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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The Mystery of Margot Fonteyn

By Norman Lebrecht / April 7, 2005


The thin line between virtual and reality has all but vanished. The death of Princess Diana is danced as a Danish ballet. The sex life of the England football manager are being acted out this week on a Stockholm stage, to a script by the British playwright Nick Grosso. Future generations will know Hitler as a Swiss actor with Parkinson's Disease, from the pseudo documentary movie, Downfall. Truth, once the first casualty of war, is dying a death by a thousand adaptations.

They are making a film of the life of Margot Fonteyn, the most celebrated ballerina of her day. The scriptwriter is Ronald Harwood, an accomplished playwright who won an Oscar for The Pianist, which scrupulously followed the memoirs of a Jewish survivor in genocidal Warsaw. Harwood is a man who respects historical truth and sticks to it like mould. His most unerring realisation, in Taking Sides, was a portrait of the lofty German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler at his denazification tribunal.

But with Margot Harwood has hit a minefield. The obstacle is not just finding an actress who can simulate classical dance, but one who can suggest the surreal aspect of Fonteyn, an icon who was both intensely physical yet mysteriously immaculate. Many who knew her well admit they knew nothing of her.

The chances of any actress personifying that enigma are slimmer than Kylie Minogue on crispbread. So Harwood is toying with digital animation. 'Modern technology is on our side,' he tells me. 'We could impose an actress’s face on the dancing body of Margot from films of her performances. The important thing is to tell her story.'

That story was documented last year by a former Covent Garden and Australian Ballet dancer, Meredith Daneman, in a biography to which Harwood has acquired screen rights. Daneman placed a particular emphasis on Fonteyn’s sexuality which, from interviews with friends and lovers, she infers to have been vigorous and virtuosic. Fonteyn’s main sexual partners were also her artistic mentors; the dipsomanic conductor Constant Lambert, the Parisian dancer Roland Petit and the insatiably homosexual RudolfNureyev.

But to view Fonteyn through a prism of present-day prurience is distortive. What the audience saw in her time was a creature who swooned as Juliet for a Romeo 19 years her junior with a passion that was more virginal than erotic. There was much gossip about the precise nature of their relationship but it was disarmed by the illusion she created on stage of a love that was beyond mortal bounds.

Converting any stage legend into Hollywood formula is fraught with deception and there is a welcome streak of scepticism in Harwood’s digified solution. Seeing Fonteyn dance in her own biopic is no worse, surely, than watching Jamie Foxx mime Unchain My Heart as the liquid voice of Ray Charles flows from his bobbling larynx in the recent movie, Ray. No worse, by any reckoning, than Mario Lanza attempting The Great Caruso in 1951, Vanessa Redgrave faking Isadora (Duncan) in 1968 or C Thomas Howell taking up the baton latterly in Franco Zeffirelli's Young Toscanini.

These were harmless surrogacies that fooled no-one. Fans who had seen Isadora in the flesh entered the darkened room for contact with immortals, much as they might obtain from a ouija board. Innocents emerged from the film intrigued and enlightened.

Fonteyn, however, presents an altogether different set of difficulties. All magic and mirrors, hers was an illusion that did not translate to film. In The Little Ballerina (1947), a gooey tale of a little girl wanting to be a star, Fonteyn appeared as herself, speaking in a cut-glass accent and looking so wooden in Les Sylphides she might have strayed off the set of Pinocchio.

‘Madam’ Ninette de Valois, her ferocious protector, decided there and then that Margot would make no more films. The next project that turned up on Covent Garden's doorstep was given to the ingenue Moira Shearer, who ran off with The Red Shoes in 1948 and became the company’s first international star.

Fonteyn bore no grudge and turned out as beaming godmother to Shearer's daughter, Ailsa. But Madam made sure that when the company went to America in 1950 Margot was in the limelight and Moira downstage. There was to be only one British ballerina, whatever Hollywood might say, and any films that were made of Margot in her trademark roles had to be taken from a respectful distance.

Seen today on video, these recordings that Harwood wants to use appear almost antedeluvian. The leaps are lower than one might see from a Darcy Bussell, the technique unexceptional, the personality sallow. Fonteyn made no claims for herself as an athlete. When the Bolshoi came to London in 1956 she sat spellbound at the gnarled feet of Galina Ulanova, well past her peak at 46, and begged to be taught the true Russian tradition. When Rudolf Nureyev fell into her lap five years later, her waning appetite to expose her aching joints to further physical punishment was rekindled as much by his phenomenal memory for authentic routines as by his unbridled physical energy and his near-filial dependency on her love and her authority.

What Fonteyn possessed, more than the gift for dance, was a presence that transcends charisma or any of the usual qualities of attraction. She was not a woman of great intelligence. Her conversation was mundane and her interests narrow. Unlike world leaders she was not driven by raging ambition or a desire to improve society. She was Peggy Hookham by birth, and Peggy Hookham by nature, pleasingly down to earth.

Yet she could enter a crowded room and everyone present knew she was there. Those who worked with her speak of an aura, an impermeable state of being. At Covent Garden, 14 years after her death in distant Panama, she is never far from the lips and toes of dancers who were not yet born when she retired and of teachers who cannot erase her from performing memory.

Such presence is rare. I have seen it only in Leonard Bernstein, never in any other musician. Byron had it, reputedly, as did Einstein. Even Nureyev, in so many ways her creation, lacked the quality that made Fonteyn unique and inimitable.

And that is what makes Harwood’s task so daunting. If no actress can play Fonteyn, neither could she – except in the flesh. Or was that, too, an illusion?

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001