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Dame Margot Fonteyn, Prima Ballerina Assoluta by Dame Ninette de Valois
Margot Fonteyn entered the life of the young English ballet in the very early 1930s. She was just one of the many young students to join the Sadler's Wells School, today the Royal Ballet School. What was the first impression that Fonteyn made on me as a 14-year-old girl amid many others? I remember turning to the teacher and saying "Who is the little girl on the left?"
Margot has always been a dancer of talent rather than a dancer of facility. All the really great historical ballerinas have been the same. It is not virtuosity or great technical skill that makes them famous; it is the possession of those qualities that makes a great artist in our world of movement: musicality, intelligence, well-proportioned body and limbs, sensitivity and sense of adaptation to both role and environment. It all amounts, in the end, to great talent.
Like so many of the highly talented, she was not in the least aware of her great potential, nor for that matter was her mother, who, in our first interview, brightly assured me that her daughter was a character dancer. No doubt Fonteyn thought the same, simply because she had studied dancing in general (including tap) and had thoroughly enjoyed the experience, rather more than the more restricted approach to her ballet classes.
Thus we had in our midst a gay young girl, enjoying every aspect of learning but not necessarily in great awe of her classical training in its early years. Perhaps it was just as well that she did not quite realise her future dedication - she might have lost interest. Everything was on Margot's side, both mentally and physically, and in her mother she had the ideal guardian. We owe a lot to Margot's wonderful mother, and her handling of a youthful, slightly wayward, budding ballerina of tomorrow. I owe much to that lady: she knew how to listen, to weigh any matter and steer her daughter with a great love and down-to-earth understanding. We were great friends and could help each other over the task ahead. Margot was very popular with her fellow artists. They all accepted her great potential and her unawareness of her future made her, naturally, an easy, happy and much-loved companion.
Again, as often with great talent, there was no startling physical highlight such as a freakish high jump or tremendous speed in footwork. There was, instead, a sublime potential of all the things that matter, and one of these was her wonderful musicality. Any form of stunt was unknown to her, and choreographers never looked for one in her. It was not necessary, for the whole was so much greater than the parts. Is there anything more beautiful than real proportion, whether we speak of mind or body, or both together for that matter? Choreographers took her as a whole and the result was perfect choreographic unison between artist, choreographer and choreography.
She was not unlucky in her early days at the Wells. There was the installation of the classics progressing under Sergeyev, maître de ballet of the Kirov. There was young Fredrick Ashton, ready on hand to develop her potential, alongside his own just-established position in the choreographic world. For a few years time was on our side, with the ballet giving about two performances a week for three or four years. It gave us time to work, to think, to develop and perform before a fast-growing and lovingly dedicated public.
When the war broke out the young Fonteyn was the company ballerina. Gone for her were the days of the same theatre to perform in, the carefully organised two or three performances a week with opera on the other days. Sadler's Wells was closed as a theatre and the Sadler's Wells Ballet was homeless. Endless touring was its fate, with occasional appearances (several limited by government orders) at the Albery Theatre, London. Fonteyn was ready to accept the challenge of leading the company, ably supported by Robert Helpmann as her partner.
It is possible that the slow development at Sadler's Wells did much to build up the resilience she needed for her endless wartime performances all over the country. She led the company through wartime England for the whole of the war, and her leadership developed as the war years swept by. They were hard years and at times the strain was great on her and her companions. I watched the maturity of a true professional develop in her, as it did in all her equally overworked and undernourished colleagues.
With the reopening of the Royal Opera House by the Sadler's Wells Ballet in 1946 Margot Fonteyn became an international star in a very short time. A true 'Sleeping Beauty' performed in the ballet of that name, but she awoke in a land that was not yet completely recovered from the wartime nightmares.
She took the years of ensuing success philosophically, always calm, yet cheerful in her attitude to any form of challenge. Forever will the first night in New York (1949) stand out, with its 48 curtain calls. 'The Sleeping Beauty' was truly awake - a princess and a ballerina in her own right, sharing the honour of that night with her companions. Fonteyn had a fantastic reception; overnight she became an international name. She remained unchanged, aware, no doubt, of triumph yet completely in control of the situation.
Eventually her marriage led her to a life in Panama where, together with her invalided husband Tito, she ran a cattle farm for several years. Is there any other record of a great ballerina happily working in the same circumstances?
Long may she pass on to the younger generation her professional experience. She is in harmony with the passing of time, for her mind has the rhythm of her dancing - fluid, controlled and forever forthcoming. 'Who is that little girl on the left?' Was I experiencing some strange form of foresight? The vision is as vivid today as it was over 50 years ago.
reprinted by permisson of the 'Evening Standard'
A Certain 'Something' by Keith Money
To be a Britisher, elected to America's Fashion Hall of Fame, might be considered an attraction of opposites; but of course Margot Fonteyn had all the natural attributes of style which will always vault across mere national boundaries. Whenever she walked into a crowded room, in whichever country, the tenor of that entire room immediately shifted by a point or two; everyone else aware that 'someone' had just entered; it was as if a conductor had suddenly held a beat, in the middle of some lively scherzo. Even more remarkably, the point of this re-focus, this fractional dislocation of the room's general pulse, was caused by an absolutely non-theatrical entrance: so quiet, so contained, so pleasantly normal, so utterly modest in its expectation. They say the very best perfumes are the ones you become aware of more by gradual thought association than a direct assault to the senses, more like a dip into a pool of memories: strong yet also elusive. It is suprising that no company launched a scent called 'Margot Fonteyn'. (They tried it once with a rose, but the bloom lacked subtlety. That might be the problem. Perhaps it would be too difficult to construct; perhaps there would be too many trials and near-misses, to get an accurate representation of Margot Fonteyn's unusual allure.)
Of Margot's huge success within the framework of her being costumed by designer personalities, my own view is that her personal eloqence, and the rhythm of her deportment - which was not extreme, as it can be with some dancers - allowed her to don some fairly extreme design statements while never becoming overwhelmed by them. Her own personality somehow pulled everything into focus, so that the apparel always seemed...right. This may be a rather obvious tribute to basic star quality; however, star quality in the theatrical sense can very often be a distracting and pushy business, and that was not the Fonteyn way at all. Basically, she was centered. It need hardly be emphasised that she was a costumier's dream in terms of her physique, with a perfection of proportion allied to a physically attractive appearance, with a balance in the components: of dignity, demureness, and sheer sexiness, too. Her personality was sunny; usually vivacious and good-humoured, though there were times when she could seem 'older than God' with some of her resigned and philosophical comments, perhaps at the end of a long and difficult day. Her natural fund of experience was wide-ranging, though it was also, in certain respects, quite alien to the way the rest of us usually conduct our lives, and there were some areas of the human condition wherein, at best, she had but a fleeting understanding. She could sometimes seem like a creature in one of her own balletic fairytales - a remark which would have infuriated her.
With her dresses and costumes she applied a sense of measure in the dimensional sense; she never forced the boundaries, for effect. She was always entirely mindful of the ultimate framework - how the outfit would mostly be seen: up close, in confined spaces; or at a certain distance; this was the years of theatrical know-how at work. (To be asked to go on a shopping expedition with Margot was seriously hard work, and usually to be avoided; she seldom found anything that measured up to that inner yardstick, though she could sometimes make clever spot judgements, if buying presents for friends.) Like many girls of her generation, she had learned to cut from patterns and sew her own clothes, during the war years, particularly during the Sadler's Wells Ballet's long tours around provincial England, but from the time of the first tour to America, in 1949, matters of clothing and presentation took on a greater significance. Middle-class American girls had known nothing of the realities of clothes rationing; and the British ballet girls still felt a residual sense of 'poor cousin', even four years after the war's conclusion - though Margot herself had already seen what Paris could do, to lift the female spirit. During her three months of guest appearances in Paris in the summer of 1948, she had seen the new adventurousness displayed by such as Dior and Balenciaga; and, in fact Balmain made her a 'Sleeping Beauty' costume for that season. She was 'hooked' by the whole sense of lore, and the attention to detail, that permeated everything about French couture.
The idea of saving and treasuring relics associated with revered or influential figures seems to go back several thousand years at least, though we don't know, because of those extremes of time, whether quite dissoluble things were saved, in past times. One can guess that they were. (I can imagine laurel wreaths hanging on walls for generations; perhaps until some earthquake finally dislodged them) Helen's jewellery, yes - but maybe Helen's dresses, also? That would be likely. An act of faith has to be involved. Like the involving nature of a good perfume, a requirement is to invest in these strangly haunting shells, in two different ways, the less obvious one being the matter of somehow re-charging, by an application of thought, the original wearer's bloom. This is not necessarily at all easy, but it is entirely possible, with concentration. Then, these artefacts which hang before us, all so mutely still, may somehow shift and turn and glint and flutter in a dance of the imagination.
Once, I was on a plane with Margot (I think it was on a Central American flight, in a not-so-big commercial plane) and almost as soon as we had taken our seats, Margot had quickly fallen asleep, with her head onto my shoulder, so that I was inhibited in disturbing her by reaching for magazines or the like; and being in that idling mode, I was soon enough aware that a lady in the opposite row had become fascinated by Margot; she was continually glancing across at her with a bemused and admiring smile. This surreptitious appraisal must have gone on for ten minutes or more, before finally the lady leaned across the aisle confidentially, to whisper something to me, so that I thought, "Oh - here we go". She said, "I do hope you don't mind, but I'm just fascinated by your companion. She is so very lovely. You know, she could be a dancer!" I smiled and responded, "Yes, I agree with you". This was entirely satisfactory to the lady, who thereafter busied herself with her own companion; but it left me reflecting on that old Stein-ism, of a rose is a rose is a rose; and also Shakespeare's rose by any other name - even if it be fast asleep! It must have been very tough, being described at thirty as "the world's only valid legend", on the strength of one's first American performance. How on earth do you proceed, after that? Yet Margot proceeded, and she survived that impossible level of expectation, on stage, for another thirty years. It may well have been magic - it often looked like that; but, unquestionably, trickery had no part in it.
Women who possess ineffable personal grace as a birthright (and Fonteyn was of that number) may very easily look 'joli comme tout' were they to arrive at a ball, draped in nothing more expensive - or expansive - than two or three old onion sacks. I could imagine Margot saying, "Well, they're all right...but they need something" - and then suddenly threading a bit of orange plastic binder twine through a section (on the diagonal, of course) and then cocking her head left and right in the mirror, and then saying, "That's probably better." At which point, that would be that, decision made; switch off! The performer/actress would make it all work, 'on the night'. This is a skill which you can only admire and probably can't emulate. I suspect that Margot learned a great deal about all this from Sophie Fedorovitch, in the thirties and forties. Fedorovitch had an ability to distil, in her ballet designs, an ineluctable minimum of maximum. I think she was probably like a master perfumier in that respect, and I'm sure this skill worked on Margot's sensibilities, with the result that she chose from Dior, for instance, nothing that went beyond her own scale of that time; and also that she knew, at the correct psychological moment, to go with Saint Laurent - which might have been more than a beat or two ahead of the throng.
Finally, it needs to be said that she shopped on a restricted budget, and she was not in a position to retire an outfit after only one outing. Her clothes, as with her ballet costumes, were subjected to heavy duty 'on show' wear; and thus a weight of regard, from many thousands of eyes, has swept onto all these costumes, from many angles, in many highly-charged circumstances - and that is really a weight quite beyond ordinary measure.
Couture and Personal Wardrobe