A new book, Ballet in the Blitz, by Mona Inglesby with Kay Hunter (Groundnut Publishing, 2008), tells the story of the International Ballet Company, which toured the provinces during the war.

“When war was declared, London fell silent, and many theatres closed down,” Mona writes.

Yet into this unpromising situation the 22-year-old Inglesby, a former star of Ballet Rambert and Les Ballets Russe, launched the pioneering International Ballet Company, possibly one of the most unlikely things to emerge from the rubble of the Blitz.

As war gripped Britain, Mona volunteered her services as an ambulance driver, but she was determined to keep dancing — and, more importantly, to keep ballet firmly in the public domain.

In February 1940, she opened a small ballet studio in South Kensington, which quickly attracted other like-minded dancers, and from this grew the idea of forming a company to take ballet to the provinces.

With generous financial support from her father, and using her contacts in the ballet world, Mona was able to gather together an impressive company of dancers, with herself as the leading ballerina, along with other well-known names, including a young Moira Shearer.

She also managed to recruit a small orchestra, which was augmented by local players at the various touring venues.

A major achievement was securing the services of the famous Russian dancer and director, Nicolai Serguéeff, who became the company’s ballet master.

Serguéeff had been the Regisseur General of the Maryinsky Ballet in St Petersburg, but defected to the west in the wake of the October Revolution, bringing with him the dance notations for most of the classical ballet repertoire, including Giselle, The Sleeping Princess and Swan Lake.

Serguéeff’s authentic recreations of these great Russian classics for the International Ballet Company were crucial to its success, but, more significantly, has helped to preserve classical ballet for future generations.

On his death in 1951, Serguéeff bequeathed his collection of dance notations to Mona Inglesby, who placed them in the Harvard Theatre Collection. The International Ballet Company was launched during what Inglesby called “one of the darkest periods of the war”, opening at the Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow, on 19th May 1941.

From there they went on to tour the length and breadth of the UK, visiting blitzed cities and other provincial towns, where many people had not seen ballet before.

They also gave special performances for the armed services and prisoners of war, as well as appearing regularly in the West End.

The New Theatre in Oxford was one of the company’s major venues, which they visited several times during and after the war, and it was here that two significant performances took place.

In 1947 the company began preparing what was to be one of its flagship productions — a magnificent, large-scale recreation of Petipa’s The Sleeping Princess, once again using the Maryinsky notation. It was their biggest production to date, which used their largest-ever cast, including children from the International Ballet Company School.

The premiere took place at the New Theatre, Oxford, in1948, and was the first time the ballet had been staged outside London or St Petersburg.

A notable feature of the production was the restoration of the Garland Dance in Act 1, which Mona describes in the book as “one of the great spectacles” of the ballet and a “great celebration of movement”.

“With the use of large semi-circular garlands of roses, it is a truly beautiful waltz, the dancing forming graceful swirling patterns,” she continues. “The girls wore long tutus to the knee, peasant style, but of the lightest materials in sunshine colours. The whole effect was that of a glorious summer day.”

Children from the company school took part in the Garland Dance, and Inglesby describes how they travelled by coach to Oxford, accompanied by the great Serguéeff himself, “who sat in the bus as happy as could be, with his pupils all around him, quite fearless of their eminent Professor who could have such a stern concentrated face in rehearsal”.

The Sleeping Princess went on from Oxford to Kilburn in North London, as well as Nottingham, Newcastle and Bradford, and was enthusiastically received.

The following year, Oxford was the chosen venue yet again for another very special performance. Over the years, the company had a great many guest dancers and choreographers, and in 1949 welcomed Julian Algo, a German dancer and choreographer who was then Ballet Master of the Royal Swedish Ballet.

Some years earlier, Algo had created the ballet Visions, which was awarded first prize at the Competition of the Archives Internationales de la Danse in 1945. Now he revived it for the International Ballet Company, and the first performance was given at the New Theatre, Oxford, in 1949, again to an enthusiastic reception.

Sadly, by this time the company’s days were numbered. They had enjoyed great post-war success both in Britain and overseas, becoming the first company to take full-length classical Russian ballets to Europe, and the first ballet company to open at the Royal Festival Hall in 1951.

But rising costs, increasing competition from television and the refusal of a small grant from the Arts Council combined to sound the company’s death knell, and it closed on December 5, 1953, after just 12 years in existence.

Surprisingly, it has taken over half a century for the company’s achievements to be recorded, and that is largely due to Inglesby’s own modesty and reticence. “She didn’t want to do it,” says Kay Hunter, co-author of Ballet in the Blitz. “She was a very shy person, and once she was retired she didn’t really want to retrace her steps. For a long time she didn’t want to talk about the ballet at all.

“We started working on the book in the 1980s, but then she was ill for a while and her husband died, and it was put aside. But then her interest revived, and she was very enthusiastic.”

Mona Inglesby died on 6th October 2006, aged 88, by which time, happily, the book was completed. “It’s sad that she hasn’t seen the finished book,” says Kay, “but she saw the final manuscript and approved it.”

Ballet in the Blitz is the International Ballet Company’s fascinating and compelling story; the story of a pioneering company that kept ballet alive during the difficult war years, and ensured its long-term survival. Inglesby herself sums up its significance: “A whole generation of dancers could have been lost as a result of World War II, and it was considered our contribution to the war effort to help keep theatres open, allowing a population starved of relaxation and entertainment to have an opportunity to savour classical ballet of a high standard throughout blacked-out Britain.”

Ballet in the Blitz: The History of a Ballet Company by Mona Inglesby with Kay Hunter was published by Groundnut Publishing in May 2008, ISBN 978-0-9527141-7-0, £11.99.