Famed ballet teacher Christine Du Boulay Ellis, a link to dance history, stars, dead at 96
The Ellis-Du Boulay School of Ballet taught thousands of Chicago area students. Visiting stars took lessons, including Barbra Streisand, Julie Harris and Marilu Henner. In 1952, Audrey Hepburn received instruction while touring in the play “Gigi.”
Christine Du Boulay Ellis, whose career as a dancer and teacher linked her to some of ballet’s greatest performances and brightest stars, died Nov. 9 of Parkinson’s disease at her Old Town home, according to the Joffrey Ballet. She was 96.
Mrs. Ellis, a soloist with London’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet, operated a Chicago dance school for 40 years with her husband Richard Ellis, who for nearly 30 years performed as Herr Drosselmeyer in the Ruth Page production of “The Nutcracker.”
Mrs. Ellis “was one of the last surviving members of the original Sadler’s Wells cast of ‘The Sleeping Beauty,” according to the Joffrey.
That 1946 production at London’s Royal Opera House was a sensation, winning ovation after ovation from postwar audiences starved for ballet’s beauty and power.
“It was a transformative moment” for Sadler’s Wells, which evolved into the Royal Ballet, said Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s Mary B. Galvin artistic director.
Over the decades, the Ellis-Du Boulay School of Ballet taught thousands of Chicago area students. Graduates went on to dozens of prestigious dance schools and companies in the United States and Europe.
Dance royalty would drop in, like Ivan Nagy and Violette Verdy. And visiting stars took lessons, among them Barbra Streisand, Julie Harris and Marilu Henner. In 1952, Audrey Hepburn received instruction while touring in the play “Gigi.”
“She was a lovely dancer,” Mrs. Ellis told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2010.
She compared Hepburn to the couple’s good friend, prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who was a 15-year-old named Peggy Hookham when Richard Ellis first partnered with her.
Christine Du Boulay was born in the London suburb of Ealing, according to the Joffrey. Her father Guy George Houssemayne-Du Boulay was a Royal Air Force pilot. Her mother Ruby Violet Emmeline Knox was from Dublin, Ireland. Young Christine studied ballet at the Sadler’s Wells school.
Her husband witnessed the onset of Germany’s invasion of Holland during a tour with the Sadler’s Wells ballet. At the time, a child presented a bouquet to the legendary founder of the company, Dame Ninette de Valois.It turned out to be a young Hepburn.
Richard Ellis joined the Royal Navy, serving with actor Alec Guinness. He wound up ferrying American troops to Normandy on D-Day.
“He said the noise of the battleships and the guns was something unbelievable,” Mrs. Ellis told the Sun-Times. “He put them on the beach and left them. God knows what happened after that.”
After the war, he returned to Sadler’s Wells, where young Christine nicknamed him “Dreamboy.” They were married in 1947.
They danced to choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton and learned dance nuances from members of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
Mrs. Ellis performed in 37 ballets, including Coppelia, Giselle, Hamlet, The Rake’s Progress and Symphonic Variations.
On a 1950 Sadler’s Wells rail tour of the United States, she and her husband, delighted to spot a cowboy from their train car, fell in love with Chicago, Wheater said.
After establishing their dance school in Chicago in 1952, the couple helped found the Illinois Ballet in 1959.
Mrs. Ellis also wrote the 2006 book “A Leap Across the Atlantic, The Memoirs of Two Ballet Dancers.”
The Ellises were known for their focus on what the French call epaulement — shouldering. They taught students how to tilt their heads and elongate their upper bodies for a beautiful classical line.
“It’s appalling how many students come to us knowing basic steps but having no idea how to do them properly,” she told the Sun-Times in 1982. “They hold their arms like this,” demonstrating with floppy arms.
They felt strongly about young dancers wearing pointe shoes at too young an age.
“Even if their feet are strong, we don’t let our girls wear toe shoes until they’re 10,” she said in the interview. “Otherwise, their feet, legs and posture can be damaged.”
Mrs. Ellis believed ballet was more than dance. “The discipline you get from proper ballet training can be carried over to all areas of your life and can last a lifetime,” she said.
In 1996, she and her husband were among the original “Sleeping Beauty” cast members invited to London to meet Queen Elizabeth at a 50th anniversary celebration of the breakthrough postwar performance of the ballet.
The Ellises were renowned for their New Year’s Eve parties.
“Their house was open to everybody, a home filled with genuine love,” Wheater said. “Richard and Christine were famous for their gin and tonics. Up until a few months ago, Christine was still wanting a gin and tonic.”
The crisp English drinks will be served at a celebration of her life, planned for 3 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Joffrey Ballet Tower, 10 E. Randolph St.
Her husband died in 2010. They didn’t have children, but, Wheater said, “Every student they ever taught was a child of theirs.”