AN EVENING FOR MARGOT FONTEYN, 20TH MAY 2019
Talk by Alastair Macaulay
As I sat on my flight from New York to London yesterday, I thought “What on earth do I say to an audience that will contain people who saw Fonteyn far before me?” And now I look across and realise that our panel of dancers contains, among others, my first Romeo and my first Juliet: Donald MacLeary and Merle Park; my first Odette-Odile, Monica Mason; and others whose Fonteyn experience far surpasses mine. But here goes.
Some of you might remember the 1979 Ashton television documentary in which Ashton spoke of Fonteyn: he said “She has the proportions of Venus and the mind of Minerva”. I loved that courteous tribute to her. He was seventy-five that year; she was sixty; he had worked with her since she was fifteen years old.
Just think of what he meant by “the proportions of Venus.” When I was writing a short biography of her, twenty years ago, I described her as having something like “long limbs” or “ideally long limbs”. But a dancer friend of mine, reading the first version of my text, said, “No, she did not have long limbs. She did not have short limbs. She had perfect proportions.” She helped me appreciate the difference between Fonteyn and, say, two goddesses of my early ballet days: Natalia Makarova and Jennifer Penney. Those two had beautifully long limbs which may also have caused some physical problems. But Fonteyn’s proportions were perfect in terms of other matters of her figure: with her neck, her waist, her shoulders. As she remarked in her “Autobiography,” her proportions helped distribute the strain of dancing equally around her physique.
Yet with Fonteyn, physical perfection just became incidental. Everything became part of a much larger and harmonious style. She was the dancer with invisible wrists, it seems, and invisible knees; everything about her style became part of the larger continuity of line. Her arabesque founded a style - which became the Royal Ballet style, in which the fingers, wrists, elbows, and knees make no intrusion.
In her mid-teens, she modelled her style largely on that of Alicia Markova. But fairly soon her partner Robert Helpmann drew to her attention that, by imitating Markova, she was dancing with what he called “dead hands.” Stimulated by his remark and by working with Ashton and de Valois, Fonteyn developed a use of the fingers that brought great fullness to the line without any of the separation of digits that characterises ballet style elsewhere.
Perhaps the most notorious part of her body - she laughed about it a lot - were her feet, which were initially weak and problematic. When she arrived at the Vic-Wells, de Valois said “We are just in time to save her feet”; Ashton called them “Margot’s little pats of butter”; her mother drew her attention to how Markova used her feet. She spent her teens doing what she could to improve their delivery; but then in her mid-twenties completely restudied her own technique with the great teacher Vera Volkova, who helped to reshape the entire arch of Fonteyn’s feet as well as the enunciation of her footwork. Volkova was the most influential teacher of Fonteyn career; with her, especially during the 1940s, Fonteyn went back to the most basic steps of the classroom, transforming her technique. One result was that the great ballerina Tamara Karsavina remarked in the 1960s “With Fonteyn alone the foot is so lightly poised that the toe seems to kiss the ground.” And when you look at the photos, that lightness is extraordinary.
Something else which Fonteyn helped make part of Royal Ballet style is the relatively low front arm in arabesque. I’ve just come from New York, where for many people the ideal first arabesque has the hand just ahead of the eyes. But with Fonteyn the relatively low arm is a thing of beauty: the eyes look ahead, over the arm, into space.
Fonteyn’s use of the eyes played a large part in the drama of line in her dancing. I’m thinking of a photograph of her in arabesque in “Homage to the Queen.” Both arms are ahead of her, one above the other; what’s transporting is how perfectly her eyes focus on the exactly intervening point, as if they are directed at the star that her arms have parted the way to reveal. She creates space way beyond herself.
I can’t quite explain this, but Fonteyn could make you feel her eyes when you couldn’t actually see her eyes; you felt you could see where she was looking. Three or four years ago, American Ballet Theatre revived “Les Sylphides” at Lincoln Centre, New York: it was an important revival because they had found Benjamin Britten’s long-lost arrangement of the music. But I had to laugh after the performance because in the upstairs foyer there were two Englishmen, I think both in our sixties, yards apart in different parts of the foyer, demonstrating more or less the same moment in the Prelude - and we’re both here again tonight. Richard Jarman was one; I’m the other. We were both turning our backs to show New Yorkers the same moment in the third phrase of the Prelude – and the astounding poetry with which Fonteyn, as she reached the back of the stage, would open her arms and arch her neck and upper back, as she looked up at the moon. Richard Jarman demonstrates it with a much bigger backbend than I remember Fonteyn doing! But neither of us could ever forget the eloquence with every part of her upper body addressed space. You felt you knew exactly where the moon was from the angle of the back of her heads. And she still made this register in her late, late fifties.
Another glorious kind of proportion about Fonteyn was her sense of tempo. She first became a ballerina under the conducting of Constant Lambert, who kept strict tempi that were generally much faster than those the Royal Ballet uses today. (His 1939 recordings of “Sleeping Beauty” highlights are on CD. They’re terrific, but they’re the fastest “Sleeping Beauty” recordings ever made.) For me, living in New York for twelve years, it’s been wonderful to study the live films of Fonteyn dancing in “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake”, made by Victor Jessen during the Sadler’s Wells Ballet’s tours of North America between 1949 and 1956. Jessen filmed these piecemeal at successive performances until he had recorded every moment of the production, sometimes several times over; and in the case of “The Sleeping Beauty” he edited it to a (superb) live Sadler’s Wells Ballet recording of the score by Robert Irving, on tour in America. Irving followed Lambert’s precedent; and this live film shows you how Fonteyn, within this fast Irving tempo, finds time to make every moment register with marvellous immediacy and drama.
Jessen’s film of “Swan Lake” isn’t fitted to music; but it has multiple takes, which add up to a fascinating view of Fonteyn’s consistency over a number of performances. In “Swan Lake”, her account of the Odile grand pas de deux has astounding speed, attack, definition - and footwork, with a good many steps that today’s ballerinas simply omit.
Let’s speak of her fouetté turns. She laughs about these in her “Autobiography”: she knew that she seldom if ever could manage all thirty-two without travelling, and she merrily quotes one of the New York critics who wrote in 1949 of her “Cook’s tours of the stage”. Yet these, too, she delivered with proportion. On the one hand, she tried to do all thirty-two until past age fifty, even though her idol Alicia Markova seems to have abandoned them in her late twenties (fouetté turns were the one step that never suited Markova), while Alexandra Danilova seems always to have substituted alternative steps. But Richard Jarman, whom I’ve quoted before, has often recalled a “Swan Lake” he saw Fonteyn dance in her late forties (perhaps later) when he found his heart was pumping in his chest because of the phenomenal musical timing she achieved with each fouetté turn. Today, most of our ballerinas throw in double and triple turns - but thereby lose the musicality. Fonteyn, always doing single turns, showed their musical point.
Ashton also credited Fonteyn with “the mind of Minerva.” If you read her autobiography, its tone is touching, practical, sensible, but not intellectual. I love it: it’s a candidate for my “Desert Island Book” and it may be one of the few books I’ve re-read more often than I’ve read “Pride and Prejudice”. But she does little to make herself sound like a person of wide reading or of extensive interest outside dance. So it’s a surprise when you find, from one of the biographies of Samuel Beckett, that she was one of two people whom Donald Albery consulted about whether to produce the English-language premiere of “Waiting for Godot” in 1955: she advised him to go ahead, though it proved to be hugely controversial. It’s also fascinating to find from other sources that she read all Proust first in English and then in French. When a young friend of hers, complimented her on her excellent French in the 1960s and asked her how she mastered the language so well, she replied lightly “By reading Proust.” As for her “Desert Island Book”, she chose Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoires d’Hadrian” - in French. Wallace Potts, the long term boyfriend of Rudolf Nureyev, once recalled how Nureyev was once at his most impossible and argumentative when the Royal was on tour in San Diego; Fonteyn brightly entered the room and asked who would like to accompany her on the bus to San Diego Zoo; Potts went with her, leaving Nureyev behind - and was happily astonished by the range of subjects she spoke of on the bus, revealing her wide understanding of multiple aspects of science.
Twenty years ago, there was a conference at the Royal Academy of Dancing, “The Fonteyn Phenomenon.” Some of you were there. I learnt so much myself about her during that conference. Among other things, we asked the audience to write down any particular Fonteyn memories they had. I remember one in particular, written by Joan Seaman, who became a ballet devotee during the Second World War and is still alive. Joan’s memory was of that time when ballet companies kept dancing in the West End while bombs were dropping in the Blitz; audiences would all stay in their seats despite the air-raid warnings, as if there was no way they would rather go than watching ballet. (I remember Pamela May, Fonteyn’s great friend and contemporary, saying in the late 1990s “You try dancing the Prelude in ‘Les Sylphides’ when the bombs nearby have made the swing doors at the back of the circle swing loudly through the music!”) Joan Seaman recalled how Fonteyn and Helpmann danced an entire “Swan Lake” during one such air raid, which was at its worst during the adagio of the Odile pas de deux. As some of you know, in those days the adagio ended with Siegfried on bended knee and Odile, in profile to the audience, addressing him in arabesque penchée. The whole theatre had been shaking but now went quiet - and Fonteyn, as she took that penchée, then turned her face to the audience with a big grin, as if to say “We have come through!” Joan wrote “After that, we belonged to Fonteyn for life.” A wonderful story.
The roles of Odette and Giselle are often danced with plenty of Romantic embellishment. When you return to the films and photographs of Fonteyn, you find how strictly she observes them as classical roles, with unexaggerated lines and unmannered phrasing. She became the yardstick for classicism; this was in large part due to her collaboration with Frederick Ashton.
I did not know Ashton well, and as a young critic I did not dare approach him. When he made “Rhapsody” in 1980, I wrote an advance piece for “The Guardian”: my plan was to interview his dancers - Lesley Collier, Mikhail Baryshnikov, others - about what it was like to create roles in an Ashton ballet. Collier and others spoke to me marvellously. But in the event, Baryshnikov cancelled; so the Royal Ballet press office called me to ask if I would mind instead interviewing Sir Frederick Ashton. Would I mind? For me, Ashton was considerably above Baryshnikov; I was just twenty-five. What then amazed me was how Ashton gave me absolutely full value. I had known the stories of how people found him watching “The Sleeping Beauty” again, even though he’d seen it and performed in it hundreds of times, and he’d say “I’m having a private lesson.” So I asked “Do you derive inspiration from the classics?,” expecting - and hoping - that he would tell me that story again. Instead, however, he gave me a much better and more original reply: he said “I derive inspiration from classicism,” emphasising the “ism”. I’ve spent the next thirty-nine years thinking about what he meant.
Working with Fonteyn, Ashton’s fascination with classicism reached a double climax in 1946, when he coached her as Aurora at Covent Garden and created the central role in “Symphonic Variations” for her. It’s famous how he walked around the Covent Garden opera house and then once, when she held one pose a fraction longer, he immediately understood that this was what her dancing needed to register in the larger theatre: not by slowing down but by changing her dynamics so that each fixed position lasted a mini-moment longer. With “Symphonics,” he experimented with many new aspects of line; he also developed the idea of statuary and stillness. For many people, the greatest moment in that whole ballet was Fonteyn’s way of standing still, one foot crossed over the other, arms by her sides in bras bas, her head turned to one side: a position of stationary repose and contemplation. Keith Money once recalled that there she was “the still centre of the world.”
After that and then the more Petipa-inspired classicism of “Scenes de ballet” (1948), Ashton’s work with Fonteyn began to turn back to Ancient Greece itself. In 1951, he choreographed “Daphnis and Chloë” and “Tiresias” for her; in 1953, she created the title role in his three-act “Sylvia.” In each of those, he and she brought the ancient world to new life in a different way. And if there’s a single phrase I could summon now, it would be from Chloë’s flute dance. Much of that is composed of strictly ballet steps, but there’s also one bit where Chloë simply taps her foot against her hand (one) and then against the floor (two) before releasing the energy upward (three) with her arms, hands, and eyes. When she died, a film of her dancing this solo was part of a documentary that was almost immediately shown on British television. The Mark Morris company was based then in Brussels and could watch British TV. A colleague of Mark Morris’s rang Morris to ask “Are you watching this?” Morris replied “It’s the greatest thing I ever saw” and rang off.
Ashton knew how to get the best results from her. When the Sadler’s Wells Ballet reached New York in 1949, Fonteyn had been preparing her interpretation of Aurora for months. Dick Beard, Ashton’s boyfriend of 1947-1948, had known Fonteyn since 1947; he told me how, one afternoon before the 1949 opening, Ashton and he were walking with Fonteyn in Manhattan when Ashton exclaimed “Oh, that’s where Vera Nemchinova lives! Now, she was a famous Aurora. Perhaps you could go to her for some coaching, Margot.” Fonteyn, freezing, politely but firmly said “I don’t think this is the moment for more coaching, Fred.” But Dick told me that Ashton knew what just he was doing - because Fonteyn performed best when she was petrified by stage fright. As you doubtless know, the opening-night performance she gave changed history: it not only put the Sadler’s Wells Ballet on the North American map for years to come, it also gave New York’s own ballet a new standard to try reaching.
On the other hand, Ashton marvelled at the way she took time to absorb advice. Once he went back after a performance. He said, “Well, tonight was perfect. Why was it perfect?” Fonteyn replied, “Because tonight I understood what you told me two years ago.”
The Ashton-Fonteyn working relationship was full of jokes, too. Ashton made “Birthday Offering”, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, in 1956, when Fonteyn was acquainting herself with the ways of the Royal Academy of Dancing, whose president she had become in 1954. She had told him that the RAD syllabus contained an otherwise unknown series of steps called the “pas de bourrée à cinq pas”; Ashton made that the opening step of her “Birthday Offering” variation.
The real heart of the Fonteyn-Ashton collaboration was in the ’40s and the ‘50s. After that, he turned to concentrate on other dancers, with wonderful results.
But Fonteyn, as she entered her forties and contemplating retirement, was lucky. Enter Rudolf Nureyev, from Russia, demanding to dance with her - and their new partnership prolonged her career into her fifties, giving her a wealth of such new roles as the “Corsaire” pas de deux, Nikiya in the “Bayadère” Shades scene, and Raymonda (especially in Act Three).
It’s my impression, from having caught the tail end of that partnership, that Nureyev, so fabulously arrogant in his stage manners, had three different ways of behaving to ballerinas onstage. There were those — none of you, don’t worry — with whom he performed as if saying “You are lucky to share this ballet with me.” Then there were a few - who included Merle Park and Monica Mason and some others, but not many - with whom he seemed to be saying “You are a worthy partner for me.” With Fonteyn alone did he behave as if he was the lucky one.
This leads me to the moment that changed my life. I’d been going to the ballet for a couple of years. In January 1976, I went to see Fonteyn and Nureyev in “Romeo and Juliet”. I’d already seen it, thanks to Merle Park and Donald MacLeary. And when I left the Covent Garden opera house after the Fonteyn-Nureyev performance I did not know my life had changed. I was aware that Fonteyn hadn’t seemed perfect, and - though I really didn’t know the steps - I had a good idea she hadn’t done some of the things I’d loved with Merle Park. At times, she was forcing the energy. At times, she was visibly uncomfortable.
And then, the next day, and then every day for six weeks, I found myself visited by some image of Fonteyn, several times a day, blanking out whatever else I was seeing or doing at the time. I was an undergraduate at Cambridge; I’d be cycling down the High Street or I’d be in the middle of some literature supervision - and all I could see was Fonteyn, Fonteyn, Fonteyn.
The weird thing is that nobody else remembers the moment that most astounded me. I’ve begun to wonder if I’ve somehow invented it or embellished it - and yet how could I have done so? Something that everybody does remember was the way that Nureyev would sink to his knees to kiss the hem of her robe as if this was the most precious object in the world. That humility - from Rudolf Nureyev!
What nobody remembers is what - if I’m right - happened next. It probably happened quickly, but everything was so distinct that each part seemed to last an age. Fonteyn, standing in profile to the audience, looked down at him in complete wonder and amazement. And then she threw her arms up and looked past them to the sky. And then she brought them down, over her face, over her body, in a single wave, until they arrived at the sides of her body with palms open.
My memory is that the whole Amphitheatre of Covent Garden gasped out loud. I only ever heard that collective gasp one other time, the next year, when she and Nureyev did Ashton’s “Marguerite and Armand” at the Coliseum. There the gasp came at a famous moment, after Armand has humiliated Marguerite by hurling banknotes at her and after her protector has offered to support her: Fonteyn’s hands came fluttering into her waistline, her upper body subtly crumpled, she turned into profile, and her feet stuttered as they took her in anguish offstage. Again, that gasp.
I probably haven’t told you enough of Fonteyn’s sense of humour. Again, this has to do with her sense of proportion. In 1975, Knopf in New York published her “Autobiography”. Bob Gottlief was Knopf’s managing editor; he’d also been a dance devotee ever since her New York opening night in 1949, when he was eighteen. The publicity people at Knopf came to him, and said “Bob, it would really help if you could get Margot to do a week of publicity on this book.” Bob said “I’ll ask, but Margot’s a very busy woman.” He did ask, and at once Fonteyn agreed. When he told this to the publicity people, they said “Look, what would be fantastic is for her to do the full nationwide four-week publicity treatment.” Again, he said “That’s unlikely”, but asked; again, Fonteyn agreed. Bob said “Margot, these tours are gruelling. You’re going to say the same thing several times a day to people who know nothing. The moment you find you can’t stand it, just let me know and we’ll cancel the rest of the tour for you.”
Fonteyn said “Fine, Bob.” The tour began. Three weeks in, Bob suddenly remembered that nobody had heard a word from Fonteyn. He tracked her down. It was somewhere like - again - San Diego. One the ‘phone, he asked how she was. “Oh, fine, Bob,” she said.
Bob said “Margot, this is me, Bob. I know about these tours. Seasoned novelists and biographers often cry out of them after a week. I know that you are speaking three times a day to people who have not heard of Ninette de Valois or Robert Helpmann, and several of whom don’t even know of Rudolf Nureyev. It’s tiring, it’s exhausting, it’s gruelling.”
Fonteyn said “Well, Bob, it’s true that it is sometimes tiring to answer the same question several times a day, and it is sometimes annoying how little they know about my career. But you know, Bob - it’s so much easier than dancing.’
Which reminds me of another Fonteyn story, this one told by her old friend Maude Lloyd, of an evening in the 1980s. Fonteyn was passing through London; Maude, who had written criticism as Mrs Alexander Bland with her husband Nigel Gosling, had her to dinner. After a while, Maude burst into laughter. Fonteyn asked what the laughter was for. Maude said “If your fans only knew… For the last half-hour you’ve been talking about nothing but the artificial insemination of cattle in Panama.”
You often hear now about the sadness and the humiliation of her final years. I think Fonteyn managed to find a good deal of laughter and beauty nonetheless. When her old television colleague Paddy Foy came to visit her in Panama, Fonteyn walked her around and said “I’ve never been so happy.” When Foy noticed that Fonteyn was limping, Fonteyn brought up the subject of her cancer. At that stage it particularly affected her left foot. Fonteyn remarked “But when you consider how many thousands of fouetté turns I performed on that left foot, that’s not so bad.”
She came back to England at least once a year. She had become Chancellor to the University of Durham; each year, she addressed the graduating ceremony. For her inaugural ceremony, all the academics had been curious about how this ballerina would cope; but she had astounded them by delivering, without any notes, an eloquent and passionate speech about the importance of education. The last time she went to Durham, she spoke personally to the students, thinking of all the gifts that had helped her with her career. The one she said that had been most vital had been tenacity: if there was one gift she in turn could bestow upon them, tenacity would be the one.
In those final years, Anthony Dowell, directing the Royal Ballet, managed to get Fonteyn to do some coaching with his ballerinas. One year, she took Darcey Bussell and others through parts of “Swan Lake”, especially Odette’s introductory mime scene. Donald MacLeary was present; I know her words made an immense impression on him - and that Darcey Bussell to this day talks about Fonteyn as one of the greatest coaches she ever had, working very precisely but also with intense feeling.
But my own favourite story is from the year when Fonteyn coached “The Sleeping Beauty”. You may know that Fonteyn triumphed in most countries in the world, and triumphed as Aurora. But the one country that she perhaps did not conquer the same way as she did others was Russia. She danced “Sleeping Beauty” at the Kirov in Leningrad: the theatre in which that ballet had had its premiere in 1890. Fonteyn writes in her “Autobiography” that it was probably the worst performance of her career, because she’d been told that Maya Plisetskaya was coming by train to Moscow to watch - Plisetskaya, whose technique, attack, drama astounded everybody. In fact, Plisetskaya’s train had been delayed; she missed that performance. But somewhere along the line Plisetskaya did see Fonteyn’s Aurora; and she would show people the fantastic way in which Fonteyn brought her hand down for each partner before the famous balances in the Rose Adagio. I was told this by none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov: he showed me how Plisetskaya had showed him how Fonteyn did the arm movement, bringing so much drama not just to the balances but to ending them, bringing that arm down to give the hand to the next prince. Plisetskaya was not alone: Fonteyn’s centenary has been commemorated in Russia, where her legend continues.
Well, when Fonteyn coached Act One of “The Sleeping Beauty” with the young Royal Ballet ballerinas, one of them was Maria Almeida. Eight years later, Almeida spoke about this at the “Fonteyn Phenomenon” conference. She did Aurora’s entrance dance; Fonteyn was sitting at the front of the studio. You may remember, Almeida often seemed a very cool, collected dancer; and that was how she danced Aurora’s entrance. Fonteyn then stopped the rehearsal and said, “Maria, can we talk? Do you get nervous?” And Almeida then thought, “Is this a trick question?” But she decided she’d better be honest. So she told Fonteyn, “Yes, I’m scared stiff. And I get scared at every performance.”
Fonteyn said, ‘That’s fine. I was scared too. Take your terror and turn it into stage energy.” Which is a wonderful advice.
They then went into the Rose Adagio - and they came to those famous balances. Fonteyn, again, stopped the rehearsal and said, “Maria, can I look at your shoe?” Almeida came to the front and showed her shoe. And, telling the story, Almeida added “I have to admit, I did take a rather large block.”
So Fonteyn looked at the block; looked at Almeida; and said, “Maria, with shoes like these, why on earth are you nervous?”
Let’s remember Fonteyn like that - on a note of laughter.