Margot Fonteyn: A Life

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9780140165302: Margot Fonteyn: A Life

Margot Fonteyn began life on the 18th of May, 1919 in Reigate, Surrey, as plain Peggy Hookham. She ended it on the 21st of February, 1991, as Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Dame of the British Empire and the most legendary dancer since Pavlova. Meredith Daneman, with her own extensive background in ballet, tells Fonteyn’s story in vivid prose with insight and sensitivity.

Drawing upon extensive research, countless interviews, and exclusive access to never-before-seen letters and diaries—including those of Fonteyn’s extraordinary and devoted mother—Daneman presents firsthand remembrances of Fonteyn from a vast array of people who knew her and danced with her during the course of her lengthy career. Margot Fonteyn contains revelations not found in any other account of the ballerina, from insights into Fonteyn’s private world (especially regarding her relationship with her mother, the “Black Queen”) to her feelings about her fellow dancers and, of course, the men in her life—including choreographer Frederick Ashton, her husband Roberto Arias, and her long-time dance partner and rumored lover Nureyev.

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About the Author:

Meredith Daneman is a former dancer with both the Royal Ballet, to which she won a scholarship in the late 1950's, and the Australian Ballet Company. She saw Fonteyn dance many times. Meredith Daneman has written two highly-acclaimed novels. She lives in London.

From The Washington Post:

When Britain's Sadler's Wells Ballet came to the old Metropolitan Opera House in 1955, my roommates and I (dancers all three) took turns all day standing in a line that snaked around the block. What I remember most vividly from that evening's performance was Margot Fonteyn in Mikhail Fokine's "Firebird." We were used to Maria Tallchief's cool, steely power in George Balanchine's version of the work. Fonteyn, wearing a veritable chieftain's war bonnet of red feathers, was a leaping, quivering flame -- passionate yet not fully human. Half a century later, I learn from Meredith Daneman's new biography, Margot Fonteyn: A Life, that the role's creator, Tamara Karsavina, had pressed the English dancer to this characterization: "You are a wild bird, Margot," Karsavina told her, "you've never felt a human hand on your body before, you've never been caught and it's terrible." That's what Fonteyn showed us that night.

This insight is not the only one I gained from Daneman's book. Hers is the most thorough of all the biographies to date, including Fonteyn's Autobiography. Daneman came to her task as a former dancer (with the Australian Ballet) and a fan; the pensive early photograph that graces the book's cover is one that hung for years over the author's bed. That she understands the ballet world and the physical demands of dance so well is one of the book's greatest assets. Daneman has also written four novels, so, although her narrative is anchored in massive research, it is shaped as drama.

Here fans may learn things about Britain's greatest ballerina and muse of Britain's greatest choreographer, Frederick Ashton, that they'd rather not know. One of the most memorable qualities she displayed in her roles (some danced, against all odds, into her sixties) was her absolute purity. "She was the only one [playing the role of Chloë]," choreographer Ronald Hynd told Daneman, "who could portray virginity. . . . There was something . . . oh, just stainless about her." It's startling to think of her fresh 16-year-old Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty," her naively sensual Juliet, fragile Giselle and playful Ondine in relation to Daneman's revelations about her private life. Virginal? She was apparently something of a sexual athlete, and one of her lovers, scene designer John Craxton, called her attitude to love "completely pagan."

Given that her career was extraordinarily long for a ballerina, second only to that of Alicia Alonso, it's interesting to learn that she wasn't gung-ho about ballet as a child. Born Margaret Hookham, she did part of her early dance training in Shanghai during the two years (1931-33) that her father worked there for the American Tobacco Company. She found lessons in "free" dancing and a little "Turkish" solo she performed less confining than ballet classes. However, her mother, Nita (née Hilda) Hookham -- later dubbed "the Black Queen" by Frederick Ashton, after the formidable figure in Ninette de Valois's ballet "Checkmate" -- was determined to have a ballet star in the family, and she pursued that goal fiercely, educating herself as she went along.

Not long after young Peggy was accepted into the ballet school in London's Sadler's Wells Theatre, her "elegant limbs and well-poised head" and "colt-like quality" caught the eye of de Valois, founder and director of the company then called the Vic-Wells Ballet. Even while noting that the slim, dark child seemed to have no particular ambition to enter the company and was just as interested in musical comedy, de Valois prodded, guided and finally hired her at the extraordinarily young age of 14. She was still only 15 when Frederick Ashton cast her as a mulatto prostitute in a revival of his "Rio Grande" in 1935. He hadn't thought much of her in his "Les Rendezvous," and found her stubborn, but when he decided that the company's principal ballerina, Alicia Markova, was getting a swelled head (i.e., refusing to dance some of her old roles in his ballets), he turned to the girl now known as "Margot." Daneman's prose astutely captures her image in "Rio Grande": "The sight of her still child-like body, half-clothed in that gaudy see-through costume, her smooth black hair frizzed out around her flashing eyes, extended and excited the staid public concept of what might constitute an English dancer." When Markova left the company, Fonteyn stepped into all her roles.

A biography of Margot Fonteyn is also inevitably a history of the company now known as the Royal Ballet and the dancers who made it famous. Daneman charts Fonteyn's progress through the early years, when the pay was low and the seasons short, and company members appeared in operas at Covent Garden and plays at the Old Vic, in addition to jobbing around in revues and musicals in order to make ends meet. When war was declared in 1939, the troupe toured the provinces to boost morale; then there were more than enough performances -- as many as three a day. Daneman describes in detail the Sadler's Wells's astounding debut in New York -- the unseasonably hot October day in 1949 when Margot Fonteyn became an international star. Her Aurora in the company's glorious postwar production of "The Sleeping Beauty" was a triumph, landing her picture on the cover of Time magazine. We learn the ins and outs of the history-making partnership that began in 1962 between a revivified Fonteyn and a young defector from Soviet Russia, nearly 20 years her junior, Rudolf Nureyev. They danced together until 1979, during which time, as Ninette de Valois so wisely remarked, "He brought her out, and she brought him up."

The book's pages bring to life Robert Helpmann -- Fonteyn's first dancing partner, actor as well as dancer, and hilarious offstage cut-up; Michael Somes, also Fonteyn's frequent partner; Moira Shearer, a rival after that red-haired beauty's success in the film "The Red Shoes"; Constant Lambert, the brilliant, rumpled, booze-sodden composer and conductor who was Fonteyn's lover for a number of years; Roland Petit, who can be blamed for advising her to get a nose job; and many others, including Roberto "Tito" Arias, her husband. Fonteyn met Arias in 1937 as a well-to-do and politically connected young Panamanian student when the Sadler's Wells was performing at Cambridge University in England. Charmed by him (as were many other women), she finally married him in 1955 but was considering separation when, in 1964, immersed in the murky conflicts of Panamanian politics, he was shot in the back by a rival and spent the rest of his life as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. From then on, she was unwavering in her devotion, although the constant, exhausting tours to help finance his medical expenses often kept her away from him.

Daneman's sources provide vivid insights into Fonteyn the dancer. Ballerina Violette Verdy is enlightening on the subject of the invisible rod that seemed to run through Fonteyn's body: "That 'pull' [up] was the centre of her discipline, her reserve; and whatever came out of it -- be it a glance, or a turn of the cheek, or an inclination of the head -- could be read as something of great importance and value. Her moves were not as bold as I was used to from some of the French- or Russian-trained dancers. Nor were her extensions so high. But her connecting steps were light and quick, an expression of spirit, some burst of joy: little movements of the heart in the feet and the legs. An enchaînement was never a series of steps, it was a phrase."

Fonteyn was not an uncomplicated woman. Her usual modesty and sweet, unflappable nature contrasted with occasional recklessness and unwise decisions. Offstage she projected gentility, even prudishness, and she had a highly developed sense of fashion. Yet this was a woman who naively carried a suitcase of guns into Panama for her husband's cause, and in her last years devoted herself to cattle breeding on their farm outside Panama City. And try envisioning this: The ballerina who seemed so pristine to us walks into Nureyev's bedroom one morning, skirting the debris of a riotous party the night before, finds him slumbering naked amid sailors, wiggles his big toe, and says, "Rudolf, dear, it's time to get up. We have to film the balcony scene."

She could play to perfection "Swan Lake" 's Odette -- the vulnerable, fluttering, enchanted creature, but also Odette's darting, gleaming, evil double, Odile. If she played these roles long past her prime, it was not just to make money, it was because, as another Fonteyn biographer, Keith Money, put it, "she was, heart and soul, a performing animal." That heart, that soul shone out through every step.

Reviewed by Deborah Jowitt
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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Descripción Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom, 2005. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Margot Fonteyn - born plain Peggy Hookham - was dreamed into existence by the architects of British ballet: Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Constant Lambert. Carried to fame on a wave of wartime patriotism, Margot s sense of duty rather than ambition propelled her forward. Yet her gifts were such that her pre-eminence would come to eclipse the careers of subsequent generations.Ballet is a fairytale world; if Margot, like the pure and poetic heroine of Swan Lake, was a natural Odette, she would also have to contend with virtue s raw shadow-side in the guise of Constant Lambert, Roberto Arias and Rudolph Nureyev - the men who, like Von Rothbart, were to take possession of her heart. Nº de ref. de la librería AAZ9780140165302

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Descripción Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom, 2005. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Margot Fonteyn - born plain Peggy Hookham - was dreamed into existence by the architects of British ballet: Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Constant Lambert. Carried to fame on a wave of wartime patriotism, Margot s sense of duty rather than ambition propelled her forward. Yet her gifts were such that her pre-eminence would come to eclipse the careers of subsequent generations.Ballet is a fairytale world; if Margot, like the pure and poetic heroine of Swan Lake, was a natural Odette, she would also have to contend with virtue s raw shadow-side in the guise of Constant Lambert, Roberto Arias and Rudolph Nureyev - the men who, like Von Rothbart, were to take possession of her heart. Nº de ref. de la librería AAZ9780140165302

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Descripción Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom, 2005. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. Margot Fonteyn - born plain Peggy Hookham - was dreamed into existence by the architects of British ballet: Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Constant Lambert. Carried to fame on a wave of wartime patriotism, Margot s sense of duty rather than ambition propelled her forward. Yet her gifts were such that her pre-eminence would come to eclipse the careers of subsequent generations.Ballet is a fairytale world; if Margot, like the pure and poetic heroine of Swan Lake, was a natural Odette, she would also have to contend with virtue s raw shadow-side in the guise of Constant Lambert, Roberto Arias and Rudolph Nureyev - the men who, like Von Rothbart, were to take possession of her heart. Nº de ref. de la librería BTE9780140165302

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