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Margot Fonteyn: it is the qualities of heart that made her so exceptional a being

Michelle McGrane

Click on book cover to buy your copy now!

Margot Fonteyn: A life
Author: Meredith Daneman
ISBN: 0140165304
Publisher: Penguin
Format: Softcover
Pages: 655
Price: R138.95

Born Margaret (“Peggy”) Hookham in 1919 to a middle-class English engineer father and an illegitimate Irish-Brazilian mother, the girl with the unprepossessing surname was to become Britain’s first Prima Ballerina Assoluta.

Extensively researched and written over a period of ten years, Meredith Daneman’s definitive biography of Margot Fonteyn contains commentary on and insights into Fonteyn's life both on and off stage. She interviewed many of the dancer’s friends, lovers and associates.

Daneman is well equipped to write about her subject. She won a scholarship to train at the Royal Ballet School in London and performed with the Australian Ballet.

“Margot dancing: I must start with that,” she writes. “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?”

It fell to Margot Fonteyn to become what little girls dream of being: the most famous ballerina in the world. Throughout Fonteyn’s life, her greatest ally would be her supportive mother Hilda (nicknamed the Black Queen), who took the dark-haired, grave-eyed little girl to her first ballet class at the age of four.

Another formidable woman would help to shape the dancer’s destiny. The indomitable visionary “Madame” Ninette de Valois accepted “Little Hookham” into the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School when she was a plump 14 years old. “I think we may be just in time to save the child’s feet,” pronounced De Valois.

England needed a prima ballerina. Fonteyn’s rise was, in fact, the rise of the Royal Ballet and the national mascot rode the passionate wave of wartime patriotism that produced it. In 1954 she was appointed President of the Royal Academy of Dancing.

With "soft, unshowy lyricism and limpid purity of line" the much-loved ballerina danced lead roles in numerous ballets, including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Daphnis and Chloe, Tiresias, Sylvia, Ondine, Giselle, Marguerite and Armand, Les Sylphides, Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake. Her first partner, Robert Helpmann declared: "She had the curious quality of making you want to cry."

In keeping with the current trend in “tell-all” biographies, Fonteyn is described as having had a vigorous sexual appetite. She had two abortions. Daneman catalogues an exhaustive list of Fonteyn’s lovers, including many of her dancing partners.

She was the muse of classical choreographer Frederick Ashton and the gifted Royal Ballet composer and conductor Constant Lambert. Her affair with the married Lambert dragged on for eight years, despite his self-destructive alcoholism.

At 36 Fonteyn married the international lawyer and Panamanian politician Roberto (“Tito”) Arias. In 1964, as she was on the verge of divorcing the dashing philanderer, he was shot and paralysed in an assassination attempt. Fonteyn assumed responsibility for his welfare and continued to dance to pay his hospital bills long after she should have hung up her pointe shoes.

Rudolf Nureyev’s dramatic defection from Russia prolonged the ageing dancer’s career by 18 years. Daneman speculates whether the legendary pair had a sexual relationship despite Fonteyn’s marriage, Nureyev’s homosexuality and a nineteen year age discrepancy. She eventually determines that “rapture has a realm beyond the bedroom … whatever took place behind closed doors, was as nothing compared to what happened on the stage, in front of our eyes”.

Margot had a blithe disregard for politics. Described as politically naïve, she struck up a friendship with Imelda Marcos and danced before both Generals Pinochet and Noriega. In 1972, despite demonstrations, she broke ranks with the United Kingdom’s stance on Apartheid by agreeing to dance in South Africa. She also became embroiled in one of Tito’s coups and was later arrested with Nureyev in a drug raid at a party.

Reserved and reticent off stage, Dame Margot Fonteyn de Arias retired to a remote and rustic cattle farm in Panama with her quadriplegic husband at the age of 60, only 12 years before her death from cancer in 1991.

“True art, in the end, is to do with character,” writes Fonteyn’s biographer, “what reaches us is the essence of a person. And we could not take our eyes off Margot Fonteyn … it is the qualities of heart that made her so exceptional a being.”

Meredith Daneman’s enthusiasm for her subject, her engaging prose style and rich detail make this hefty 654 page biography essential reading for balletomanes and anyone interested in the life of the unique and inimitable goddess of dance.

LitNet: 20 December 2005

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