My Connection to Margot Fonteyn

My headline may have you fooled into thinking that I have any sort of personal relationship with Margot Fonteyn. Well, in that case I have succeeded ūüėČ

To say that I have a connection with her is actually not that far-fetched, even though such a connection is not personal.

What ties me to this prima ballerina absoluta, who still is very much alive in many balletomanes’ hearts, are two vintage items that I have collected.

The first can be considered my favorite piece of ballet memorabilia¬†in my meager collection: An autographed copy of “The Magic of Dance,” written by Fonteyn herself.

The Magic of Dance by Margot Fonteyn - © www.balletomanehk.com

I acquired this book a few years ago from someone who apparently did not know who Fonteyn is, and was thus selling the book on eBay at an extremely reasonable price. I was pleasantly surprised to find the ballerina’s¬†autograph in the book as well as a pamphlet for a luncheon held in London to mark the publication of this book. Whenever I look at her autograph and touch the title page, a special kind of awe springs from deep inside me. Unfortunately, the pamphlet has been lost during a recent move. Luckily I have scanned the cover. I remember the inside spread shows the rest of the guest list as well as a seating plan.

The Magic of Dance Luncheon Pamphlet - © www.balletomanehk.com
In the book, there are a few lovely pictures of the dancer herself, including one taken inside the Drottningholm Theatre in Stockholm (which I had the great opportunity to visit one time), one in Shanghai and one in Athens. She wrote about dance history and all forms of dances in the book, not just ballet. Not surprisingly, one can find quite a lot of photos of her dance partner Rudolph Nureyev. This book has a special place on my bookshelf and in my heart.

The other item I want to share with you is a¬†vintage ballet postcard showing¬†Margot Fonteyn as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Act I. On the back of the postcard, a beautifully handwritten message says: “June 16, 1953 Covent Garden,¬†‘Sylvia’ Sadlers Wells Ballet. Margot Fonteyn – Sylvia, Michael Somes – Aminta. Beautiful setting and decor. Superlative dancing by both of the “stars” – also, by John Hart (Orion) and Alexander Grant (Eros). The group dancing was also near perfection.”

There is something magical in reading someone’s handwritten note that summarizes a ballet performance in such earnestness, albeit in great brevity. The magic lies in the nostalgia of a bygone era. Today, most people would not take the time to do this sort of thing. A selfie inside the theater, a short status update on Facebook or a review on a blog are the most common ways to record our experience at the dance theater. But a handwritten note on a postcard? This just feels so much more tactile, more real. Not a bad idea to revive this practice, eh?

Margot Fonteyn in Sleeping Beauty, 1953 - www.balletomanehk.com

Today, it is not difficult to find tons of digital images of ballet stars past and present. But owning a postcard like this helps to shorten the distance between me and the dancer. This postcard is framed and sitting on my desk, and Margot Fonteyn continues to inspire me with her beauty, grace, elegance and strength.

What are your favorite ballet memorabilia? I would love to hear from you.

Related article:

Margot Fonteyn Autobiography

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Ballet Photography: My Eclectic Picks

Photo by Enrico Nawrath

Photo by Enrico Nawrath

(Note: Each photographer’s name, photo project and book is hyperlinked to the relevant website. The link appears in¬†dark¬†brown but may not be obvious on your screen. Please click if you are interested to explore further.)

In a recent post named “Saving Ballet” on his blog “A Ballet Education,” David King listed a number of excellent and well-known ballet photographers who, thanks to the rigor of their¬†skillful representation of the¬†ephemeral art form and through the efficient propagation on social media, have helped to resuscitate ballet and even cultivated a new audience who would otherwise not become aware of it at all.

Photo by Stephanie Ma

Photo by Stephanie Ma

Besides the many ballet photography projects, such as Ballerina Project and NYC Dance Project, based in New York, and Ballet Zaider, based in Los Angeles, I would like to¬†name a few photographers in my neck of the woods who are perhaps not so widely appreciated but worth a mention simply because they represent the ballet community where I live: Conrad E. Dy-Liacco‘s photos of dancers at Hong Kong Ballet and¬†Stephanie Ma‘s photos of Hong Kong dancers and dance students.

Outside of the United States, check out the work of Simone Ghera. Ghera is an architect with an interest in dance photography. His pictures connect dance and architecture. With his project Dancer Inside, he toured several major European cities, and has worked with ballet dancers in major iconic buildings in each city he visits (article).

In Germany, I like the ballet photos of, Enrico Nawrath, a former professional dancer turned photographer who shoots  for National Ballet Berlin and is known for his works of naked and half-naked portraits of ballet dancers.

Stanislav Belyaevsky

Photo by Stanislav Belyaevsky

Russian photographer Nikolai Krusser is also one of my favorites. I think his onstage and backstage shots of ballets such as Swan Lake and Giselle are so good that they really capture the “ghostlike,” ethereal quality of these “white ballets.” Another photography, a former Kirov (Mariinsky) ballet dancer¬†Stanislav Belyaevsky, is well-known for his photos of Vaganova Academy, which have, among other works of his, wowed ballet students around the world with the beauty and rigor of the Russian dancers’ form and technique.

So far I have mentioned but one female photographer, but here is notable one: Spanish-born former soloist¬†of National Ballet Berlin,¬†Maria-Helena¬†Buckley. The way she captures ballet has a distinct feminine sensitivity and energy to it… hard to explain, but if you are a woman you’d probably detect it right away.

Akira Enzeru

Photo by Akira Enzeru

A relatively little known photographer but whose work I love, is Romanian artist¬†Akira Enzeru. I’d use “unusual” and “daring” to describe his work. He uses unconventional concepts, setting and environment for his outdoor ballet shots, the results of which are often surprising and humorous. ¬†He also seems to enjoy doing a lot of nude photography, some of which uses ballet dancers as models.

In the United States, most people know about¬†Gene Schiavone through his work for the American Ballet Theater, but equally impressive and perhaps more fluid and spontaneous in style is the work by award-winning photographer Richard Calmes, who have published two volumes of dance photography, “Dance Magic” and “Lines and Leaps.”

Another photographer’s work who may send a warm and fuzzy feeling¬†through¬†your body—and sometimes makes you gasp with disbelief—is that of Jordan Mather. His¬†carefully and painstakingly planned photos of dancers leaping and flying in the air in mostly urban landscapes can be found in his new book “Dancers Among Us.”

Another dance photographer whose work has impressed me a lot is Jes√ļs Armand. The¬†Brooklyn and Boston-based multimedia artist ¬†and former contemporary ballet dancer has taken a great deal of¬†single-exposure photos of some of the world’s top ballet dancers. He cleverly¬†used a single, long exposure for each set of ballet movements in order to present the idea of¬†continuous¬†movement rather than a frozen moment in time and space (For photos, see ¬†his¬†Kickstarter campaign for Esprit de Corp¬†a year ago).

Also doing long-exposure shots is Brooklyn-based Bill Wadman. See and read about his slow-mo dance photos in this article.

I’ll be posting another article about dance photography from the viewpoint of our local dance photographer, Stephanie Ma, soon. Stay tuned.

Book Review: ‘Dancing Through It’ by Jenifer Ringer

Dancing-Through-It

Jenifer Ringer, of “Sugar Plumgate” fame and who just retired from her long career with the New York City Ballet, came out with her memoir, “Dancing Through It,” at about the same time as Misty Copeland published her mid-career autobiography, “Life in Motion.” Both dancers faced incredible challenges and hardships in their careers with two top-tier ballet companies in the United States. While Copeland’s big obstacle has been racial discrimination, Ringer’s great stumbling block was eating disorder.

I still remember back in 2010 when the subject of Ringer’s non-existence weight gain issue was blown up by a New York Times dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, who criticized the principal dancer for having “eaten one Sugar Plum too many.” This critique set in motion a sleuth of debates on TV as well as on social media, with lots of ballet fans and non-ballet fans joining in to defend Ringer.

I recall looking at the beautiful dancer while she was being interviewed by¬†Today’s Show‘s host Ann Curry. Nowhere¬†could I find evidence of this extra sugar plum on ¬†her lean body. “How cruel this dance critic was!” I thought. Ringer gave graceful and well-versed replies to Curry’s questions.

At that time, I didn’t know that Ringer had already gone through¬†a few years of eating disorder and depression in the early stage of her career. In this memoir, she chronicled her entire career and took us through the events that led to her weight issues.

We all know that eating disorder is not a rare occurrence in ballet companies—partly due to the demand by the companies themselves on how their dancers should have that specific “ballerina look,” which often means not just lean and long limped but also a kind of boyish figure. This is especially true at New York City Ballet, whose founder, George Balanchine, was known to prefer this kind of “ideal body” to the more womanly figure. However, what actually goes through the minds of the dancers themselves when they are given the pressure not only to achieve technical and artistic perfection but also to keep their bodies so thin that it borders at a point where the strength of the bones won’t support the body weight safely?

Ringer gives us a very detailed look into how she descended from one of NYCB’s up and coming stars to someone who was too heavy to fit into any tutus—and dancing roles for that matter. What I find interesting is that her anorexic behavior was the only way she knew to be able to help her gain any sort of control over a highly stressful life where she could not control the outcomes. She became a professional ballerina at the tender age of 16 and was plunged into the strict demands of the ballet world without any psychological preparation. She was that “perfect girl” who was best in school and was pretty and proper (a Southern ideal) and was “supposed” to have no problems whatsoever. So when life dealt her a big blow, when the ballet master signaled to her that she needed to lose weight, it was a moment of truth that stroke hard, leaving her with little self defense.

Through a long journey—in her case, going back to her Christian faith¬†and, later on, meeting and marrying a fellow dancer James Fayette—she healed herself of the emotional trauma caused by the eating disorder. So when “Sugar Plumgate” happened, she was actually strong enough to face the “attack.” Better still, she was able to transcend her personal problems to become an inspirational force for women—dancers or not—who were struggling with the issue of body image and eating disorder.

Here is a poignant passage about the painful perfectionist conundrum ballet dancers face:

“…our life is spent seeking perfection and correcting infinitesimal errors of line or technique. If something about our dancing is good, we ignore it because it will take care of itself. We fixate on the parts that are wrong. Ask a dancer what her weaknesses are, and she will be able to give you an immediate and very detailed list. Ask a dancer about her strengths, and she has to pause and think about it.”

After reading her book, I actually feel glad that I never entered the ballet profession. I wouldn’t have been able to pass¬†such rigorous tests and would probably have gone through worse nightmares¬†than Ringer did! I have had a close shave with eating disorder and have been struggling with weight issues and body image ever since I was a teenager. Ringer’s story really inspires me. I relate to her spiritual growth as a source of strength, even though I do not relate to her Christian faith. I think if we put aside the religious aspect—which may turn some readers off but which she took the risk to lay it out on the table—her story still serves as a great inspiration for anyone with the same struggles that she went through.

Since the “Sugar Plumgate,” there have been a greater¬†awareness in society on¬†the¬†body image¬†issue, with more discussions leading¬†to a gradual liberation for women from the impossibilities¬†of what the society—or the ballet world in the dancer’s case—deem “ideal.”

See the following articles on artistic endeavors and social movements related to body image:

 

Embracing Fear

Photo by Jordan Matter

The photos of Jordan Matter, New York-based portrait and dance photographer, are well known within the dance community. Recently I purchased his newly published collection of dance photography, “Dancers Among Us” and am really enjoying the stunning images, each one being meticulously choreographed and executed with great patience and skill. But what surprised me most was not the unusual visuals. It was the little stories about the photographer’s family life preceding each chapter that presented me with an element of philosophical delight.

For example, in the section of “Exploring,” Matter wrote about his young son Hudson’s experience of fear when he was faced with the prospect of a baby sister being born as his mother went into labor. “I’m a little scared,” Hudson said.

And the author’s response?

I had no idea how to alleviate a fear that I couldn’t comprehend. I picked him up and held him in my lap, and we sat in silence. He’s never been one to like cuddling very much, but that morning he wrapped his arms around my neck and gripped me for dear life.

After spending a few days with his new sister, the cloud lifted. Hudson was excited. Buoyant. Relieved. Out of nowhere, he looked up at me and said, “I am not sacred anymore. I thought that when my sister came, I would have to be a big boy. But I’m not a big boy; I’m just a big brother.”

He had been faced with a new reality for which he felt unprepared, and the mystery had frightened him. This may be one of life’s greatest struggles. Often we fear the unknown’s when we could be anticipating its rewards.

The last sentence really tells the essence of what fear is about. It is when we take the plunge and step into the unknown—embrace the uneasiness and the feeling that we might possibly fail, fall or die—that the greatest irony might be awaiting us on the other side, the irony of sweet rewards.

Book Review: ‘Life in Motion’ by Misty Copeland

A-Life-in-Motion

The first and only black soloist to ever grace the stage in the American Ballet Theater’s history has come out with her mid-career autobiography, “Life in Motion: an Unlikely Ballerina.” I pre-ordered it just in time to arrive before my surgery last month and gobbled it up quickly as I lied in my hospital bed, recuperating. It turned out to be a wonderful choice–a fantastically written account of the stormy childhood that Copeland experienced, moving from one stepfather to another, from motel to motel, having hardly enough to eat, and finally stumbling into a ballet class at the age of 13 without really knowing what ballet was all about.

As fate had it, Copeland found herself plunged into the magical world of classical ballet. To her surprise, she was told that she had the natural physique and talent for this “foreign” art form. Within three weeks of training she was en pointe–and doing it well; and within a few short years she started dancing professionally for ABT, her dream company. The road from there on was not all smooth and glittery. Quite the contrary. Reading her struggles was heart-wrenching, to say the least. At the same time it gave me a great sense of encouragement. My struggles could hardly match hers, although it would be unfair to have any kind of comparison as I am not in the professional ballet world–only an amateur adult¬†student. Still, having just had a major surgery, not knowing when my body would be back in shape again to step into the ballet studio, her perseverance through one hardship after another gave me tremendous¬†inspiration.

In the book she has written in great length what it takes to be a true ballerina. Here is one of my favorite passages:

“It takes so many things to be a great ballerina: talent, strength, the ability to pick up choreography and then turn on an inner light when you perform. Having the right combination is the difference between being an artist who can capture the nuances of light in a watercolor and one who paints by number. I don’t think that most people realize that.”

Most of us ballet students and dancers have a rough idea of what it takes to become a professional dancer. However, I think few of us have any real idea of how much harder it is to be black in this predominantly white world of classical ballet. I thought I knew–until I read this book. Nothing prepared me for the kind of hardship Copeland had gone through.

I will leave you the reader to find out the details from her book. But let me just finish off this review with another passage that I like:

“I rarely get angry when I think about my childhood, wishing for what we could have been if we’d had more of a nurturing home environment. It made us all strong fighters, primed to push through the toughest of struggles. But I do get frustrated with people who experienced relatively ideal lives and yet don’t appreciate what they’ve had. Performing with ABT, I have sometimes overheard my dance mates complaining about going to the same vacation spot with their families, going on and on about how they’d rather be sunbathing than rehearsing, or how bad we have it at ABT versus City Ballet, or some other inconsequential thing. I would think about all that I had been through, what I had to navigate and overcome to stand on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera. What are these people fussing about?

Even though I do not relate to her particular experience as a professional dancer, I do relate to her feeling of appreciation of having become a stronger person through pushing through a lot of tough struggles. It is here where I find the greatest resonance.

Related articles:

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Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo Catalog

Ballets Russes Catalog

In my meager vintage collection of ballet memorabilia,there is an original “Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo” playbill/catalog for the season 1938-1939. L√©onide Massine was the artistic director for the company, which was run by S. Hurok at that time.

It’s interesting to see the important role ballet played in entertaining the people in that era. Ballet dancers seemed to be regarded the same way as glamorous movie stars and enjoyed the status of celebrities. ¬†In the top right corner of the collage, you can see a picture¬†of Alexandra Danilova sitting next to Salvador Dali; in the picture below, you can see Dali and Henri Matisse in a rehearsal, where Massine was present as well. Some of the big head shots of ballerinas look like those black-and-white portraits of actresses in the golden Hollywood era, while others look a bit like pin-up portraits.

Besides photos of dancers, paintings of costumes and set designs, and synopses of the ballets being performed during the season, there are many advertisements throughout the catalog, selling perfumes, cosmetics, department stores, restaurants, hotels and even apartments. In addition, there are smaller ads of dance schools, books and magazines.

Through the synopses of the ballets, one can discern the high level of creativity and productivity at that period–and prior to that, during the time of the original Ballets Russes of¬†Sergei Diaghilev.

To give you a glimpse of the diversity of the repertoire, here are some of the various numbers listed in the catalog:

  • “L’Epreuve d’Amour, or the Chung-Yang and the Mandarin”, a ballet in one act designed by Andre Derain and Michel Fokine in a “chinoiserie” spirit, set against the “pseudo-Chinese” scores of Mozart (once lost but rediscovered in the 1930’s). For a Chinese, this theme is very intriguing and I would really love to see this one being performed today!
  • “St. Francis” (American premiere), choreographic legend in one act and five scenes, music by Paul Hindemith, choreography by L√©onide¬†Massine.
  • “Le Beau Danube,” music by Johann Strauss, story and choreography by L√©onide¬†Massine.
  • “Les Elfes,” ballet in one act, music by Mendelssohn, choreography by Michel Fokine.
  • “Coppelia ou La Fille Aux Yeud D’Email” (Coppelia or the Girl with the Enamel Eyes), ballet in three acts, music by L√©o Delibes, choreography by Nicholas Sergueff after Ivanov and M√©rante.
  • “Icare,” choreographic legend in one act, choreography by Serge Lifar, percussion arrangement by J. E. Szyfer.
  • “Don Juan,” choreographic tragi-comedy in three tableaux after G. Angiolini, music by Gluck, new version by Eric Allatini and Michel Fokine.
  • “The Seventh Symphony,” music by Beethoven, theme and choreography by L√©onide Massine.

Sometimes I’d dream of living in the early 1900’s so I could watch the dancers of Les Ballets Russes perform live, and partake in the excitement of the constant creation of new works for a wide-eyed audience that was not yet blas√©.

Margot Fonteyn Autobiography

“Margot Fonteyn Autobiography” (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1976)

Fonteyn Autobiography Collage

In Fonteyn’s autobiography, her voice reflects a cheerful personality, always looking at the world with a sense of innocent wonder, gratitude and humor. Sure enough the Prima Ballerina Absoluta had endured much hardship in her life, ranging from her physical pain as a result of dancing so much and so hard, to the tough marriage with¬†her Panamanian politician husband who was shot in a coup d’etat and became paralyzed the rest of his life. Seldom do we hear any whining or complaints from her account. I imagine her to be an extraordinarily strong woman. I was a little surprised she did not give as much coverage on her relationship with Rudolph Nureyev, her epic stage partner, as I expected. But we did get a good glimpse of how it was for her to work with the many male dance partners she had throughout her long and luminous career.

Being a Chinese, I especially enjoyed reading her accounts of her early life in Shanghai and Tianjin! She even visited Hong Kong in her childhood and met a tall Norwegian in Repulse Bay who told her all about Russian ballet. Here is an excerpt:

“The following summer that I spent on the beach in Hong Kong was the most important of my childhood because I literally lived in the sea from morning till night, swimming and diving until water was the most natural element for me to inhabit. A tall Norwegian, who had spent several years as a diplomat in Russia before the Revolution, was my great friend. He was a handsome man, big-boned but lean and well-preserved with the blue eyes of a sailor, and he loved dancing. At every tea dance in the Repulse Bay Hotel we waltzed and foxtrotted and danced the paso doble, he so tall and me a little shrimp of eleven years, but in perfect harmony. I could say it was my first dancing partnership. He had loved the ballet in St. Petersburg and Moscow, knew about all the ballerinas and talked to me for hours on the beach about Tamara Karsavina in Sleeping Beauty. My uninformed mind could not visualize the delights he was describing, as I did not know at that time what a big ballet company was. Many years later I danced in Oslo, where I got a letter that said: “I wonder can the famous Margot Fonteyn be the little Peggy I used to know in Hong Kong?” Enclosed was a snapshot of us sitting together on the beach, and written across the back were the words, This is Peggy, she swims like a fish and dances like a ballerina. It was dated Summer, 1930.”

¬†I was surprised to hear about Fonteyn’s insecurity regarding her technique and performances. In fact, she had to overcome some physical limitations in order to dance properly. Her humility is something that I did not expect of a Prima Ballerina Absoluta and a Dame.

Overall, a really enjoyable book.