Dame Margot Fonteyn (born Margaret Hookham; 1919-1991) was an outstanding and beloved classical ballerina with an extensive career, from 1934 to 1979. She danced for England's Royal Ballet, putting British ballet on the international map.
Margot Fonteyn was born in Reigate, England, on May 18, 1919 as Margaret Hookham. Her father was British and her mother, Hilda, was a daughter of an Irish mother and a Brazilian father. She had one brother, Felix. They grew up happily in the London suburb of Ealing. She began dance classes at age four at a local dance school. Her father accepted a position as chief engineer of a tobacco company in Shanghai when Fonteyn was eight years old. In Shanghai she took ballet lessons from the Russian George Goncharov. She loved to move and was always creating dances for herself. At age 14 her mother brought her to London to give her a chance to develop a dancing career. She started taking lessons with Serafina Astafieva, and a little later she went to the Sadler's Wells Ballet School with Vera Volkova. When she danced in England she got her stage name, Margot Fonteyn, which indirectly evolved from her mother's family name, Fontes.
Fonteyn devoted her entire career to the Royal Ballet. This company was founded by Ninette de Valois in 1928 as the Vic-Wells/Sadler's Wells Ballet. De Valois believed in Fonteyn's talent and pushed her through difficult moments. In her autobiography Fonteyn recalls her thoughts whenever faced with a new step: "What a beautiful step. I shall never be able to do it."
Her debut was as a snowflake in The Nutcracker in 1934. The next year a wealth of dance roles in the standard classics, such as The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and Swan Lake, became open to the young Margot due to the departure of the great ballerina Alicia Markova. Fonteyn loved to become the romantic heroines. Her first major role was in Frederick Ashton's new ballet Le Baiser de la Fee in 1935. Her collaboration with choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton was exceptional. Fonteyn was his muse. In her autobiography she tells that although she had to work hard to master his creations, her happiest moments on stage were in Ashton ballets. He created leading roles for her in Apparitions, Nocturne, Les Patineurs, A Wedding Bouquet, Horoscope, The Wise Virgins, Dante Sonata, The Quest, The Wanderer, Daphnis and Chloë, and Ondine. De Valois also created roles for Fonteyn in Orpheus and Euridyce and Don Quichotte. She danced in revivals of Firebird and Petrouchka from the Diaghilev Ballets, staged by Leonide Massine. She was the first ballerina in George Balanchine's Ballet Imperial. During World War II the company had a full and hectic schedule. They were performing for all kinds of audiences, including the troops in Brussels. Her first performance in the United States in 1949 was triumphantly received.
Margot Fonteyn was at her best in a pas de deux. She loved working with a partner. She danced with Robert Helpmann and Michael Somes, each for many years. She appeared with Roland Petit for Les Ballets de Paris in Les Demoiselles de la Nuit in 1948. In her forties she started to think about retirement, but instead revived her career. She met Rudolf Nureyev, who had just left Russia at age 23. They became a dynamic team. The combination of his spirit and her technique, which was better than it had ever been before, made it joint artistry. They performed Swan Lake, Giselle, and Romeo and Juliet. Ashton created Marguerite et Armand and modern dance choreographer Martha Graham created Lucifer for them. For the next 15 years they performed all over the world. In 1965, an anecdote says, they once received a 40-minute ovation and had 43 curtain calls.
Fonteyn was the most versatile British ballerina after World War II. Her pale face, black hair, luminous eyes, and engaging smile were her trademarks. With her total musicality, her beautiful physique, her soft style of movement, her gentle loving manner, and her exquisite lines, she created a strong connection with audiences all over the world. She especially stood out in lyrical roles. She could dance the most difficult choreography with a disarming ease. Her presentation of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty is considered the ultimate interpretation of that role. She had an extraordinarily long career. At age 60 she had her farewell performance in London's Royal Opera House.
Her personal life started relatively late. Until age 35 her ballet career was all-consuming. In 1955, at age 36, she married in Paris a man she had met in her youth-Robert E. Arias, "Tito," the son of the former president of Panama. They met international celebrities and diplomats. He became the Panamanian ambassador in London and was actively involved in the politics of Panama. Attacked by a political opponent, he became paralyzed. The couple continued their separate careers, yet always remained connected, even when geography set them apart.
In 1951 Fonteyn was decorated a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 1956 she became Dame of the Order of the British Empire, after which she was known as Dame Margot Fonteyn. In 1979 she received from the Royal Ballet in England the title "prima ballerina assoluta," a title only given to three ballerinas in the 20th century. She became president of the Royal Academy of Dancing in 1954 and annually organized and presented a gala matinee, persuading famous dancers from all the major companies to appear. She received several awards and honorary doctorates. She wrote her autobiography while still dancing in 1975. In 1979 she presented the television series and book "The Magic of Dance." A documentary was made on her Panamanian ranch to celebrate her 70th birthday. She died on February 21, 1991, at age 72, two years after her husband.
Further Reading on Dame Margot Fonteyn
Probably the best source of information is Margot Fonteyn, An Autobiography (1969). K. Money wrote The Art of Margot Fonteyn (London, 1965) and The Making of a Legend (London, 1973). Dance magazine did a portfolio on Fonteyn in July 1973. A book about dance history mixed with personal experiences is The Magic of Dance (1979) by Margot Fonteyn.