An Icon of Classical Ballet, Her Intimate Secrets Exposed

Margot Fonteyn: A Life, by Meredith Daneman. Viking, 654 pages, $32.95.

Margot Fonteyn loved to dance, and she was perfectly fashioned by nature and temperament for the physical rigors, fiendish politics and unforgiving geometry of ballet. A member of the London company that became the Royal Ballet from its beginnings in the early 1930’s until the mid-70’s, Fonteyn triumphed in the 19th-century evening-length classics- The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and, ultimately, Giselle-and she was Frederick Ashton’s muse for much of his career.

Audiences around the world (and especially in New York, which she took by storm as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty when the Royal made its debut at the old Met in 1949) associated Fonteyn with eternal youth and a kind of untouchable purity. Among 20th-century ballerinas, only Anna Pavlova and Galina Ulanova inspired similar rapture and devotion on such a scale, and for similar reasons: The dedication to the art was relentless and unswerving; the dance effects were simple, large and exact; and, perhaps most important, each gave the sense that she was opening herself up from the inside-that, in the dancing, one saw the essence of who she was. Although all were showcased in virtuoso roles, none of them could be said to be a bravura dancer. The mystique was built on the illusion of being an utterly transparent presence.

During a century of world war and genocide, Fonteyn, Pavlova and Ulanova stirred millions of people into an hour or two of belief that some element of life transcended the material and behavioral. Ballet hasn’t produced anyone quite like them in several decades, and in our world now so inhospitable to notions of transcendence, it may never again.

Transcendence, in Fonteyn’s case, began with her stage name, adopted when she joined classes at Sadler’s Wells at the age of 14. She was born Margaret Evelyn Hookham (nicknamed Peggy), in London, to a father with a lower-middle-class background and a mother of Irish and Brazilian ancestry that included an aristocratic branch. Some of her early childhood was spent in Tientsin, China, where her father had been sent by the British American Tobacco Company, for which he was second-in-command to an engineer, and where Peggy began to study character dancing, which she adored, and Russian ballet.

She and her mother eventually returned to London, where Peggy continued her ballet studies privately. Then she entered the Sadler’s Wells School, where, despite her various technical weaknesses, she was immediately spotted by the school’s founder, Ninette de Valois, who prized her qualities of animal stillness and classical rectitude and considered her to be the ideal raw material for forging the attendant company’s first and central prima ballerina. Thanks to her steely demonstration of patriotism during the bombardments of the Second World War (during which she performed ceaselessly, sometimes when sick, regardless of the air-raid alerts and miserable touring conditions), Fonteyn became a national heroine. Even if she hadn’t also pursued-and achieved-her personal ambition to be the greatest ballerina of her time, she would be extolled in England today.

Outside the theater-where Fonteyn was a moral force for order, obedience and quiet professionalism-she led an intensely bohemian existence into her early 30’s, taking a stream of lovers, one or two of whom she permitted to change her perspective on art.

In the 1950’s, having ensured that she would never have children, she married the Panamanian lawyer, playboy and erstwhile revolutionary Roberto (Tito) Arias, burning or giving away most of her possessions that betrayed any evidence of a life prior to her marriage.

In the early 1960’s, when she was in her 40’s, her partnership with Rudolf Nureyev conferred another decade and a half of energy on her for performing. At the age of 60, she more or less retired from the stage. After a brief final engagement with her audience through her idiosyncratic and completely charming television series, The Magic of Dance, she was gone from the view of the larger public. Following the death of Arias (who treated her very badly, it turned out, like most of her male companions), she lived on the ranch they’d shared in Panama. Her prolonged death, from cancer, wasted her body and robbed her of her self-control at times; however, as someone who interviewed her during a trip she made to New York in her last year, I can attest that even when she was wracked with pain, she was capable of curiosity, unique dignity and a smile that broke one’s heart.

In addition to a long and illustrious career as a dancer, Fonteyn was also a writer. She produced an autobiography (which, like many dancers’ memoirs prior to the 1970’s, leaves out a great deal about her offstage life), a lively and captivating personal history of dance, a tribute to Pavlova and several books about classic ballets for children. All of her writing is marked by tremendous restraint and dignity, by a velvety and highly accessible imagination, and by a suggestion of unspoken depth. And yet only one of her books-a children’s book about the ballet Coppélia-remains in print. Aside from some rather good films of the ballerina dancing, almost nothing, then, exists commercially to represent her own sense of self. In our era, the afterlife of this beloved icon of classical ballet is largely dependent for its existence on the kindness of strangers.

Biographers, however-even adoring ones-have a different, if parallel task: honesty. Meredith Daneman’s 654-page life of Fonteyn, some 10 years in preparation, is not a book that this most private of ballerinas would have countenanced. It provides just about all the details that Fonteyn suppressed: It nails the evasions and fills in the omissions in her memoirs; it takes her to task for her moments of insensitivity; it names her lovers; it exposes the cruelties to other dancers that de Valois dealt out in order to promote Fonteyn as the company’s prima. Through the gossip of the composer Constant Lambert, and through an interview with Fonteyn’s physician, it even invades her body to give us a history of her reproductive organs and an assessment of her prowess at Kegel exercises. In a few (unfootnoted) passages, it attempts to explain what Fonteyn was thinking during a moment of stress; and many of its paragraphs begin with little lectures by the author about what she (a former dancer trained in the Royal Ballet School) understands as the verities of dancers’ interior lives. Furthermore, since it doesn’t try to animate her performances, it omits the one thing that would have made it irreplaceable as a service to future balletomanes: a list of Fonteyn’s roles, with information about her collaborators, the dates of premieres, tours-the kind of map that would instantly convey the shape of a celebrated career.

And yet the book is undeniably riveting. The narrative is tightly plotted (Ms. Daneman has published four novels), the writing gracious, informed and often wise, the pacing positively masterful. Ms. Daneman offers extra-theatrical context (such as the condition of the Netherlands when Sadler’s Wells toured there during the Nazi invasion) that’s helpful and surely the result of considerable research, which the writer wears lightly. And one finds many illuminating passages on the public and theatrical identity that Fonteyn, with iron-willed determination and almost monastic self-discipline, constructed for herself from childhood. Thanks to access to an unpublished memoir by Fonteyn’s mother, Ms. Daneman’s pins down the shifts of power in Fonteyn’s relationship with her formidable parent-a relationship essential to the development of her career.

Ms. Daneman conducted extensive interviews with Fonteyn’s friends, family and colleagues, and their candor gives the biography a magnetic authority. It offers superb information about Fonteyn’s innate gifts for dance and her training. It provides an authoritative account of the early decades of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and a brilliant one of Fonteyn’s development there through the 1970’s. Especially remarkable are the word portraits of the most important men in Fonteyn’s adult life and career-Ashton; Lambert; her husband, Tito Arias; her early partners on- and offstage, Michael Somes and Robert Helpmann; and Rudolf Nureyev, the catalyst for her renewal as a dancer facing retirement.

Perhaps Meredith Daneman’s finest triumph as a biographer is her ability to show Fonteyn’s genius for making her own happiness-for seizing life in circumstances so daunting that many people would find them positively bleak. Margot Fonteyn: A Life may not be the book that Fonteyn would have wanted, yet it is the book our moment needs and is prepared to understand.

Mindy Aloff is a columnist for The Dance View Times ( An Icon of Classical Ballet, Her Intimate Secrets Exposed