AN APPRECIATION : Fonteyn: The Quintessential Ballerina


To the present generation of fans and fauns, ballet is all about men. It is an art predicated on high-flying muscular heroes, preferably Russian. It wasn't always like that.

Ballet used to be the province of the ballerina, the eternally ethereal spirit in a white tutu. Ballet, just a few decades ago, didn't mean Nureyev or Baryshnikov. It meant Markova or Ulanova or Danilova or Alonso. . . .

It meant Margot Fonteyn.

The name remains magical for many of us. Fonteyn, who died of cancer in her adopted Panama on Thursday, was the quintessential British ballerina, the queen of the Royal Ballet.

She wasn't a dazzling technician. She admitted that herself. But, more important, she was an artist of supreme refinement, a dancer blessed with uncommon taste and intelligence.

She was, moreover, extraordinarily sensitive to the musical impulse at a time when many of her rivals were distinctly unmusical. Above all, she was an intensely poignant actress.

Her art transcended the usual boundaries. She was known and respected, perhaps loved, even by people who didn't know an arabesque from an arabinosicle. She personified purity, nobility and grace.

Fonteyn was the Sleeping Beauty against whom we measured all the pretenders. She was a Giselle of heart-breaking vulnerability and, even in her 50s, a Juliet of childlike radiance.

In the world of swans, she worked hard--and successfully--at being a tough and dangerous Odile, those vexing fouettes notwithstanding. Odette, however, seemed to come naturally. Lyricism always was her forte.

She had a long career. Probably it was too long. She kept on dancing when the spirit was more willing than the body. Insiders theorized that she needed the money to support her ailing husband, wounded in a Panamanian political conflict.

Essentially, her career can be measured in two parts: B.N. and A.N. Before Nureyev and after Nureyev.

In the old days of Sadler's Wells and its eventual Royal incarnation, she found gallant partners in Robert Helpmann, Michael Somes and David Blair. Then, when she was nearing what might have been retirement age, along came the defecting Tartar from the Kirov.

Rudolf Nureyev brought out unexpected degrees of passion in Fonteyn. For a time, Fonteyn brought out unexpected degrees of finesse in Nureyev.

"The fact that Rudi has this very strong theatrical personality," she explained rather modestly at the time, "is of enormous help, especially to someone like me who does not depend entirely on technical accomplishments. I have always depended more on my presence, on my way of doing things, on expression. Well, to have somebody who helps to create theatrical excitement . . . what could be better?"

Offstage, Fonteyn wasn't grand. That wasn't her style.

She actually seemed to relish self-mockery, if not self-deprecation. One fine day in 1976, she visited The Times. All heads turned as she entered the room, looking like a chic grandmother yet radiating the unaffected charm of an impetuous girl.

Over tea she explained why she had given up one of her signature roles. "Giselle jumps too much," she said. "I never had much of a jump, you know. Not even in prehistoric times."

She dismissed praise for her ability to make even the most prosaic movement convey emotional truth.

"The acting," she purred, "is easy. The dancing is difficult."

Fonteyn knew who she was. She knew her place in history.

"Great artists," she once wrote, "are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike."

She didn't like to talk about herself, but she was good at it. During that interview, I asked her to describe Margot Fonteyn for an imaginary dance student who had never seen her. She paused and, grudgingly, came up with something nearly definitive.

"I'd say Fonteyn had a good line. With that she was able to go on. That's easiest to preserve.

"I'd say she was lucky in her proportions. Her back was rather strong. That helped hold her together.

"I'd say she listened to the music.

"And, oh, yes, her feet. Fonteyn was often told that her feet weren't good. But, I notice, they lasted."

Our paths did not cross again for 14 years. We met once more during an intermission in Houston last season.

She had been feted at Covent Garden the night before, endured a red-eye flight from London and gone straight from the airport to the theater. The Houston Ballet, directed by her friend Ben Stevenson, was performing a new production of "Sleeping Beauty," for which she had served as artistic adviser.

She looked tired and frail, but she seemed to draw energy from the performance. She was proud of the young Texans who had so quickly assimilated a great British tradition. She nodded approval when a familiar nuance was restored to proper perspective. She clapped louder than anyone nearby when the local ballerina finished the "Rose" adagio.

Margot Fonteyn knew what it was all about.

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