Farewell to Fonteyn: finale for a ballerina of peerless artistry AN APPRECIATION

February 22, 1991|By Jean Marbella

Sometimes, it seems like today's dancers are reduced to their "stats" -- instead of RBIs and ERAs, they're measured by the number of multiple pirouettes they can spin, or the degree that their legs extend in arabesque (160 degrees being a near universal requirement in the big leagues).

But Dame Margot Fonteyn, who died yesterday at age 71 after bouts of cancer and other ailments, was the epitome of ballet as art rather than as athletics. Her moments of stillness could be more electrifying than a dizzying number of pirouettes and her innate sense of the music ultimately more awe-inspiring than any spearlike leg extension.

Not that her actual dance technique could ever be faulted -- her exquisite balances and precise placement, for example, were more than enough to make your heart skip a beat. Still, it was her artistry more than any actual steps that made her arguably the most beloved ballerina of all time. Certainly she was among the most honored: Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 titled her "Dame" -- the female equivalent of knighthood -- for her contribution to the arts, and she became one of the very few ever honored as "prima ballerina assoluta" upon retiring at age 60.

Whether as Giselle or Juliet or, most of all, as Sleeping Beauty's Aurora, the dark-haired, wide-eyed Dame Margot instantly connected with an audience. It wasn't unusual for her to receive 20, 30, even 40 curtain calls from adoring fans.

Much has been made of how the young Rudolf Nureyev "saved" her career -- how the Russian defector fired up an aging and prim British ballerina to create one of the most acclaimed dance partnerships of all time.

She was 42 and he was 24 when they debuted in 1962. It was an artistic coupling as perfect as it was inexplicable -- it was as if an invisible thread linked not just their every move but their very souls. As such, they became the first pop stars of ballet, jet-setting with celebrities tout le monde, and generating wider interest in the art form at a time when it could instead have headed toward relic status.

Yet as grand as their partnership was, she had an equally luminous career even before Mr. Nureyev's arrival on the scene. Just 15 years old when she became a full member of the Sadler's Wells Ballet (predecessor of the current Royal Ballet), the Surrey native quickly became a sensation on stages both at home and abroad.

Quite simply, as New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb has said, "she lit up the stage."

Not so simply, her most famous partner once said that "an intense abstract love is born" every time they danced.

"I love dancing," Mr. Nureyev said last year at a gala held in Dame Margot's honor, "and dancing for her: What could be a greater pleasure?"

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