Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Margot Fonteyn

Margot Fonteyn in 1951.

I assume Miss Fonteyn’s ensemble in the photograph is from the House Of Dior, Miss Fonteyn’s preferred designer after World War II, when she abandoned British designers in favor of French designers; the dress, with its geometric neckline, certainly looks like a Dior creation of the early 1950s.

Films of Fonteyn do little to justify her reputation; she probably had to be seen in person to be appreciated.

My parents had only one opportunity to see Fonteyn perform, and they passed it up: a late-career appearance as Lady Capulet in Rudolf Nureyev’s production of “Romeo And Juliet” with the ballet company of Teatro alla Scala. The year was 1981; Fonteyn was sixty-two years old at the time.

It is difficult to separate Fonteyn the legend from Fonteyn the artist. Worshipped in Britain and (for a time) the U.S., Fonteyn was viewed as a joke in Russia. When The Royal Ballet made its first-ever appearance in the U.S.S.R. in the 1950s, Russian critics, the Russian dance establishment and Russian audiences were dumbfounded by Fonteyn’s abject lack of technique. The reception Fonteyn received, from critics and audiences alike, was withering if not scornful.

George Balanchine, too, always viewed Fonteyn as a laughable dancer, once remarking, publicly, that Fonteyn’s feet resembled spoons.

However, at least one Russian, Nureyev, came to adore Fonteyn. The two became lifelong friends.

Since Fonteyn’s death, we have come to learn more about the circumstances of her life and career (and death). For instance, Fonteyn continued to dance long past the time she should have retired from the stage simply because she was in desperate need of money.

Fonteyn died a pauper. For the last ten years of her life, she was—as a practical matter—supported solely by Nureyev, who paid for her living expenses as well as her medical expenses (Fonteyn died after a long battle with cancer).

Nureyev also paid for Fonteyn’s funeral. Nureyev had remained loyal even after his friend’s passing.

Nureyev himself was to die two years later . . . and had no one to perform for himself the role he had performed for Fonteyn.

Nureyev died utterly alone, with only a grasping, money-hungry sister and niece (neither of which he could tolerate) to help ease his path toward death in his final days.


  1. "Penguin" jokes still circulate in Moscow regarding Fonteyn's feet, the epitome of poor turnout.

    I can only guess why English and American audiences adored her so. I was never very impressed with her, but I never saw her LIVE, either. I am told, however, that she was in possession of a singular stage presence that bewitched her patrons. Apparently she was a captivating actress.

    English and American ballet audiences, it seems, are less concerned with technique than these other things. In Russia the joy of ballet is drawn from the CONTEXT of the technique itself.

    I know someone who danced with Nureyev in 1990, in Dublin, She said that it was the worst nightmare of her career. He never rehearsed, he was arrogant, rude, and even incompetent at times. The troupe had to "cover" for him during performances.

    It is a shame that Fonteyn died alone and penniless in Panama. Where did all the money go? .

  2. Fonteyn’s money was absorbed paying for medical care for her husband, who was a quadriplegic the last 25 years of his life. He finally died only two years before Fonteyn herself died.


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