Spotlight: Margot Fonteyn


Hi everyone!

It's Spotlight Saturday, and, as promised, I'll be focusing on famous British ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn.

Margot Fonteyn was born Margaret Evelyn Hookham on 18 May 1919, in Surrey, England. Fonteyn started ballet classes at the age of 6, but two years later her father found a job in China and moved his family there. Fonteyn lived in TianJin for six years, before moving to Shanghai, where she studied under a Russian immigrant, George Goncharov. Aiming to make ballet her career, Fonteyn moved back to London with her mother at the age of 14.

As Aurora in 'The Sleeping Beauty

On her return to London, she joined the ancestor of the Royal Ballet School, the Vic-Well's Ballet School. She trained under some of the leading ballerinas of the previous age, including Ninette de Valois, Olga Preobrajenska, and Mathilde Kschessinska. Fonteyn struggled to overcome the handicap of her weak, pliable feet, ill-suited for pointe-work. Despite this, she had a natural sense of rhythm, and a 'line', a combination of physique and grace, that couldn't be taught. She started to to develop a smooth, flowing style perfectly suited to the ballets she would eventually star in. After graduation, she joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet, eventually becoming Principal in 1939. She danced the leads in such traditional ballets as Giselle and Swan Lake, while also starring in famous choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton's new ballets, such as Ondine, Daphnis and Chloe, and Sylvia. She is most famous for her portrayal of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.

As Ondine in Sir Frederick Ashton's ballet 'Ondine'

With the outbreak of World War II, the Sadler's Wells Ballet carried on as normally as possible, despite losing men to the army and battling the shortages introduced by rationing. They even began a European Tour in 1940. However, on 1 May, when they reached Arnhem, Holland, they were told to leave as it was thought that the Nazis would invade. Despite these warnings, the company chose to go on with the show. They then spent three days in The Hague waiting for the Nazis to make a move, and when the Germans invaded, they were whisked to safety on buses.

But the war followed them to London. Their theatre was in the district of London hardest hit by the Blitz. But the company never missed a singly performance. During one production, they abandoned their roles to help fight a fire started by an incendiary bomb that had landed near the theatre, finishing the performance once the danger was past. The company was one of the few that kept their doors open during the bombings, and they were in high demand. They performed on army bases, airfields and in hospitals. Some nights, there was no electricity, and the dancers performed by candlelight to the accompaniment of a single piano.

As Chloe in Sir Frederick Ashton's 'Daphnis and Chloe'

After the war, British ballet was no longer seen as second best to its European, and especially Russian, counterpart. Fonteyn became the first proper British ballerina, and soon critics were singing her praises: one called her 'greater than Pavlova' (1946). In 1949, the company had its first tour in the United States, where Fonteyn became an instant celebrity. The Sadler's Wells Ballet received a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth II in 1956, becoming the Royal Ballet. That same year, Fonteyn was made a Dame for her services to her country and to her profession. Fonteyn, like Pavlova, never employed tricks in her dancing, but neither was she an otherworldly sprite like her Russian counterpart. She simply danced, and was said to charm her audiences with her depth of emotion.

Fonteyn worked with several choreographers other than Sir Frederick Ashton, such as Roland Petit and Martha Graham. Her first dancing partner, Robert Helpmann, was with her during her first sell-out season in America. Helpmann was replaced in the 1950s by Michael Somes, who partnered Fonteyn in the first colour television broadcast of a ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, in 1955. But her greatest partnership came just as many thought that Fonteyn was about to retire. In 1962, Fonteyn was partnered by the young Russian Rudolf Nureyev in a production of Giselle. Fonteyn was 42, Nureyev just 24. At their first curtain call, Nureyev fell to his knees and kissed Fonteyn's hand. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed Marguerite and Armand for the pair, and they debuted Kenneth MacMillan's now famous ballet Romeo and Juliet. They also filmed Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, and the Le Corsaire Pas de Deux.

With partner Rudolf Nureyev in rehearsal for 'Giselle'

Fonteyn's last appearance as a dancer was in Nureyev's 1979 summer season. She was 61. Her last performance was as the Queen in The Sleeping Beauty in 1986. Fonteyn had married Panamanian diplomat Dr. Roberto Arias in 1955. Following her retirement, she spent most of her time in Panama with her husband and stepchildren. In 1989, she was diagnosed with cancer. Nureyev visited her regularly during her treatment, and even paid many of her medical bills, but the cancer proved fatal. She died on 21 February 1991, aged 71. Fonteyn was fundamental in the foundation of British ballet, and her television performances helped to bring ballet to an even wider audience.

'Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable.'

Margot Fonteyn

In costume for 'Giselle'

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Alicia Markova.

Check back tomorrow for an update on the latest studio news.

- Selene

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