The Art of Pleasing

The stories of most great ballerinas, however different their temperaments, are basically the same. They start preparing professionally as children; their lives are ruthlessly and narrowly concentrated on their work; they have a mother to nurture them, fight for them; they inspire a powerful creative personality, who then shapes them (Pavlova had Petipa; Karsavina had Fokine; a dozen or more, from Danilova and Toumanova to Farrell and McBride, had Balanchine); and they find themselves in their forties either finished or hanging on precariously—ballerinas don’t age gracefully into character roles and grandmother roles, the way talented actresses can. And they share a quality that, late in life, Margot Fonteyn identified as the one that “has helped me most”: tenacity.

The life of Fonteyn, the most celebrated ballerina of the twentieth century after Pavlova, fits all these circumstances almost to the point of exaggeration. She not only started studying at the usual early age, but she was thrust into tremendous responsibility, as the leading dancer of the young Sadler’s Wells Ballet, when still in her mid-teens. She not only had a famously devoted and levelheaded biological mother, known to one and all as BQ, or the Black Queen (after a character in the chess ballet Checkmate), she had a second ballet mother in the formidable, all-powerful Ninette de Valois—“Madame”—founder and absolute ruler of Sadler’s Wells, who never wavered from her conviction that little Peggy Hookham, quickly renamed Margot Fonteyn, was the Chosen One. She not only became the muse of one of the greatest of choreographers, Frederick Ashton, but late in her career she found in Rudolf Nureyev a second if very different artistic inspiration. And although she was preparing to retire early in her forties, her connection with Nureyev revitalized her and kept her going past sixty, still in demand even if sadly diminished.

As for tenacity, she overcame what she herself called “no elevation, no extension, no instep and feeble pirouettes”; she blossomed under the draconian conditions of having to give nine performances a week in wartime England; she gamely endured the humiliations her marriage provided, and heroically coped when an assassin’s bullets left her husband a quadriplegic. And she faced a painful death with a fortitude that we can only marvel at.

But it was not only the extraordinary breadth of her career and the drama of her personal life that set her apart from her coevals, or the exceptional beauty and purity of her performances, her early technical weaknesses long forgotten or forgiven in light of her perfection of line, her exquisite proportions, her unerring musicality, and her profound identification with her roles. It was the charm she radiated, the lovability, that made her so cherished by audiences for more than four decades. As Lincoln Kirstein once remarked, “Of all the century’s ballerinas, Margot Fonteyn most embodied the art of pleasing.” Her hold on her audience was exceptionally personal, which should guarantee an eager response to the new biography, Margot Fonteyn: A Life, at least ten years in…

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