light-footed school girls in green costumes and brown ringlets, followed two Royal Ballet School students in a soaring excerpt from Minkus's ''Paquita.''

The audience was treated to the varying talents of Eva Evdokimova, Peter Schaufuss, Elaine McDonald, Wayne Sleep (in a hilarious skit as Charlie Chaplin) , Marcia Haydee, Richard Cragun, and the Royal Ballet's own beloved Antoinette Sibley, who makes rare appearances these days and who ended the evening with the Aurora Pas de Deux from the company's signature-tune ballet, ''Sleeping Beauty.''

The audience seemed somewhat taken aback when, after a classical duet from the Northern Ballet Company, the curtains lifted on two swathed brown-gray shapes, circular small mirrors on faceless heads, and handless arms posing for the London Contemporary Dance Theater's contribution. But the choreography of American Paul Taylor's ''Three Epitaphs,'' danced to traditional folk music and with apelike movement and humor, soon had everyone laughing.

The same aura of surprise came when this dance was performed a few years ago in Moscow, when Paul Taylor and his company was on tour there. Muscovites, weaned on tutus and ''Swan Lakes,'' sat in bewildered silence as the dance began. Soon, however, cries of ''Strashny'' (''Strange'') turned to hoots of laughter and loud bravos for this new view of dance.

Traditional grace and beauty were restored to the gala London stage in the form of Eva Evdokimova as La Sylphide. Trained in the Royal Ballet School between the ages of 10 and 17, she (and three beautiful dancers from the London Festival Ballet and partner Peter Schaufuss) drew cheers for her exquisite rendering. She was truly ethereal and fragile.

Conversely, the extroverted ''hey-look-at-me'' dancing of Stuttgart dancers Haydee and Cragun scored whistles of approval from the normally reserved British. They performed the British premiere of ''Something Special,'' by Dalal Achcar. It was the perfect showcase for their particular style, which reaches out and grabs the audience.

It was Madam's own ballet ''Checkmate,'' danced by the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet Company, that showed what talent and insight she has brought to Britain. Created in 1937, when Europe was on the brink of war, the ballet uses the game of chess to show the drama of love and death.

The game is waged in vibrant red and black, and the ballet is dramatic. Its choreography is still contemporary, and there is even a hint of that Irish jig in the pawns' dance.

After we had all sung ''Happy birthday, dear Madam,'' Sir John Tooley, director of the Royal Opera House, paid tribute to her.

He said, ''Without the determination, vision, and talent of this truly remarkable woman, dance in Britain wouldn't be as it is today.''

Madam's final thoughts were for her audience: ''Thank you all for coming,'' she said, ''It's time for you now to be getting home. . . .''

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