Fonteyn, Margot (1919–1991)

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Fonteyn, Margot (1919–1991)

British star of the Royal Ballet and one of the world's leading ballerinas from the 1930s through the 1970s. Name variations: Peggy Hookham; Margot de Arias. Pronunciation: Fon-TAIN. Born Margaret Hookham on May 18, 1919, at Reigate, Surrey, England; died on February 21, 1991, in Panama City, Panama, of cancer; daughter of Felix John Hookham (an engineer) and Hilda Fontes Hookham; educated by governesses, tutors, and in local schools in England and China to 1933, then studied ballet at Vic-Wells Ballet School, 1933–34; married Roberto Arias (an attorney and Panamanian diplomat), on February 6, 1955 (died 1989); no children.

Began dance training (1924); moved to U.S. (1926); lived in China (1927–32); made professional debut (1934); became prima ballerina of Sadler's Wells Company, succeeding Alicia Markova (1936); escaped from German invasion of Holland (1940); toured provinces in reduced ballet company (1939–45); toured U.S. and Canada (1949–50); endured period of illness (1952–53); named president of Royal Academy of Dancing (1954); made first American television performances and husband named Panama's ambassador to Great Britain (1955); named Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and saw Sadler's Wells Company receive royal charter and become Royal Ballet (1956); toured Australia and New Zealand (1957); began guest status with Royal Ballet (1959); danced first performance with Rudolf Nureyev (1962); informed husband paralyzed by gunshot wound (1964); made triumphal appearance with Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden (1965); appeared at Royal Ballet gala in her honor and gave final performance with Nureyev (1979); death of Rudolf Nureyev (1993).

Selected roles:

title role in Giselle; Odette-Odile in Swan Lake; Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty; title role in Ondine; Marguerite in Marguerite and Armand; Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.

Margot Fonteyn has been called the personification of the British ballet. With a career that spanned more than four decades, she danced especially memorable roles in numerous ballets created for her by choreographer Frederick Ashton. Two turning points marked her professional life. In 1936, at age 17, she became the successor to Alicia Markova in the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company (subsequently the Royal Ballet), starting a period in which she emerged as the best-known British ballerina of the era. In 1962, she began what Susan Au has called "a second spring" in her career when she became the partner for Rudolf Nureyev. Despite the difference in their ages, they became the most famous duo in the ballet world.

Following the death of Sergei Diaghilev in 1929 and the demise of his Ballets Russes, the ballet world became increasingly decentralized. Since Diaghilev's success in taking the Russian ballet to Western Europe in 1909, a closely knit group of Russian ballet stars and choreographers had played the dominant role in this branch of the arts. This Russian preeminence now gave way to a resurgence of national ballet companies in a number of European countries. For example, under the leadership of the noted ballerina Ninette de Valois , a veteran of the Diaghilev troupe, a lively British tradition began to emerge. She had opened a school in London, then obtained the support of leaders of the Old Vic Theater and by the mid-1930s organized the

Sadler's Wells Ballet. Margot Fonteyn, in conjunction with the choreographer Frederick Ashton, soon became its dominant female star.

The future Margot Fonteyn was born Margaret Hookham, in Reigate, Surrey, on May 18, 1919. Her father was Felix Hookham, an English engineer from a family with a longstanding interest in music, who had grown up in Brazil. Margot's mother Hilda Fontes Hookham had a Brazilian father and an Irish mother. In later years, some observers attributed Margot Fonteyn's dark-haired good looks to her Brazilian heritage.

Felix Hookham's professional career made his two children, Margaret and her older brother, world travelers at an early age. The future ballerina grew up in England, the United States, and China. She claimed not to know why she began dance lessons at the age of four. "The circumstances of my initial attendance at Miss Bosutow's Academy," she wrote in her autobiography, "are too indistinct in the minds of those concerned for anyone to be really sure." Nonetheless, under her mother's firm direction, she pursued ballet training wherever the family settled for long. In China, her teachers included Russian emigrés trained in the classic traditions of the pre-1917 Russian ballet.

Margaret's return to England allowed her to see the great stars of the ballet world such as Olga Spessivtzeva in live performances. In 1934, the future ballet star entered the school of the Vic-Wells Ballet. The company, soon renamed the Sadler's Wells Ballet, would receive a charter from Queen Elizabeth II and become the Royal Ballet Company in 1956. When Margaret Hookham, then 15, became a student, Ninette de Valois was the company's director and Alicia Markova its star dancer. Young Margaret appeared in a number of roles starting in late 1934, and her chance for stardom came only a year later.

In late 1935, Markova left the company to start her own dance troupe, and de Valois decided that Fonteyn could fill the vacancy. In short order, the young woman rose to become the prima ballerina, the dominant female dancer, for the company. Her career soon became linked with choreographer Ashton, who created new roles for her; meanwhile, Michael Somes became her principal partner for the next two decades. By now, she had dropped her birth name. Margaret became the more glamorous "Margot." Though she had thought of adopting her mother's maiden name Fontes in place of Hookham, as she put it, "the English branch of the family shied off connections with the stage." In response to their objections, she chose the variant "Fonteyn" as the name she would make famous.

The team of Fonteyn and Ashton had its first great success in the Romantic ballet Apparitions in 1936. In 1939, she danced the most notable role of the first half of her career, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. The style that Fonteyn perfected lacked the flamboyance of other ballet stars. Her best qualities have been described as a

mixture of skill as an actress, personal warmth, and effortless motion. Her great musical sense became legendary; claiming to have a tape recorder in her head, she invariably matched her flowing movements precisely to the course of the musical score.

The years of World War II began with a notable adventure. Touring Holland, Fonteyn and the rest of the company were almost caught by the German invasion of that country in the spring of 1940. With German paratroops landing nearby, the dancers fled by bus from Arnhem, where they were giving a performance, to the port of Ijmuiden. There they were lucky enough to find a freighter to take them back across the English Channel. (SeeHepburn, Audreyfor more on this event.)

The remaining years of the conflict found Fonteyn and a shrunken company, lacking most of its male dancers, touring Great Britain. In a time of rationing, fans of the ballet donated their portions of sugar and chocolate to Fonteyn and the other dancers to give them the energy needed for their strenuous performances. Along with other members of the company, Fonteyn traveled to France and Belgium in 1945 to entertain Allied forces. Ashton was able to steal some time from his duties in the Royal Air Force to write a new ballet for her, The Quest. At the close of the war, the young ballerina had her first encounter with serious illness, which she attributed to physical stress and wartime diet.

Her combination of personal beauty, talent and feminine charm was irresistible.

—Alexander Bland

Her career, and the reputation of the Sadler's Wells Company, grew in the postwar period. Sadler's Wells was chosen to reopen Covent Garden's Royal Opera in 1946 with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty, which now became its most renowned ballet. Fonteyn, along with Robert Helpmann, who had been her principal partner during the war years, danced the starring role. Her tours took her as far as Prague and Warsaw, and the United States and Canada in 1949–50. During this tour, her performance in The Sleeping Beauty once again entranced audiences. One New York critic hailed her as "a ballerina among ballerinas" who had just "conquered another continent." She remembered the occasion vividly: "Unimaginable success! It was unlike anything we had ever experienced before." A sign of the times would be her appearance on television when NBC broadcast a performance of The Sleeping Beauty to an American audience in late 1955.

In 1948, the star ballerina hurt a ligament in her ankle, and, in the early 1950s, she found her work increasingly burdened by ill-health. A fortuneteller had once predicted 1952 would be a bad year in her life. Late that year, she contracted diphtheria. One of the disease's frightening symptoms was a temporary paralysis of her feet, and it took her five months to recover completely.

In 1953, Fonteyn's personal life took a happy turn when Roberto ("Tito") Arias reappeared in her life. She had known the Panamanian lawyer and diplomat since the late 1930s when he was a student at Cambridge. Her career ambitions and his reputation as a playboy had seemingly ended their relationship then, but he reappeared in New York as she toured the United States. At their first meeting, he abruptly asked her to marry him, even though he was already married and the father of three. Arias courted her throughout her tour. After his wife agreed to a divorce, he and Fonteyn were married on February 6, 1955. Arias became his country's ambassador to Great Britain upon returning from their honeymoon and held the position until 1958. Thus, Margot Fonteyn took on the social duties of an ambassador's wife while continuing her dancing. In a more stimulating involvement in her husband's political career, she was briefly held by the police in Panama in 1959 when Arias became involved in an attempted revolution.

By 1961, the Russian influence in ballet was reasserting itself as the Soviet government permitted leading Russian companies to tour Western Europe. That year, one of the male stars of the Kirov Ballet, the young, rebellious, and talented Rudolf Nureyev, deserted his touring company in Paris and received asylum in the West. Stifled by the artistic conformity of the ballet world in his homeland, he now plunged into the European dance scene.

Now in her early 40s, Fonteyn enjoyed the position of a reigning star on the ballet stage and a model for younger dancers like Antoinette Sibley and Marcia Haydée . Nonetheless, Fonteyn's career seemed in its last years. Her longtime partner Michael Somes was now retired, and Fonteyn herself seemed anxious to cut down on her artistic responsibilities. She was now only a guest artist on the roster of the Royal Ballet.

Margot Fonteyn was at first skeptical about dancing with the mercurial young Russian. "I think it would be like mutton dancing with lamb," she commented to Ninette de Valois when the idea of a joint appearance first came up. But she put aside her concerns about the 20-year difference in their ages, and she and Nureyev received a wildly favorable welcome when they danced together in Giselle in London in early 1962. They repeated their success to equally lavish acclaim in New York in the spring of 1963. For the remainder of the decade, they became the most famous and popular ballet team in the world. As Alexander Bland put it, "Their presence together on the dance scene was immediately electrifying and lastingly dominant." Over a period of 17 years, from 1962 to 1979, the two were to dance together on a relatively small number of occasions: fewer than 200. Nonetheless, their partnership dominated the dance stage of the era.

Dancing with Nureyev not only extended Fonteyn's career, it brought out new facets of her talent. "With him she exhibited new daring," writes Sarah Montague , "performing everything from bravura pas de deux … to erotic Op-Art spectacles." One New York critic noted the magical combination of the Russian's "smoulder, mystery, [and] dynamic presence" and "the beauty, the radiance, the womanliness, the queenliness" of Fonteyn. "The youthful Nureyev, almost twenty years her junior, has given her new theatrical inspiration," he wrote. In this stage of her career, her great role as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet was as much a high point of her work as The Sleeping Beauty had been in earlier years. In all, Fonteyn and Nureyev danced 26 ballets together. These ranged from classic roles to short duets. Their signature ballet was Marguerite and Armand, a retelling of the story of Camille (Alponsine Plessis ), which they performed for the first time in London in March 1963. In all, the partnership of the serene and vulnerable Fonteyn and the flamboyant and athletic Nureyev created an unlikely but matchlessly effective dance combination.

Their partnership was sometimes colorful in unexpected ways. Photographers caught them in local dance halls and night clubs doing the ballroom steps of average partygoers. On one occasion in San Francisco in July 1967, they were arrested together at a post-performance gathering in a local home. The police had received word of the presence of drugs, and the newspapers ran pictures of the two ballet stars in handcuffs. In the end, the charges were dropped.

Inevitably, journalists tried to discover a romantic link despite Fonteyn's insistence that she was happily married. But a tragic occurrence marred her personal life when, in June 1964, her husband was severely wounded in a shooting in Panama: a former political associate had attempted to kill him. Fonteyn, who received the news in the English city of Bath following a rehearsal, rushed to his side. Arias, who had been near death, was paralyzed by his injuries.

Fonteyn's career stretched into the 1970s. Her appearances with Nureyev came less frequently as he became involved with experimental dance companies and she engaged in worldwide tours and a long affiliation with the Australian Ballet. In a remarkable display of longevity, she continued to perform brief selections in touring companies until she was 60. The noted duo made their last major appearances together at the Royal Ballet in 1976. In 1979, at the close of her career, the two danced together for the last time.

As her professional life came to a close, Fonteyn turned to writing about ballet. She published her autobiography in 1975 and followed it in 1979 with a volume designed to aid parents whose children desired ballet training, A Dancer's World: An Introduction for Parents and Students. At the start of the 1980s, she reached a larger audience than ever before with her six-part BBC-TV series entitled "The Magic of Dance," which she accompanied with a book of the same name.

Fonteyn also received the acclaim of the Royal Ballet where she had danced with matchless distinction. The company put on a gala performance on May 23, 1979, to mark her 60th birthday. The program listed 77 roles that she had performed in her years there. In the early 1980s, she retired to her husband's cattle ranch in Panama. There she nursed her husband, who had never recovered from the gunshot wounds of 1964, until his death in 1989.

Sibley, Antoinette (1939—)

English ballerina. Born in Bromley, England, in 1939; married Michael Somes; studied at Arts Educational School until 1949, then the Royal Ballet School.

Antoinette Sibley entered the company of the Royal Ballet in 1956. In 1959, she became a soloist; by 1960, she was a principal. Her roles include Odette/Odile, Giselle, and the betrayed girl in The Rake's Progress. Sibley also created the role of Titania for Frederick Ashton's The Dream and was one of the Juliets in Kenneth Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet.

Margot Fonteyn died of cancer in Panama City on February 21, 1991. She was followed in short order by her great partner of the 1960s and 1970s, when Rudolf Nureyev died of complications from AIDS on January 6, 1993.


Au, Susan. Ballet & Modern Dance. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Bland, Alexander. Fonteyn and Nureyev: The Story of a Partnership. NY: Times Books, 1979.

Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crisp. Ballerina: The Art of Women in Classical Ballet. London: BBC Books, 1987.

Fonteyn, Margot. Autobiography. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Montague, Sarah. The Ballerina: Famous Dancers and Rising Stars of Our Time. NY: Universe Books, 1980.

suggested reading:

Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: The First Fifty Years. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Monahan, James. Fonteyn: A Study of the Ballerina in Her Setting. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1957.

Money, Keith. The Art of Margot Fonteyn. Northampton, England: Reynal, 1965.

Stuart, Otis. Perpetual Motion: The Public and Private Lives of Rudolf Nureyev. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Walker, Katherine Sorley. Ninette de Valois: Idealist without Illusions. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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