Nureyev put spring back in Fonteyn’s step
IT was a moment of miraculous balance during the Rose Adagio of The Sleeping Beauty on opening night in New York when Margot Fonteyn, Britain’s greatest ballerina, appeared to float and the company’s fortunes were set in the US.
World War II had not long ended and Fonteyn, still in her 20s and almost mute with nerves before the show, hit the stage affecting the blithe spirit of a 16- year- old, bedazzling her fellow dancers and the audience.
Flickering footage from the tour in this 2005 three- part documentary by Tony Palmer gives some idea of just how fine Fonteyn’s form was, in a perky Christmas fairy kind of way. And it’s interesting to see how dancers’ body shapes were more rounded and natural- looking in those days, with some of the men straining their pastel tights with back ends like rubgy players.
Thirty years on Fonteyn was still turning in reliably flawless displays, so much so that the next generation of dancers, impatient for their turn, were muttering: ‘‘ We never thought Margot would get off the stage.’’
She had thought of retiring in the early 1960s, when she was in her early 40s, but then an electrifying 23- yearold Rudolph Nureyev turned up and it was game on all over again. ‘‘ You are great ballerina? Show me,’’ he demanded. Talk about putting a spring back in her step. Their first Giselle launched one of dance’s great drawcard partnerships and, in her 50s, Fonteyn was still performing ingenue roles such as Juliet with him.
Fellow dancer Avril Bergen speculates that the miscarriage Fonteyn had at 45 was Nureyev’s child, and it’s this kind of insider gossip — along with good clips — from a cast of witnesses, famous names and former personal assistants out to set the record straight that makes Margot so watchable.
Despite Nureyev’s something- foreveryone sex drive, he was apparently more supportive than other men in Fonteyn’s life: from predatory music director Constant Lambert, when she was under age, to ghastly Panamanian husband Tito Arias, a scion of dictators who spotted a manipulable meal ticket. The Arias family comes across like the in- laws from hell.
Fonteyn had a pattern of abusive relationships, but she always managed to put a positive spin on things, however fixed the smile became.
Tonight we discover how dumpy pre- teenage Peggy Hookham from Ealing was remade, abetted by her formidable stage mother Hilda ( nicknamed BQ, as in the Black Queen), with elocution lessons, a nose job, plucking of a dyed, low hairline and always standing tall to extend her neck. But Fonteyn’s ability to focus and control, as well as that spark of dancing brilliance, appears to have been innate.
Positive spinner: Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev