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

A Celebration of Older Dancers

Obscure Temptations, one of Jiri Kyli√°n’s creations for NDTIII ¬†

World-renown Czechoslovak-born¬†dance choreographer Jiri Kyli√°n¬†will be celebrating his artistic creation¬†for dancers over 40 during the Kyli√°n Festival at the brand-new Korzo Theatre under the theme “All Ages Dance.” The festival¬†runs from May 22 to 31, 2014.

The¬†company, Nederlands Dans Theater III, was founded by Kyli√°n in the early 1990s to¬†incorporate¬†dancers over 40—who are typically considered past their “prime.” Going against the grain,¬†Kyli√°n believes that we should all be able to dance “from the womb to the tomb”:

Through my long-time experience as a dancer, choreographer and artistic director, and through my encounters with East Asian cultures and the Australian aboriginal people, I have learned that we possess the ability to dance throughout our entire life and that it should be treasured and respected –¬†Yes, we are able to dance ‚ÄúFrom the womb to the tomb‚ÄĚ….!

What a refreshing and heart-warming message for older dancers like me, even though I am just an amateur.

Despite this encouraging development in the professional dance community, it still irks me that there are no over-40 professional dance company that showcases classical ballet—in a way that does not highlight the virtuosity of technique and great extension but emphasizes the grace and musicality of movements that are suitable for the dancer’s age and physical ability. Sure, there are individual ballet dancers who continue to dance professionally after 40. But is there a professional classical ballet company with dancers over 40 exclusively? Please enlighten me if there is!

Perhaps it is a laughable idea. The demand of classical ballet requires so much of dancers that one of the main reasons dancers retire after 40+ is that their bodies can no longer take it anymore. But what if choreographers adapt their works to suit older dancers? It’s not a matter of watering down movements, but showcasing what the dancers can express by whatever physical facility they have?

Choreographers may consider emulating what¬†Sir Frederick Ashton had done for¬†Margot Fonteyn toward the end of her career. He created the ballet¬†Salut d’Amour¬†for her to perform on her 60th birthday. It would be unfair to judge her dancing with the same kind of technique and extension expected of a 20-year-old. Yet, look at her! How expressive! What grace! What beauty!

Related articles:

Jiri Kyli√°n on All Ages Dance

Jiri Kylian Starts a Company for Dancers Young at Heart

Here is the Kyli√°n Festival program

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.

Anna Pavlova and Turned-in Legs

Anna Pavlova

Ballet dancers have this obsession about turnout‚Ķ or worse, that ‚Äúperfect‚ÄĚ 180-degree turnout that is so elusive and unattainable for most of us. But has anybody ever noticed how turned in the legendary Anna Pavlova was? And none of that diminished her artistry and dramatic appeal by even a tiny bit. Just read this passage which describes how Rudolph Nureyev liked the turned-in aesthetics:

“Rudolph has always admired the beauty of Merle [Park]‚Äôs legs ‚ÄĒ slim and turned in like Pavlova‚Äôs, with the same highly arched insteps‚Ķ” (“Rudolph Nureyev, The Life” by Julie Kavanagh, Penguin 2007).

In the following video, you will be able to see some rare footage of Pavlova dancing solos. Listen to what the program host, Margot Fonteyn, said about Pavlova‚Äôs dancing: ‚ÄúPavlova disregarded pure ballet technique. When it suited her it was only because she was interested in being expressive. Virtuosity had no purpose unless it served the purpose of dance. And yet at the same time, she had the speed and strength which would be hard to equal today.‚ÄĚ

Cheers to turned-in legs and expressive dancing!