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Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Ballerina's Ballerina: Margot Fonteyn by Meredith Daneman

Meridith Daneman writes like the ballerina she was - radiantly and luminously but thoroughly and in a well-disciplined way. Her wonderful book about this greatest of all English ballerinas never fails to fascinate.

Keith Money described Margot Fonteyn's dancing as 'the still heart at the centre of the universe.'* She certainly had all the attributes of a prima ballerina: grace, simplicity, beauty and fantastic dedication to her art. Like most great artists Fonteyn didn't have an easy life. In fact, hers was more difficult than most. Daneman describes a journey from one opposite to another. Fonteyn left school at fourteen yet became Vice-Chancellor of Durham University in later life. She enjoyed a bohemian life with many love affairs when she was young and single yet she became such a devoted wife that she combined ballet with caring for her husband who was in a wheelchair and retired with him to a remote and primitive farm in Panama. The one thing that was constant in her life (at least until she met her husband, Tito Arias) was the ballet.

Born Peggy Hookham, the daughter of a half-English and half-Brazilian mother and an English father, Peggy showed early promise at ballet which her mother encouraged. Inspired by a performance in Les Sylphides by Alicia Markova, Peggy decided to devote herself to ballet very young. When Peggy and her mother left Shanhai to which her father had been transferred in order to go back to England, Peggy told her headmistress at her Catholic school that she had decided to abandon academic education completely. Miss Fleet told her that: "You will regret this all your life because you will find yourself an ignoramus among other people." Aged fourteen, Peggy dismissed this with a shrug and embarked on her new career as Margot Fonteyn.

The astute and formidable Irish Ninette de Valois spotted 'the little Chinese girl' and Fonteyn became a favourite in the early days of the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet.) She was not liked for a few years, however, because the company thought her aloof and snobbish, so she had a hard time at the beginning. It was also difficult for the young company to gain respectability. In those days ballerinas were on a par with actresses and men used to visit the theatres in France after the ballet expecting the dancers to be agreeable to going home with them. The ballet in France was gaining in popularity and respectablity but it was not as popular in England.

In 1940 the young company went on tour to Europe, beginning in Holland. The first town they went to was surprisingly full of German sympathesizers. Children jeered at them and adults spat at them. When the bombing started the company had to be rescued by an overcrowded cargo boat. This is an exciting part of the book and Meredith Daneman describes it vividly.

She describes the intrigues and lost careers which beset the company - the feuds between Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton, the ballerinas who tried to compete with Margot Fonteyn and failed such as Moira Shearer (who did have a glittering movie career) and the treatment of the conductor, Constant Lambert, who became an alcoholic.

Although Margot Fonteyn seemed very virginal and innocent when she danced, she apparently had many lovers. Her affair with the married and much older conductor, ConstantLambert, left an upset and alcoholic wife in its wake, but Fonteyn did try to resist his obsession with her for a long time. This is where the book does get a bit crude. We don't really need to know too many details of what went on in the bedroom or if Margot was good in bed. Daneman also states that Fonteyn had a few abortions and I'm not sure whether we need to know that either.

She met Tito Arias on a tour to Cambridge and never forgot the good-looking young Panamian. Years later she was surprised when he wined and dined her, bought her fur coats and sent her hundreds of roses in spite of his having a wife and three children. Again she tried to resist but they eventually got married. She was warned about the unfaithfulness of Latin men and ignored it, but Tito, who became the Panamian Ambassador to Britain, constantly philandered. Margot was on the point of divorcing him when he was shot and injured.

On the point of retirement, she had to keep dancing to pay the bills. Lucily her wonderful partnership with Nuryev gave her dancing a new lease of life at the age of forty-two. It prolonged her career by eighteen years. According to this book Fonteyn fell in love with him but the mystery of whether these wonderful dancers ever went to bed together remains unresolved. Daneman thinks that they probably did:
"Are we then honestly to believe that the love between these two extravagantly beautiful people whose shared idiom was tge language of bodies did not at some point come to carnal expression..."

Whether they did or not, even the story of their partnership in ballet is wonderfully romantic. The New York Times called them 'a confluence of dancers where the chemistry, the times and most of all, the artistry, all were right. To see Fonteyn was one thing. To see Nuryev was another thing. But to see Fonteyn and Nuryev together, on the same stage, with their particular love and assurance, was almost indescribably special.'

Daneman doesn't flinch from the unlikeable elements of Fonteyn's character in this book. She and Tito were friendly with Imelda Marcos and Noriega and Fonteyn sometimes helped Tito in his mad schemes to obtain power in Panama. Also Fonteyn tended to hang on to the limelight at the expense of other ballerinas, such as Lynn Seymour.

But the woman who could dance (and dance well) until the age of sixty, care for her parilysed husband, inspire a difficult and temperamental young Nuryev, and look glamorous in Christian Dior after thirty-hour flights ultimately comes out glowing.
As Daneman writes: "True art, in the end, is to do with character. Beyond the beauty or cleverness or power of what we see or read or hear, what reaches us is the essence of a person. And we could not take our eyes off Margot Fonteyn. So the mystery to be unravelled is a moral one: it is the qualities of heart that made her so exceptional a being that must be the subject of this book." Daneman does that splendidly.

*I wrote this quotation from memory because I looked for it twice in the book and couldn't find it.

1 comment:

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