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Dame Margot Fonteyn
1919 - 1991



Dame Margot Fonteyn (born Margaret Hookham) was an outstanding and beloved classical ballerina with an extensive career, from 1934 to 1979. She danced for England's Royal Ballet, putting British ballet on the international map.
 

 

Margot Fonteyn was born in Reigate, England, on May 18, 1919 as Margaret Hookham. Her father was British and her mother, Hilda, was a daughter of an Irish mother and a Brazilian father. She had one brother, Felix. They grew up happily in the London suburb of Ealing. She began dance classes at age four at a local dance school. Her father accepted a position as chief engineer of a tobacco company in Shanghai when Fonteyn was eight years old. In Shanghai she took ballet lessons from the Russian George Goncharov. She loved to move and was always creating dances for herself. At age 14 her mother brought her to London to give her a chance to develop a dancing career. She started taking lessons with Serafina Astafieva, and a little later she went to the Sadler's Wells Ballet School with Vera Volkova. When she danced in England she got her stage name, Margot Fonteyn, which indirectly evolved from her mother's family name, Fontes.

Fonteyn devoted her entire career to the Royal Ballet. This company was founded by Ninette de Valois in 1928 as the Vic-Wells/Sadler's Wells Ballet. De Valois believed in Fonteyn's talent and pushed her through difficult moments. In her autobiography Fonteyn recalls her thoughts whenever faced with a new step: "What a beautiful step. I shall never be able to do it."

Her debut was as a snowflake in The Nutcracker in 1934. The next year a wealth of dance roles in the standard classics, such as The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and Swan Lake, became open to the young Margot due to the departure of the great ballerina Alicia Markova. Fonteyn loved to become the romantic heroines. Her first major role was in Frederick Ashton's new ballet Le Baiser de la Fee in 1935. Her collaboration with choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton was exceptional. Fonteyn was his muse. In her autobiography she tells that although she had to work hard to master his creations, her happiest moments on stage were in Ashton ballets. He created leading roles for her in Apparitions, Nocturne, Les Patineurs, A Wedding Bouquet, Horoscope, The Wise Virgins, Dante Sonata, The Quest, The Wanderer, Daphnis and ChloŽ, and Ondine. De Valois also created roles for Fonteyn in Orpheus and Euridyce and Don Quichotte. She danced in revivals of Firebird and Petrouchka from the Diaghilev Ballets, staged by Leonide Massine. She was the first ballerina in George Balanchine's Ballet Imperial. During World War II the company had a full and hectic schedule. They were performing for all kinds of audiences, including the troops in Brussels. Her first performance in the United States in 1949 was triumphantly received.

Margot Fonteyn was at her best in a pas de deux. She loved working with a partner. She danced with Robert Helpmann and Michael Somes, each for many years. She appeared with Roland Petit for Les Ballets de Paris in Les Demoiselles de la Nuit in 1948. In her forties she started to think about retirement, but instead revived her career. She met Rudolf Nureyev, who had just left Russia at age 23. They became a dynamic team. The combination of his spirit and her technique, which was better than it had ever been before, made it joint artistry. They performed Swan Lake, Giselle, and Romeo and Juliet. Ashton created Marguerite et Armand and modern dance choreographer Martha Graham created Lucifer for them. For the next 15 years they performed all over the world. In 1965, an anecdote says, they once received a 40-minute ovation and had 43 curtain calls.

Fonteyn was the most versatile British ballerina after World War II. Her pale face, black hair, luminous eyes, and engaging smile were her trademarks. With her total musicality, her beautiful physique, her soft style of movement, her gentle loving manner, and her exquisite lines, she created a strong connection with audiences all over the world. She especially stood out in lyrical roles. She could dance the most difficult choreography with a disarming ease. Her presentation of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty is considered the ultimate interpretation of that role. She had an extraordinarily long career. At age 60 she had her farewell performance in London's Royal Opera House.

Her personal life started relatively late. Until age 35 her ballet career was all-consuming. In 1955, at age 36, she married in Paris a man she had met in her youth-Robert E. Arias, "Tito," the son of the former president of Panama. They met international celebrities and diplomats. He became the Panamanian ambassador in London and was actively involved in the politics of Panama. Attacked by a political opponent, he became paralyzed. The couple continued their separate careers, yet always remained connected, even when geography set them apart.

In 1951 Fonteyn was decorated a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 1956 she became Dame of the Order of the British Empire, after which she was known as Dame Margot Fonteyn. In 1979 she received from the Royal Ballet in England the title "prima ballerina assoluta," a title only given to three ballerinas in the 20th century. She became president of the Royal Academy of Dancing in 1954 and annually organized and presented a gala matinee, persuading famous dancers from all the major companies to appear. She received several awards and honorary doctorates. She wrote her autobiography while still dancing in 1975. In 1979 she presented the television series and book "The Magic of Dance." A documentary was made on her Panamanian ranch to celebrate her 70th birthday. She died on February 21, 1991, at age 72, two years after her husband.
 


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Where to begin? Fonteyn's name dominated British ballet for more than 40 years. One of the truly great dancers of our time, she was the most famous ballerina of the second half of the century, Ashton's muse, the perfect exemplar of the English style - and all of that even before the wonderful Indian summer of her partnership with Nureyev. For anyone who saw her, she is still the one against whom all others are measured.

Margot Fonteyn was born in England in 1919 - her real name was Peggy Hookham - and spent some of her childhood in China. When she was 14 her family returned to England and she auditioned successfully for the Vic-Wells ballet, making her debut in 1934 as a snowflake in Nutcracker; her first solo role was the Young Treginnis in de Valois's The Haunted Ballroom. When Markova, the company's first ballerina, left in 1935, Fonteyn worried with the rest of the dancers, and most of the audience, about who could ever replace her: over the next 3 years it became apparent that it would be she herself. By the time she was 16 her promise was unmistakable, and this is not just hindsight: it seems as if everyone who ever went to the ballet in the 30s wrote a book about it, and accounts published even before she had tackled any of the great classic roles forecast greatness for her.

By the time the war broke out in 1939 Fonteyn had danced Aurora, Giselle, and Odette/Odile, and - perhaps more importantly - had already created half a dozen roles for Ashton. After a stormy start caused by mutual incomprehension, she and the choreographer established a happy relationship which over the next 25 years produced most of her greatest roles and his greatest ballets. The company's nomadic wartime existence ended with the invitation take up residence at Covent Garden, and their opening night performance of Sleeping Beauty showed how far Fonteyn, still only 26, had travelled on the path to prima ballerina. Symphonic Variations and Cinderella followed, and the seal on her progress from national treasure to international star was set by her triumph in New York on the company's historic opening night in 1949. The 50s saw her taking on Karsavina's role in Firebird, and creating Ondine and Chloe - the part in which Ashton said he most missed her when she gave up dancing. In 1956 she married Roberto de Arias, a diplomat from Panama, and for a time had to juggle her commitments as both ballerina and ambassador's wife. By about 1960, though, talk of possible retirement had begun to creep into reviews and interviews.

Then in 1961 Nureyev made his famous leap to freedom in Paris, and de Valois, with her usual perception, invited him to London to dance Giselle with Fonteyn. Their first performance was a revelation, and the most famous partnership in the history of ballet was born. The tension arising from the 20 year gap in their ages, their opposing temperaments and their totally diverse backgrounds seemed to generate an electricity in the atmosphere whenever they appeared together, and Fonteyn - far from being overshadowed by her young Tartar - seemed rejuvenated: even her technique seemed to improve. Certainly her career was extended by at least 15 years, and we saw her in many new ballets, usually created to explore the dynamics of the partnership - the most famous probably being being Ashton's Marguerite and Armand.

Fonteyn gave her final performance in the early 70s, and retired to Panama to live with her husband, who had been paralysed in a shooting incident. She died of cancer in 1991. Her musicality and her understated eloquence and elegance made her the perfect embodiment of what we have come to think of as the English style, whilst her modesty and dignity set the tone for the whole company in its developing years. If this makes her sound too 'ladylike', though, remember that not only has she been described as 'the most passionate of dancers', she was also arrested probably more often than the average prima ballerina assoluta. (Once in the States with Nureyev and once in Panama.) Much of the existing film of her was made too late in her career to do justice to her technique, but fortunately she seems to have inspired photographers as well as choreographers and there are hundreds of ravishing photographs to witness to her quality. For a time the fame of her partnership with Nureyev rather overshadowed the rest of her career, but even had she retired in the early 60s without ever having danced with him, she would still be remembered as the greatest dancer we ever had.
 


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At the time of Margot Fonteyn's memorial service in Westminster Abbey, four months after her death in 1991, I was compiling a Radio 3 programme about her. In setting up interviews with people who had travelled across the globe to be present at the service, I discovered that someone else was pursuing the same path: Meredith Daneman had started researching her biography of Fonteyn. As I tried to convince Margot's friends, relations and colleagues to talk candidly about her on the record, I wondered whether Daneman was having more success.

Her fascinating book proves how persistent she was, and how she won the trust of those who knew the much-loved ballerina best. The difficulty we both found was that Fonteyn's generation (she was born in 1919) did not believe in airing any kind of linen in public. In their view, the world had no need to know about a performer's private life. Dancers, when they talked at all, did not discuss their aches and pains, abortions, affairs, plastic surgery and eating habits. Their colleagues were expected to be similarly discreet, especially if they were members of the Royal Ballet.

Equally frustrating was my interviewees' reluctance to pinpoint what made Fonteyn so special - the most famous ballerina the world over. 'There was no one like her,' they'd gush blandly. 'Margot was, well, Margot. She could make you cry just watching her.' Daneman addresses the problem in her prologue: 'How to put something so visual, so potent with theatrical moment that even film cannot capture it, into plain words? How to explain why it is that when, to a particular strain of music, an ordinary mortal steps forward on one leg, raises the other behind her and lifts her arms above her head, the angels hold their breath?'

Daneman refuses to concede defeat, though her prose can sometimes be as misty-eyed as that of a fan's posting on a balletomane website. She locates Fonteyn's extraordinary on-stage appeal in the woman's personal qualities - her moral as much as physical virtues. When her heroine falters in the choices she makes, Daneman's reproaches are all the more telling for coming from such a sympathetic source. She has set out to understand Margot (as she and her informants call her subject) from the inside, helped by family memoirs, letters and confidences from intimates who no longer saw any point in holding back.

Fonteyn's dark, exotic looks came from her mother's side of the family. Her father, Felix Hookham, was a lower-middle-class Englishman; her mother the illegitimate daughter of a rich Brazilian businessman, Antonio Goncalvez Fontes, and an Irishwoman, Evelyn Acheson. When Daneman met members of the Fontes clan in Brazil, she understood how Latin family pride had made it unthinkable that a young dancer, Peggy Hookham, a remote relative, should adopt their name as a stage pseudonym. She altered it instead to Fonteyn, a surname her elder brother later took as his own as well.

Peggy had been taken to dancing classes throughout her childhood by her ambitious mother, known to the ballet world as BQ or Black Queen, after the formidable leading figure in Ninette de Valois's ballet Checkmate. De Valois accepted the solemn 14-year-old into her Sadler's Wells Ballet School and turned her into a ballerina by the time she was 16. De Valois's strategic sense of what her fledgling company needed meant that Fonteyn was often given starring roles at the expense of other talented dancers. It was she who led the company into the Royal Opera House after the war; she who famously conquered New York as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty in 1949. The English style of dancing was formed on and by Fonteyn, moulded by Frederick Ashton, the choreographer who made the most of her talents.

Julie Kavanagh's comprehensive 1996 biography of Ashton, Secret Muses, first broke the taboos protecting the raffish - later highly respectable - Royal Ballet. Now Daneman reveals that Fonteyn lost her virginity at 16 and that her next lover, the married company conductor Constant Lambert, boasted about her sexual abilities to Ashton (who passed on the comments with a gusto no biographer could ignore). Ashton's early roles for Fonteyn show her as a sensual being: the seductive Creole girl in Rio Grande, Tiresias the sexual experimenter. Then he froze her in perpetual purity: Chloe, Ondine, Sylvia, in his postwar ballets, are maidens beyond reproach. Not until Rudolf Nureyev burst onto the scene was Fonteyn able to be anything other than virginal.

By then, she had rewritten what Daneman calls her pagan past (Fonteyn would make no mention of lovers in her autobiography) in order to assume the role of the perfect ambassador's wife. She married Roberto (Tito) Arias in 1955 when she was in her mid-forties. De Valois reckoned she had only three years' dancing left in her; younger rivals were waiting impatiently for her to retire. Fonteyn transformed herself into a very grande dame, regarded with almost as much awe as the Queen.

The attractions of Arias, serial adulterer and dodgy Panamanian politician, escaped most of Fonteyn's admirers. Daneman, however, brings fresh insights into the nature of his charm and that of his extended family: Margot and his children by his former wife got on very well together, providing her with a warmth missing from her earlier life. The marriage, though, was already turning sour by the time Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union in 1961.

Fonteyn was initially reluctant to perform with him, mutton dancing with lamb. Tito spelt out the options she faced: 'Get on the bandwagon, or get out'. She obliged, thereby changing the course of her life as well as her career. No longer a fading star, she rose eagerly to the challenges Nureyev set her.

Whether they had a love affair in the sexual sense matters less than their romance on stage. Daneman weighs the views of those who believed they must have slept together and those who thought him too homosexual, she too ladylike. Yet she'd had flings with Roland Petit and Robert Helpmann, among other partners - so why not with highly-sexed Rudolf? The only conclusion is that nobody knew for certain except them. Their personal relationship altered, in any case, over the years, while their performing partnership remained remarkably constant.

Fonteyn kept on dancing long after she should have stopped. She needed to earn money to support her husband, paralysed in an assassination attempt in 1964. Although the last part of her life might have seemed tragic, she embraced her role as Tito's carer wholeheartedly - perhaps too much so for his taste. After she retired at 60, she reinvented herself as a cattle rancher with him in rural Panama. The final photograph in the book shows her, ethereally thin from cancer, flanked by pedigree cows. Shrouded in dust, they echo the ghostly Wilis who claimed Giselle. Daneman has brought Margot, the woman, fully to life in her long-awaited biography.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 18 December, 2008