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About the Change

“Margot Fonteyn”

Written by Meredith Daneman
Publisher: Viking, 2004
ISBN: 0670913375

review by Helen Bishop

© Viking 2004

Alex Martin with a second review of the Daneman book

Alex Martin's Fonteyn memories

Margot Fonteyn
in Legends section

Order the book from

reviews by Helen Bishop

Since Margot Fonteyn's death in 1991, we have been waiting, sometimes impatiently, for a full-length biography of ballet's iconic legend. Why? Were we hoping to find out the truth about her private life, or did we think we would gain some insight into her incomparable artistry? A bit of both, I suspect. In Meredith Daneman's substantial book, we go some way to discovering the former. The latter remains inexplicable.

It's an important book partly because the story of Fonteyn runs parallel with the history of British ballet itself. She was there, from the age of fourteen, more or less from its beginning. The great names of the early days - de Valois, Ashton, Constant Lambert - formed her, and she was a major factor in their success. Her ambitious and devoted mother brought her from China, where she spent a large part of her childhood, to London in order to measure her talent, until then nurtured haphazardly by local dancing teachers and emigre Russians. From this historical standpoint, it would be an interesting story even if her life were of little interest in itself. In fact, it is as fascinating and dramatic as any novel. How many Surrey-born 10-year-olds have travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway? How many famous ballerinas have been involved in an attempted South American coup, and been arrested more than once?

Of course, Daneman is a novelist,and (crucially) an ex-dancer. She is not a professional biographer, and this book is largely a labour of love. Although her descriptive prose is on occasion excessively flowery, her research seems as thorough as it could be. The only first hand account of Fonteyn's life that we have is her 1975 autobiography, which is, to put it mildly, the edited version. There are virtually no personal diaries and very few letters to reveal the real woman. Daneman has to rely on a memoir from Fonteyn's mother, and the accounts of people who knew Fonteyn - a vast number of important names from the ballet world and beyond. We don't know how accurate and unbiased these views are. It's not wise to read any biography as the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but they provide an overall picture.

From her early days - she danced Odette at sixteen, Giselle at seventeen - we follow her progress to her huge personal triumph in New York in 1949, and her subsequent place at the head of the head of the Royal Ballet. Challenges from other dancers were largely thwarted, not only by Fonteyn's greater artistry, but by the determination of de Valois, Ashton and Lambert, her lover for eight years. She had numerous love affairs, of varying length and depth. Her marriage at the age of 35 to Roberto Arias proved a very mixed blessing - he was a serial philanderer, and involved his politically naive wife in his dubious political schemes, giving her an unlikely involvement with revolution, guns and hand grenades. Through him she encountered Imelda Marcos, Noriega and Pinochet, and appears to have been quite unaware of their doubtful morality.

Hardback book cover
© Viking 2004

And then - there was Nureyev. Those of us who saw those early performances will never forget the impact of this pairing. It was ultimate theatre. At this point the press speculation became feverish. Were they lovers? Does it matter? Well, no, it doesn't, because, as Daneman memorably if extravagantly puts it, "rapture has a realm outside the bedroom", and we saw it onstage.

As we know, her career lasted longer than anyone expected. She had been on the point of divorcing the unworthy Arias when he was shot and paralysed: now she became fanatically loyal. Her devotion increased to the point of martyrdom, and she finished her life caring for him on their remote and simple farm in Panama. He died, her mother died, Ashton died. Nureyev had Aids, Fonteyn developed a particularly nasty cancer. The end of her life, and of the book, seems desperately sad.

If, in the end, we have no very clear picture of her personality, it is not through any major failing on Daneman's part. Though it would be unfair to say that Fonteyn had little character of her own - she was tenacious, dutiful, intensely feminine - she was ultimately a dancer formed by other people, a page to be be written upon. She remains elusive. Nevertheless, this book seems to me to be as complete a picture as we are likely to have of the greatest ballerina England has ever produced. It is of unfailing interest, highly readable, and I welcome it.

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