Dame Margot Fonteyn, 71, Renowned Ballerina, Dies : Dance: A classical performer in a modern time, she forged a second career in 1960s with Rudolf Nureyev.
Dame Margot Fonteyn, the seemingly ageless prima ballerina assoluta, died Thursday in a Panama City hospital of the cancer she had struggled against for several years.
Louis Martins, a longtime friend and government spokesman, said she was 71. “She died in Panama, where she wanted to die,” he said.
Adjudged by many balletomanes the most pristine and refined technician of the mid- and late-20th Century, Dame Margot had lived since the 1950s on a beachfront ranch in western Panama she and her husband called “La Quinta Pata” (The Fifth Foot).
He was Robert Arias, a Panamanian political leader who was paralyzed in a 1964 assassination attempt and died in 1989.
Such was her devotion to her art that she never officially retired despite what was widely interpreted as a gala farewell appearance with the Royal Ballet at London’s Covent Garden in May, 1979, on her 60th birthday. She continued to make occasional guest appearances well into her 60s.
Dame Margot had been blessed with two careers, one as the best-known dancer to emerge from the old Sadler’s Wells (now Britain’s Royal Ballet) company of the 1930s and ‘40s and then in mid-life as partner of the fiery Soviet exile Rudolf Nureyev.
Renowned particularly for her interpretations of Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty,” as Odette-Odile in “Swan Lake” and as “Giselle,” she was a classic dancer in a modern time.
“I suppose I’m more of a 19th-Century dancer than a 20th-Century dancer--if you have to choose between the two,” she said in a 1983 interview shortly after serving as narrator and host on the Public Broadcasting System series “The Magic of Dance.” “My teachers,” she continued, . . . “were many of them the old ballerinas from the end of the 19th Century. . . . So the atmosphere of my training was of a period when you go out on the stage and you smile at the audience and you kind of danced to the audience. . . . “
That smile coupled with her disciplined elevations and purity of movement proved so infectious that Nureyev, she said, “would never quite be able to understand why I could do my little dance in my rather pitiful little way and get a great deal of applause and he . . . had to do 25 huge leaps. . . . “
Dame Margot, made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1956, the equivalent of knighthood, was credited with being individually responsible for the success of the Royal Ballet’s classic female repertoire. The late Frederick Ashton, the company’s prime choreographer, had been her muse and mentor and it was in his productions that Dame Margot became an international star.
But all that was to come years after Margaret Evelyn Hookham was born on May 18, 1919, in Reigate, Surrey, England, to an engineer (Felix John Hookham) employed by a tobacco company and an Irish-Brazilian heiress (Hilda Fontes).
Peggy, as she was called as a girl, adapted her mother’s maiden name to Fonteyn and her given name to Margot when she became a professional.
Because of the commuting involved in her father’s work, she was raised in England, in Louisville, Ky., and China. Her training in dance began when she was only 5 and “those teachers were mostly Russian emigres,” she told the Christian Science Monitor in a 1983 interview.
She fell further into the Soviet sphere of dance influence when the family went to Shanghai, where she studied under George Gontcharov of the Bolshoi Ballet.
Returning to England, young Peggy was enrolled in the dance school affiliated with the Vic-Wells Ballet, which later became Sadler’s Wells. Her primary influence in that school was the master dancer-teacher Ninette de Valois, who had founded Vic-Wells.
In 1934, at age 15, Margaret Hookham made her debut as a snowflake in the Vic-Wells traditional Christmas offering “The Nutcracker.” The following year she had her first solo as the Mazurka in “Les Sylphides” and her first lead part that same year as the Creole Girl in Ashton’s “Rio Grande.”
Her success was immediate and she rose quickly to replace the departing Alicia Markova as prima ballerina before the year was out.
Her performances, even then, were noted for selflessness.
“I put myself into the skin” of whatever character she was playing, she said. “If I was doing ‘Giselle’ I was Giselle.” If she was Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” she “started out as not knowing what the rest of the story would be. Just go out onstage and then gradually go through it . . . as though it were happening for the first time.”
She transfixed not only audiences but herself.
“I always wept when the character died and loved to lie ‘abandoned’ with my hair down on the stage, weeping,” she said.
By the mid-1930s, she was creating roles in ballets crafted by De Valois and Ashton, among them “The Haunted Ballroom,” “Checkmate,” “Les Patineurs,” “The Lord of Burleigh” and “Judgment of Paris.”
And of course, the “Swan Lakes,” “Giselles,” “Sleeping Beauties” and “Les Sylphideses” that established her internationally.
Later, she starred in the “Comus” and “Hamlet” ballets of Robert Helpmann and in “Les Desmoiselles de la Nuit” by Roland Petit.
After World War II, Vic-Wells had a new home, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, and a new name, Sadler’s Wells. They also had a guest choreographer, Leonid Massine, who restaged “The Three-Cornered Hat” with Dame Margot as the earthy Miller’s Wife. Ashton staged “Symphonic Variations” for her and a critic later wrote that she “developed the lyrical purity of line and immaculate finish together with an underlying emotion that has been the trademark of her work ever since.”
She added “Daphnis and Chloe,” “Sylvia,” “Ondine” and George Balanchine’s “Ballet Imperial” to her growing repertoire.
She made her New York debut in 1949 and drew 48 curtain calls.
By 1959, she was the assoluta ballerina-- a title then generally bestowed only on Soviet dancers--with Sadler’s and had graduated to permanent guest artist, enabling her to tour with ballet companies in Stuttgart, Australia, Paris and elsewhere.
In December, 1955, those Americans who had not seen her in person were treated to the legend on national television when NBC presented “The Sleeping Beauty.” Five years later, films of her dancing with Michael Somes in “Ondine,” “The Firebird” and Act II of “Swan Lake” were distributed in art cinema houses in this country.
Dame Margot had been married in 1955 to Arias, a Panamanian attorney and diplomat who was Panama’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. In 1964, he was shot and left paralyzed and speechless by a political rival. News accounts of the day tell how she flew to his bedside and eventually brought him to a rehabilitation center near London where she would rise before 6 each day to supervise his rehabilitation. Then she would catch the train to London for class or rehearsals and return to the hospital at night.
Asked about the strain, she said at the time that “my real life is with my husband. This is the true reality. The ballet is a different kind of reality, a transitory thing. It goes on whether I’m there or not. . . . “
Arias eventually began to speak again and move his limbs.
In 1961, Nureyev defected to the West while the Kirov Ballet, of which he was the male star, was in Paris. Largely through the intercession of Dame Margot, he became a permanent guest dancer with the Royal Ballet the following year. When he and Dame Margot first danced together (“Giselle” in February, 1962), there were 23 curtain calls. There were hundreds more in the next few years as the 20-ish Nureyev and the 40-ish ballerina toured the world.
She was a fragile 5-foot-4 with dark eyes, black hair swept back from a pale face and alabaster skin. Nureyev was also relatively short (5-foot-8) but his tousled hair and hollow features stood in marked contrast to her pristine beauty. There was an animal magnetism that intrigued not only critics and audiences but the two of them as well.
“Something quite special happens when we dance together,” she once said. “It’s odd because it’s nothing we discussed or worked on, yet there in the photos both heads will be tilted to exactly the same angle, both in perfect geometric relationship to each other.
“Maybe if we had been the same age it wouldn’t have worked at all. Perhaps he had a certain respect for me because I was much older and was already famous and I had a respect for him because he was this extraordinary (here she paused) . . . thing.”
Nureyev was equally expansive:
“I don’t care if Margot is a Dame of the British Empire or older than myself,” he said. “For me she represents eternal youth. . . . I have not met any woman dancer who has the femininity of Margot, which for me is a superlative compliment equivalent to saying that she is a goddess. . . . “
Their greatest triumph was considered the Feb. 9, 1965, debut performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s version of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” They toured Europe and the United States in it as well as in Nureyev’s versions of the pas de deux from “The Corsair,” excerpts from “La Bayadere” and “Swan Lake” and Act III of “Raymonda.”
In 1970, Newsweek magazine critic Hubert Saal noted that “Margot Fonteyn at 50 is unbelievably crisp and economical, vanquishing time and gravity.”
At an age when most dancers are barely able to perform at the barre , Dame Margot was filling the world’s concert halls. Nature had given her a light, supple physique and she had protected that gift with self-discipline, putting on her performances “a kind of patina . . . which is unlike anything attained by her younger . . . colleagues,” wrote James Kennedy in the Guardian.
But even Nureyev’s goddess had to age some and by the late 1970s she had retreated to her ranch in Panama with her husband, son of one former Panamian president and nephew of another, where she told the Los Angeles Times in 1982 “I look at the cows.”
She left occasionally to teach master classes and promote the 1983 PBS series she hosted. She had written her autobiography in 1976 which she told The Times that same year was as “difficult as (dancing) 32 Swan Lakes.”
Her last performance was in 1986, when she journeyed to Miami from Panama to play the character role of the Queen Mother in Sadler’s touring production of “Sleeping Beauty.” But that was only for two nights and the role was not particularly demanding.
Always pragmatic about her art, she once assessed her career by observing that the happiest times may not have been on stage.
“I’ve enjoyed class sometimes, maybe when there hasn’t been the responsibility of an audience. But I can’t think why anyone dances. It hurts so much; one’s almost always in pain somewhere.”
And how will she be remembered? “I’d say she listened to the music,” she said on 1976.
“And, oh yes, her feet. Fonteyn was often told that her feet weren’t good. But, I notice, they lasted.”
Thursday night, the Royal Opera House audience stood silently in her honor, many possibly able to recall those lasting performances there.
FOND MEMORIES: Martin Bernheimer remembers her taste and intelligence. F1