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Margot Fonteyn - the greatest ballerina of the 20th Century?

Updated on November 19, 2016
Marisa Wright profile image

Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.

Was Margot Fonteyn the greatest ballerina of the 20th century? I think so. It's a great pity current generations have no way to judge her greatness.

I say that because even though it's well worth seeing the recordings of Fonteyn dancing, they don't do her justice. For one thing, most recordings were made during the Nureyev years, when she was already past normal retirement age for a ballerina. For another, her great gift was her incredible charisma, which the camera doesn't fully capture.

There's no denying that today's ballerinas have better technique and a much greater repertoire of tricks than Margot Fonteyn. But ask any audience after her performance, and chances are very few of them could analyze her technique - I certainly couldn't. They simply knew they had seen a phenomenon.

Margot Fonteyn had such a presence you could sense her, even before you could see her. That charisma flooded over the footlights to her audience. Watching Fonteyn dance, you were simply mesmerised.

Margot Fonteyn in her Rose Adagio costume
Margot Fonteyn in her Rose Adagio costume

My first experience of that charisma wasn't at a ballet performance. It was in the hall at the Royal Academy of Dancing, at a prize-giving. While the General Manager was speaking, I felt a sudden change in the air. Without prompting, everyone in the audience turned to look at the back of the room (she had arrived late).

There, quietly, Fonteyn was entering the hall. The GM motioned for her to come forward and take her place in the reserved seats. I watched her walk down the aisle. I have never seen such penetrating black eyes. It was amazing how such a tiny, unassuming person could fill the room so effortlessly!

I did see Fonteyn dance, in June 1971 at a Gala Performance arranged by Richard Buckle. Here is what I had to say about her performance:

"Fonteyn was out of this world. She wore a Romantic tutu in shimmering purple. I scarcely noticed her footwork. All I could see were those beautiful, beautiful arms, rippling and flowing, curving and extending - sheer poetry! She could have bourree'd the whole time and still captivated me with those arms."

...."Fonteyn and Nureyev provided the grand finale [from Sleeping Beauty]. And what a finale! Her face looks so young, as they say Pavlova's always did. Even though it was only the pas de deux, she gave a complete and convincing picture of the young, newly-in-love Princess Aurora. It was an experience."

Unbelievably, that year Margot Fonteyn was 52! Any other ballerina would have retired years before, but Fonteyn had a husband with high medical bills and expensive tastes to support. So she danced on in spite of nagging injuries and the need for regular injections in her feet.

The Royal Academy (where I worked at the time) tried to find her a new career by organising Master Classes, but as a teacher she was a disaster. One of the managers told me, "musicality and dance come so naturally to Margot, she has no idea how to explain it to anyone else."

Margot Fonteyn in Sleeping Beauty 1955

Tony Palmer's Film About Margot Fonteyn
Tony Palmer's Film About Margot Fonteyn
If you want to know more about Fonteyn, this film is probably the best overview of both her career and her personal life

Fonteyn on film

Modern dancers should look closely at Fonteyn's feet in her films - you can tell, by the size of the box (toe), that there's nothing between her toes and her shoe except a scrap of lamb's wool, as was the practice in those days.

The feet of today's dancers often look out of proportion, because the toe is padded with gel or foam inserts and who knows what - which makes pointe work less painful and thus makes tricks easier, but means that the dancer loses contact with the floor. There's a delicacy about the way earlier ballerinas used their feet, which is lost in the current generation.

Unfortunately, most recordings of Fonteyn are from late in her career - the Nureyev years. The younger generation may be disappointed even with the few examples of her earlier performances, because dancers today are taught to value athleticism and bravura technique over musicality and artistry. Fonteyn's musicality was wonderful - one of the reasons she was so mesmerising was because she blended with the music so perfectly. And while her technique was not mind-blowing, she had great precision - each position was just so, exactly as the choreographer wanted.

And of course her characterization was wonderful. I had this to say about her performance in a film of Rudolf Nureyev's production of "Swan Lake",

"Fonteyn gave her usual complete performance (minus 5 fouettes). Odette was a soft, tenderly danced swan-woman. I particularly liked the quick "preening" movmeents with her head on her first entrance.

Odile was harder, more angular, but not so harsh or brittle than one felt the Prince would see through the plan at once. One believed in Odette as a deeply-portrayed character, a real person. Odile was shallower, without feeling."


All text copyright Marisa Wright. Photos by Moskbichka on Flickr.


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