A twirl back to ballet star Margot’s Fonteyn of youth
To mark the centenary of the idol’s birth, a former director of the Royal Ballet from SA remembers a star like no other
I was 16 years old when I first saw Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet School in Barons Court, west London.
Having grown up in SA, I’d only ever seen her photograph in a book – it was just extraordinary to see the real thing coming towards me down a corridor.
The way I’ve always described it is that I pressed myself against the wall and turned into wallpaper, so as not to get in her way.
When I joined the company in 1958, I was amazed to discover I was in the same class as her.
Everything about her was immaculate – not a hair out of place.
At 39, she was the most perfect role model for any young girl who aspired to be a classical dancer: she looked so perfect, her proportions were so beautiful.
Even in rehearsals, she never did anything by half, never “marked” anything – she always danced full out.
And she was also completely real, and loved giggling and chattering with her peers.
As time went on, I got more used to being close to her, but there was a curious downside.
I think that little by little, the way she danced – particularly Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty – burnt into my memory, into my brain.
Years later, when I came to try to dance The Sleeping Beauty, I couldn’t get her out of my head, couldn’t find “me”.
I’d always found “me” quite happily in everything else I’d done, including “created roles”. But Aurora was different because I so identified Margot with that role.
I’d stood on stage so often and seen her, and felt that burst of youth and energy when she made her first entrance, that it seemed that was the only way to do it.
And when I came to do it myself, I kind of felt I was a clone of Margot. It wasn’t a nice feeling!
The thing about Margot was whether one was on stage with her or watching from the front, she was a star.
She had this magic, and you could never take your eyes off her because you were always being treated to a complete performance.
She was such a gift to the company, not just as an artist and a performer, but also for setting such a standard for everyone else: for how to rehearse, how to dance, and how to behave.
She was always completely obedient when working with Frederick Ashton (the Royal Ballet’s founder choreographer), who created so many extraordinary ballets for her – masterpieces such as Symphonic Variations (1946), Daphnis and Chloe (1951) and Ondine (1958).
There was something about working with Sir Fred where you just knew that he had all the answers.
If he gave you a correction, there was no question that you didn’t try your utmost to make it work, and that’s exactly how Margot, too, was with him.
For my first three years with the company, I always saw Margot partnered by Michael Somes – I always felt that she was completely at ease with him, and that their partnership didn’t require any discussion.Michael gave his final performances as her partner when we toured to Russia in 1961 and, after that, she danced two or three seasons with another of the Royal Ballet’s leading men of the time, David Blair. But I always felt that he and Margot weren’t in complete harmony.Then Rudolf Nureyev arrived, having defected from the Soviet Union in 1961, and that seemed to change everything. He was like an earthquake, and was just an electrifying presence.
Soon after his first performances with the Royal Ballet, he mounted the “white” Act II of La Bayadère, Kingdom of the Shades, with Margot as Nikiya, so we all had the chance to work with him and to get to know him.
In 1965, it was the first time in the history of the Royal Ballet that we were opening an American season with something other than The Sleeping Beauty.
None of us knew all the dramas that were going on behind the scenes about who should dance the first night of Romeo and Juliet.
Kenneth MacMillan had created the two lead roles for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, but the American promoters naturally wanted Margot and Rudolf for the opening performances, and Lynn and Christopher found themselves dancing later in the season.
Of course, both opening nights – the very first one, in London in February that year, and the New York one, in April – were huge successes.
By this time, Margot was 45, and Rudolf in his mid-20s, and it seemed that he gave her a whole new lease of life.
I think she must have felt that the opportunity to work with him was something she couldn’t refuse.
It was so new and exciting for her to be dancing with somebody so young and so vibrant, and he clearly respected her so much.
He revered her specialness – it was obvious to see.
In fact, Rudolf also gave me so much – I owe him a great debt.
He was so bold, and the fact that he wanted to dance with me meant that I couldn’t be afraid, I couldn’t be nervous.
I might be dying inside in case something went wrong, but I pretended to be the bravest person I’d ever been.
I’ve always described dancing with Rudolf – which I did in the white act of La Bayadère and also Swan Lake – as being on the edge of a cliff in high wind.
It has been suggested over the years that Margot and Rudolf had too many first nights for too long, at the expense of other up-and-coming Royal Ballet principals. But she was such a superstar.
When they danced in New York, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would be in the audience, and when we were in Los Angeles, Judy Garland came, Cary Grant came – and all these megastars would also appear backstage.
You’d be standing at the stage door, and the crowd would separate and you’d see one of them being led through to Margot’s dressing room.
It lent such lustre and glamour to being in the Royal Ballet, and we were all affected by it.
The idea that somebody other than Margot could ever have danced the first night never occurred to me.
The last time I saw Margot was when she visited the rehearsal studios in Barons Court, shortly before cancer took her life in 1991.
She looked so frail, and we knew that she would not be able to recover.
But I prefer to remember her on stage, especially as one of the most wonderful Firebirds of all time.
As I am currently teaching the Firebird for the Royal Ballet’s performances in June, she is constantly in my mind.
Almost 30 years since her death, she remains an immense influence on my life.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)