Margot Fonteyn

November 2009 - The Times

There are very few ballet dancers who capture the public imagination to such an extent that they are known, throughout the world, by a single name. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev went one better, becoming – and remaining – ballet's only mononymous double act. To dancers of my generation, Margot and Rudi were ballet royalty, the undisputed stars of The Royal Ballet throughout the Sixties and Seventies. For part of their reign, between 1974 - 1981, I was a pupil at the Royal Ballet School, regularly attending dress rehearsals and performances at the Royal Opera House. It seems impossible that Fonteyn wasn't dancing on at least one of those occasions but I have absolutely no recollection of her on the stage. I do remember seeing her once in company class, at The Royal Ballet's rehearsal studios in West London. It was 1980: Lycra had already captured the market in dancewear (putting paid, once and for all, to wrinkly knees) but Fonteyn appeared as she always appeared: timeless in pink, nylon tights and a pale cotton tunic tucked into her knickers at the front and demurely lapping the line of her buttocks to the rear. Her hair was, as ever, immaculate, but her face, while still striking, was now drawn. No wonder. She was 61 years old. She was caring for her paralysed husband and, although we liked to believe she still danced because she loved it so much, jetting around the globe on her reputation to pay his medical bills and to support them both.

My most vivid Fonteyn memory is second hand, relayed by my ballet teacher at the time, Patricia Linton. She had been to Fonteyn's 60th Birthday Gala on May 18th 1979 and returned glowing with tales of a piece specially created for the occasion, Salut d'Amour, which recalled the roles Fonteyn had created for Frederick Ashton. Towards the end of the dance, the choreographer entered the stage to pay homage to his muse. She linked her arm through his and then, picking their way through his signature 'Fred Step', they exited towards the prompt corner, Fonteyn throwing back her head and flashing that luminous smile to the back row of the amphitheatre. Miss Linton spoke about the performance with the awed reverence with which we all spoke of Margot Fonteyn. She was, to us, the perfect woman and the perfect ballerina. It would take two decades and Darcey Bussell's extraordinary gifts to soften the imprint of Margot on British ballet. Until Darcey (another mononym) broke the mould, there was an unspoken expectation that ballerinas should be 5'4'', with dark, almond-shaped eyes, porcelain skin, raven hair and a face as open and radiant as a full moon.

That 1979 gala, officially her Covent Garden farewell, took place 45 years after her first appearance with Sadler's Wells Ballet, as a corps de ballet snowflake in The Nutcracker. The company Fonteyn joined in 1934 was just three years old and the vision of Dame Ninette de Valois. Far-sighted and a master strategist, de Valois created a tradition of ballet in this country where there was none, from start-up to Royal Charter (and a dame hood to boot) in 25 years. Her company (which became The Royal Ballet) was based on the model handed down through generations, its structure not unlike the Royal Courts which first instigated and then patronised ballet, from 17th century France to pre-Revolutionary Russia. The great classical ballets of the 19th century mirror on stage the hierarchy of the Court: the corps de ballet, the lowest rank, are mere courtiers, or peasants outside the palace gates; the soloists are ladies-in-waiting, Archdukes or Royal friends; at the centre of the stage is the principal couple, the Prince and Princess. Above all of this presides an absolute ruler: the company director. Ballet has never been a democracy.

The company I joined in 1981 was, in some ways, not unlike the company portrayed in Otto Bathurst's film, Margot. Some of the same people were still around: Michael Somes, Frederick Ashton and de Valois herself. If they were no longer officially 'in charge' their presence was, nevertheless, powerfully felt. Madam, as de Valois was always known, was formidable. She retired in 1963 but retained an influence over the company until her death, aged 102. She managed her dancers' careers with an iron will, convinced that she knew what was best for them and, most importantly, for the company; whether or not they agreed was neither here nor there and if feelings came into it, she didn't let on. To challenge her decisions or – heaven forbid – to disagree, was out of the question. Like Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes she had been a part of between 1923 - 26, Madam was 'an autocrat of taste' – her own description of the great impresario. But over my 20 years in the company, the ballet world changed. With greater protection of rights and contracts more secure, unions grew stronger and managements more flexible. Choreographers like Kenneth MacMillan shook up the hierarchy by picking dancers from the lower ranks for leading roles, basing their choices on individual qualities rather than 'house style'. (Years later, the American ballerina, Cynthia Harvey, and I discovered we had both felt the same sense of betrayal when we realised that although we had been taught that the good girls got the breaks, choreographers were, in truth, more likely to be drawn to the ones who broke the rules.) It was no longer quite so clear which dancers to look up to or which example to follow, and company members began to dare to ask for casting decisions and promotions to be explained. The old order had changed. It wasn't quite a democracy, but autocratic rule was giving way to a greater accountability: a meritocracy, of sorts.

And, of course, these changes were not happening in isolation. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, the old order was giving way to something new. Dictator states were crumbling, iron curtains melting and walls tumbling down. While Generation Me took hold in the United States, Margaret Thatcher announced that there was no such thing as society and that our first duty was to look out for ourselves. The automatic respect accorded to authority and institutions over generations – the Church, the State, the Crown, even the BBC – was replaced by a demand to leaders that our respect be earned. The Children Act of 1989 changed the way we bring up children and impacted on young peoples' expectations of the way they will be treated. It was inevitable that these changes would manifest themselves within the ballet studio, too.

The challenge – and the opportunity – this new order presents is fascinating. There are people who question whether ballet can survive our enlightened attitude to child rearing, whether the cult of the individual and the now universal mistrust of authority are, in effect, a death knoll for the corps de ballet. It's true that to create the extraordinary effect of 32 women moving as one takes a willingness, on everyone's part, to subjugate individuality to a common cause. Without that willingness, there is no unity, and without unity there is no corps de ballet. But how much more exciting is it, to create that unity through curiosity, through intellectual exploration and individual intent? How much more powerful when 32 women choose to move as one?

Bathurst's film, a musing on ballet's greatest ever muse, draws conclusions about Fonteyn and her private life which may or may not be accurate. What really went on, in her head and in her bedroom, went with her to the grave and those who know for sure have respected her desire for privacy. (When once, naively, I asked too direct a question I was put firmly in my place. 'That's something we don't talk about.') The culture the film portrays, however, I recognise: from my teachers and their tales and from faint echoes down the years of the past as another country, still palpable in my early career. But this culture wasn't only to be found in the ballet studio. Just as our grandparents would (probably) have expected to put God, King and Country before themselves, so ballet dancers expected to put their art, duty, and the company before love, marriage or children. In ballet's most famous film, The Red Shoes, Boris Lermontov, impresario of the fictional Ballet Lermontov, convinces Vicky Page to give up her marriage and dedicate her life to dance. 'Sorrow will pass,' he consoles, 'believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.' The company was based, in part, on the Ballets Russes, with Lermontov a thinly disguised Sergei Diaghilev.

Trained in the 1970s by ballerinas of the Forties and Fifties and employed in the Eighties and Nineties, I sometimes feel as if my generation sits on the cusp between the world of then and the world of now. In my first year at the Royal Ballet School I was taught by Sara Neil, a 1950s Sadler's Wells ballerina; in my last by Julia Farron, who joined the school as its first ever scholarship pupil, in 1931, and retired 30 years later. Through those teachers and their stories, through example and osmosis, we absorbed within our DNA some of the values and traditions on which British ballet was built. And yet our working lives were lived in the decades defined by Thatcherism, when individual rights overtook collective responsibilities, when the search for self-fulfilment replaced the quest for the common good. Within the class of '81, two cultures co-exist.

Sometimes these cultures collided, never more poignantly than on one memorable occasion in the corridors of the West London rehearsal studios, in the late 1990s. Dame Ninette de Valois was making a rare visit to address the company and a large group of dancers followed in her wake as she made slow, elderly progress up the stairs to the studio where the meeting was to take place. Suddenly, all chaos broke loose, as one of our number turned tail and pushed his way back through the crowd, dashing down the corridor against the tide. The white hair disappearing into the distance marked him out as Leslie Edwards, a veteran of the company since 1933. When we finally entered the studio, Leslie was straight-backed and attentive at the front, having rushed right around the building to arrive first, through an alternative door. I asked him afterwards what had happened. He looked surprised, as if I should have understood. 'My dear, I couldn't possibly have entered the studio after Madam.'