Today marks the birth, one hundred years ago, of the great Margaret Evelyn Hookham. Well okay you might have heard of her as Dame Margot Fonteyn. Arguably she was the most famous English ballerina of the mid-20th century. Her career began with the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1935 and she was it’s acknowledge prima ballerina when it became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. She retired as prima ballerina assoluta from what had become the Royal Ballet in 1979: an almost unprecedented – surely challenged only by Alicia Alonso, but that is another story – 44 years as one of the leading dancers of the century.
If you hover your mouse over Oliver Messel’s original design for Aurora in Act I of The Sleeping Beauty (1946) you can catch a glimpse of Margot Fonteyn’s original costume from this iconic role.
I only had the joy of seeing her dance once in 1962: it was in her iconic role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. To this day I recall her gliding through the colonnade of Oliver Messel’s gloriously baroque palace in that subtle but stunning rose, pink and silver costume. By the time she reached centre stage she had transformed herself from a 43 year old ballerina into a glowing teenager at her 16th birthday party. I was to see other Aurora’s after that (Alla Sizova, Veronica Tennant, Karen Kain, Ashley Bouder) but none captured that moment with quite the magic of Fonteyn.
There are various clips of her performing the Rose Adagio from Act I sadly none of them are entirely satisfactory however (despite the odd aspect ratio setting) the excerpt below from a film of the Royal Ballet production in 1969 when she was 50 years old captures much of the magic of her performance. It was filmed one Sunday afternoon at a theatre in Bournemouth with a touring company of the Royal Ballet. The stage was smaller than Covent Garden which accounts for a few changes in the choreography. Ironically producer Keith Money ran out of money and the rest was left unfinished. The film was stored in cans in the attic of a barn in rural England until they were unearthed many years later. It was broadcast as part of a documentary in 1990.
Fonteyn’s style is of an earlier school of dancing that grew out of Russian roots in mid-century Britain. Though very much an athlete (what dancer isn’t?) her’s is never an athletic display. She is softer, more lyrical, more musical than today’s dancers tend to be. The technique is there but never openly pushed to the front, it is at the service of the character and the music. The pauses when she reaches a position are almost imperceptible but those pauses focus on the drama and the mood. It is dancing at its most elegant, most dramatic and finest. And I count myself as privileged to have experienced it.
May 18th is No Dirty Dishes Day! I do wish the people who create these days would mind their own damned business!