AN EVENING FOR MARGOT FONTEYN
20th May 2019
A TRANSCRIPT OF CONTRIBUTIONS FROM THE PANEL
Alfreda Thorogood Wall: "And, of course Margot was performing Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. I didn’t actually go to the first night but I went a couple of weeks afterwards. My father was the chief fire officer of Covent Garden, of the Royal Opera House, and he was often given boxes very late in the day and my whole family would go to the ballet and to the opera. I was meant to be very quiet. My closest sister was 10 years older than I was. She absolutely fell in love with the ballet and she pestered my parents to dance. She wanted to dance and they kept on saying “you’re too old to dance, you’re nearly 14” and they couldn’t afford it anyway. But she kept on. She persisted and she persisted and eventually my father who was a really good friend of Margot’s, said to her “Pat wants to dance. What would we do? Where would we take her?” and Margot said “She needs to go to Vera Volkova, my teacher. She is in the Church Hall in West Street.” And she said, “don’t worry about the money, it’ll be all right”. And so, my sister was duly taken with me, because there was nothing else for me to do, by my grandmother. And Vera agreed that Pat would take classes and then Vera looked at me and I was horrified because she said “I don’t take them that young” (I was 4 by then) and I thought “I don’t want to dance. You’ve got it really, really wrong”. And anyway I went and watched Pat, week in, week out, with my grandmother, getting better and better and then finally, one day at the end of a class (I was nearly 5) she came towards my grandmother and took my hand, quite firmly, and took me to the bar and by then I had absorbed various moves and she said “Plie, plie” she said “point your foot here” and “bend forward and bend back” and then she said “do an arabesque” so I did. She had a very deep Russian thick accent, and very frightening and so I just did it. She then turned to my grandmother and said “I’ll take her”. I was horrified but that’s how it all started. The whole steering of my life was Margot taking us to her teacher - the best teacher in the world - and she had taught Margot when she had been very young in Shanghai. I probably got quite a similar training. How lucky was I?
Through Margot, I was then to meet my husband at the Royal Ballet School. We were to have children and grandchildren and great lives and I think that’s really because of Margot spending probably 2 shillings on a class each week, once for my sister and once for me for many years. She kept me going until I went to the Royal Ballet School - it wasn’t called that then. She even paid for my first term as I had not taken my eleven plus by then. How kind is that? How generous is that?"
Alastair Macaulay: "And she said that your husband, David Wall, was her very favourite partner?"
Alfreda Thorogood Wall: "She did say that in Hong Kong. They had gone away after they had both stopped dancing. She had gone as President of the Royal Academy. David was a Director of the Royal Academy at the time. They had flown to Hong Kong and they were guests of Cartier. They went to see Peter Darrell’s new production of The Nutcracker at the Opera House. There was this wonderful reception afterwards and dinner for the audience and she had said to David “I don’t know what I’m going to say”. He said “why are you worrying. You always speak so wonderfully”. She picked up her glasses which he and a friend had been pressed into buying for her in the afternoon. They had no lenses in them. They were just the frames. She said “woost (?) to Cartier”. They were Cartier glasses of course and everyone went mad. She gave a wonderful speech and at the end of the speech, she said “I want it to be put on record that my favourite dancer is David Wall”. She said “always he has so looked after me.” That was nice."
Alastair Macaulay: “Dame Merle, can I ask you for your first or your last impressions of Margot Fonteyn.”
Dame Merle Park: "I remember Dame Ninette asking me whether I could take her down to hospital to see her (Margot)at the very end before she went back to Texas. We drove down there and got into the hospital and there was Margot sitting up. “Hello, what are you doing here?” She was just wonderful. She was cheerful. She was giggling. The two of them were doing all the old banter about parts. I just sat there enjoying it all so much. That was my best memory. This was just before she passed away.
I always remember her having this wonderful chirpiness inside her (gives chirpy laugh) and she lived, at one time, next to Barons Court where we did our class every day - in one of those lovely artist’s studios. She was always late. She would come into our little dressing room, Antoinette and herself and whoever, and she would go “of course, if you live on the doorstep, you are always late.”
She was just great. I loved her. And, as you say, her musicality and her line was fantastic but it wasn’t so much where the arms and legs went. It was the spaces between. It was just out of this world. And I can remember Rudolf, many years ago rehearsing with us and saying “Now, girls, remember Margot, I don’t want to see the plumbing.” So, he loved her too."
Alastair Macaulay: "Donald MacLeary, can I ask you about your most important impressions of Fonteyn?"
Donald MacLeary: "She was just incredible. I was brought up in the very north of Scotland, very starved of culture, I’d never even seen a ballet but when I was taken to see The Red Shoes and, two years later, I was at the School.
We used to be taken as small groups to stand at the back of the orchestra stalls and Margot was the ballerina and she was in Swan Lake and I couldn’t believe it. It was just everything that I would have imagined it to be. She just glowed. She was wonderful - but it didn’t occur to me whilst I as watching her that I was going to be her Prince.
Well firstly I did do the Rose Adagio with her at the Met in 1960. She had conquered America already and I was chosen to do the first prince in the Rose Adagio. I had never been so frightened in my life. When the music started, at her entrance and the audience started to applaud and you couldn’t hear the music. They applauded all the way through until she finished her entrance. It was quite incredible. So that was quite scary.
I also danced Ondine and Cinderella with her because I don’t think that Rudolf wanted to do those. In 1965, we were to do a 6-week tour of the Iron Curtain countries which, of course, he couldn’t go on, so I had to do the Russian (?) version with her on the first night and the Royal Ballet version with Svetlana on the second night. So, that was not very good, but we did the Rose Adagio when we were at the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi.
Towards the end, I was asked to coach with her the girls in Swan Lake. She was very fragile then, still looking amazing, wore a little trouser suit. Sat down with my black pug on her lap. She loved animals. It never moved. She just talked and I was the Prince to five ballerinas. What she said to me has stuck with me forever. At one point, she was saying “over there, there’s the.…“and then she said “and suddenly you get verbal diarrhoea.” I think so too, you know, she was very nervous and then suddenly took command, telling the prince what was going to happen. That was the last time I saw her. I’ll never forget that. Wonderful."
Alastair Macaulay: "Peter, you were the one of us who saw her first. Can you talk about your early memories?"
Sir Peter Wright: "I had just started to dance in 1943 and I had managed to see Margot first of all in the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, on a minute stage dancing and then I saw her in a variety of roles including Nocturne (?) She was so elegant. I was not very familiar with dance. More modern dance at first, rather than classical dance, but then watching Margot do performances, I had taken up with classical dance.
Sir Frederick Ashton had been asked to coach her to become the replacement to Alicia Markova who had then left. And Fred was not at all happy about this and he started by focussing on the various routines for which Alicia Markova was famous. She (Margot)was very upset about this but kept on working on the dance until, after a time, she suddenly burst into tears and said “Fred, I can’t go on practising to be someone else, I want to be me!” Sir Fred was so touched by this that he burst into tears as well and said “I realise that you are your own self and you are going to be a ballerina. I know you will be.”. Then he started to coach her. First thing that she went on in in 1939 was the Sleeping Beauty and then in 1946 in the famous one. Fred was mainly responsible for that extraordinary performance.
I have so many other memories. I could go on all night but there is one special thing that she did for me. We were in Florida. We had a season out there during the Second World War. We were going to have a season in Miami performing the Sleeping Beauty. A wonderful woman had organised a gala in the presence of Princess Anne. Then suddenly Princess Anne was ill. The tickets had all sold out at very high prices and she phoned me and said “what are we going to do?. We haven’t anyone”. I thought that the ideal person would be Margot Fonteyn. “Oh”, she said, “they love her down here. She would be perfect. Even better, why don’t we ask her to play the Queen Mother” and so I said “I’ll ring her”. Luckily, I got through immediately. I said “Look, Margot, could you possibly come across to present and also to play the Queen Mother?” “What?” she said. “Well, that sort of thing.” She said. “Yes, I think that I will. I won’t ask for a fee but I’ll have to bring Tito (Margot’s husband) and a few other people“. Then she came, a few days before, and said “can you please make sure that someone fits my costume and that someone shows me who really knows it”. Well, she came and she went to the rehearsals and then she put on the costume and she was very funny because she said “I’m afraid that my right bosom has dropped a bit. We’ll have to do something about this dress.” She asked me to stay and then put it on and everything and said “look” and first pushed up on one side and then on the other. She looked fantastic in the costume. Then the rehearsals started. Desmond Kelly, who knew every move of Sleeping Beauty, coached her. She soaked it up it. Then, when she performed, there were tears amongst the dancers on the stage. It was so moving. In fact, she saved the day. She was so good that I asked her if she would do it another time. She said “No, I’ve loved doing it but once is enough.” She was wonderful. "
Alastair Macaulay: "Monica – your most important memories of Margot?"
Dame Monica Mason: "Well, I think my first memory of Margot was as a member of the Corps de Ballet and on my very first day in the company being told to go to the Ondine rehearsal and Margot was in the studio and Frederick Ashton was in the front of the studio and he was choreographing the opening scene of the Ondines and I was slotted in as one of the Ondines. I couldn’t make head nor tail of the music. I had no idea what the steps were and the girls were absolutely wonderful. They pushed me everywhere. It was really the fact that I found myself suddenly in a group and I was facing Margot Fonteyn.
I’d seen her once before when I was a student at the Royal Ballet School. I was walking down the corridor and I realised that the person coming towards me in the other direction was Margot. I always described it that I turned myself into wallpaper in order to make the space for her to go past. I mean that I’d only known her from pictures in a book when I was in South Africa. So, suddenly to see the real thing was quite astonishing.
And then my next really clear image of her was getting ready to start a class and Margot arrived, as Merle said, a minute or so late. She came rushing into the studio and she could only find a place at the bar right in front of me and so I was now looking at the back of her as we started the bar work. And I can see it now. The whole shape of her beautiful pink knitted practice clothes that she wore. It was her hair line at the back of her but, more than anything it was the effortless way in which she held her arm in the second. This perfect curve. Just the outline of her. Then, of course, we turned the other way and I realised that she was looking at the back of me. I don’t know what she noticed!
Then, of course, all the performances when as a Corps de Ballet member standing at the back of the stage, after the Garland Dance, watching her make her entrance as Aurora. Being a Swan, standing on the side, dying to look out of the corner of your eye. I think one of the most moving series of performances that I can remember, when I was in the Corps de Ballet, was in Giselle and being on the stage with her as a peasant girl in the mad scene and then finally watching her fall on the ground. I mean that we frequently cried. It sort of sounds implausible but it was so real, so incredible, that she really used to make the Corps de Ballet girls cry - and the boys too. We were so, so moved by her. And then, of course, standing in the wings watching Marguerite and Armand. I think that I watched every single Marguerite and Armand performance from the wings as I could not bear not to. All the things that she did. Being on the stage in Daphnis and Chloe watching her dance exactly that solo that Sir Peter has described.
So, really, all those images of her are burnt into one’s brain and I think that it was actually quite hard later on when I came to dance Swan Lake to clear her out of your head so that you weren’t trying to copy her and yet, because she was so incredible, you knew that that was really the best way to be but you also wanted to be yourself so I think that I was very grateful when one day Kenneth MacMillan said to me ”I think that you are trying to be like Margot. You have all of that. You have absorbed all of that, but you must find your own identity” and that was a kind of permission not to be like her. It was great advice and I’ve tried to take it but, even to this day, as soon as you mention anything.
But, for all of us, we admired her. We adored her. It was a privilege to be on the stage with her. Somehow, every single time that she came on the stage, she was incredible. I don’t remember an off night. I don’t remember her and thinking “Oh no, tonight’s not so good.” I think that every night was incredible."
Alastair Macaulay: "What are your thoughts, Wayne?"
Wayne Eagling: “When I think about Margot, what I find most fascinating is that she was always so nice. I had my first encounter with her as a student and I didn’t know what to expect, but she took a real interest in me. I thought that, maybe, that was because I was a bit strange, coming from Canada, but she really was interested in everyone, with a kind of care which made you feel very special. As an example, I have here something which I found only recently: it’s a letter to my mother from Margot. It reads, “Dear Mrs Eagling, Wayne did so well: you must be very happy”. Some considerable time later, I was asked to go into the studio and rehearse with Margot. Frederick Ashton was creating a new pas de deux for her and Nureyev It was called Hamlet Prelude. Margot was Ophelia and it was being made for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Gala in 1977. The idea was that I would work on the piece with Margot and then teach it to Rudolf. Of course, on the first day, I was very nervous because I had never danced with Margot before and had never touched her. I think that Fred must have understood how I felt because, at the outset, he said, “I want you to take Margot by the arms and throw her to the floor”. I thought that I would break her but it broke the ice. It was the most wonderful experience for me to be able to work with both her and Fred and I felt that it carried into my relationships when we went on tour. I remember Argentina and Australia in particular where there were some extraordinary acts of kindness from her. I also recall her coming the Friends’ Christmas Shows and joining in fully. At one of those evenings, together with Merle Park, she danced Two Little Girls from Little Rock. She really was part of the family. When she performed Salut D’Amour with Fred at her farewell evening, I was in the wings taking photographs when they included the famous the Fred step. As they came off together, she put her arm through his and repeated the sequence. Everyone knows how she was on stage and can describe her artistry very well but, to me, the even greater memory is of a wonderful person.”
Transcription by Mark Tantam