Peerless ballerina won England's heart

Books

October 31, 2004|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff

Margot Fonteyn: A Life. By Meredith Daneman. Viking. 672 pages. $32.95.

In her time, Margot Fonteyn was something of a Princess Diana in pointe shoes, a woman who completely captured the imagination of her country and eventually the world. Dior dressed her, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy invited her to tea, and police sometimes were called to the theater to protect her from overly loving fans.

But living as she did before the current tabloid sensibility fully took hold -- her dancing career spanned more than three decades beginning in the 1930s, and she died in 1991 -- Fonteyn largely escaped the oppressive shadowing by the paparazzi that would stalk Princess Di to her grave and beyond. Now, though, Meredith Daneman's new biography, Margot Fonteyn: A Life, puts the legendary ballerina under the kind of microscopic scrutiny that is the price of modern-day celebrity.

A very different Fonteyn emerges, necessarily, from this kind of personal archaeology. Fonteyn on stage was a dancer of incomparable elegance and a certain British restraint. The purity of classical style that was the hallmark of her dancing inevitably raises the question: Was she this ethereal off-stage as well?

Of course not. Ballet is artifice. A woman is neither a swan nor, to cite Fonteyn's signature role, a Sleeping Beauty, the virginal princess awoken by her first kiss.

Daneman, herself a former dancer, contrasts these on-stage roles with the flesh-and-blood Fonteyn, a young and largely uneducated girl thrust into the heady world of an emerging ballet company, the predecessor to today's celebrated Royal Ballet. The couplings and uncouplings and recouplings within and without this group of artists is told in excruciating detail, with a couple of Fonteyn's former beaus proving, with some blunt pillow talk, to be no gentlemen.

The backstage gossip and the delving into Fonteyn's medical records serves as something of a corrective to the hagiography that surrounds any artist as great and beloved as Fonteyn, as well as the dancer's own 1975 autobiography that was understandably more discreet. Daneman, for example, writes extensively about the young Fonteyn's tortured affair with conductor and composer Constant Lambert, showing its significance in both her personal and artistic development and noting that he rated but three mentions in the autobiography.

But if the parade of lovers is revealing, perhaps it's not always revelatory. Far more interesting is the story of how little Peggy Hookham rose from a nondescript London suburb and early dance training that was scattered at best -- part of her childhood was spent in China when her father was transferred there -- to become that rare being, the prima ballerina assoluta. It is a story of artistic destiny, fulfilled against the odds.

Daneman is particularly adept at profiling the people who spotted and nurtured Fonteyn's genius early on. These include her mother, Nita Hookham, surely the mother of all stage mothers; and Ninette de Valois, founder of what became the Royal Ballet, who saw her innate grace as a student, even though Fonteyn had feet resembling limp "pats of butter" rather than the preferred strongly arched ones.

The most touching part of the book is about the World War II years, when Fonteyn and her fellow dancers persevered through the horrors and deprivations -- the bombings, the blackouts, the rationing, the drafting of able-bodied young men, including ballet dancers. While it may seem trivial that they danced on as the world crumbled around them, Fonteyn's beguiling performances won her a permanent place in the country's heart and sense of itself. During the harshest years, when resources were scarce, fans would leave for her at the stage door not the usual flowers, but their own rations of eggs and steaks.

Fonteyn's last and greatest partner, Rudolph Nureyev, does not even appear until about two-thirds into the book, which in a way also seems a corrective -- to the long held simplification that the then-fortysomething ballerina had one foot in the grave when the fiery Russian defector arrived to revive her. Their partnership was indeed astonishing, although the intense adoration they inspired often gave short shrift to her dazzling pre-Rudy career.

At 672 pages, Daneman has written an immense book, the most comprehensive to date, but such was the life of Fonteyn that she more than fills this vast stage.

Jean Marbella is the editor of The Sun's Today section.

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