Margot Fonteyn

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Dame Margot Fonteyn, DBE
Margot Fonteyn - 1960s.jpg
Margot Fonteyn in the 1960s
Born Margaret Evelyn Hookham
(1919-05-18)18 May 1919
Reigate, Surrey, England, UK
Died 21 February 1991(1991-02-21) (aged 71)
Panama City, Panama
Cause of death Cancer
Resting place Panama
Nationality British
Occupation Ballerina
Employer Royal Ballet
Known for Ballet
Title Prima ballerina assoluta
Spouse(s) Roberto Arias

Dame Margot Fonteyn de Arias, DBE (18 May 1919 – 21 February 1991), was an English ballerina.[1] She is widely regarded as one of the greatest classical ballet dancers of all time. She spent her entire career as a dancer with The Royal Ballet, eventually being appointed Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the company by Queen Elizabeth II.

Early life

Fonteyn was born Margaret Evelyn Hookham on 18 May 1919 in Reigate, Surrey to a British father and a half-Irish half-Brazilian mother. Her mother's father was a Brazilian industrialist Antonio Fontes. Very early in her career Margaret transformed "Fontes" into "Fonteyn" (a surname her brother also adopted) and Margaret into Margot. Among her father's family were people in literature and music, but he was an engineer.[2]

At four years of age her mother signed her up for ballet classes with her older brother. At age eight, Margot made the long journey to China with her mother and father, who had taken employment with a tobacco company there; her brother Felix remained at his school. For six years Margot lived in TianJin, then Shanghai, where she studied ballet with Russian émigré teacher George Goncharov. Her mother brought her back to London when she was 14, to pursue a ballet career. Continuing to work in Shanghai, her father was interned during World War II by the invading Japanese.[3]

In 1933 she joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, the predecessor of today's Royal Ballet School, training under the direction of Ninette de Valois and such teachers as Olga Preobrajenska and Mathilde Kschessinska [Krzesinska]. After starting with the Vic-Wells Ballet, she rose quickly through the ranks of the company. By 1939, Fonteyn had performed principal roles in Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty and was appointed Prima Ballerina. She was most noted in the ballets of Sir Frederick Ashton, including Ondine, Daphnis and Chloe, and Sylvia. She was especially renowned for her portrayal of Aurora in Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty. (Televised versions of Sleeping Beauty and Ashton's version of Cinderella are now available on DVD). Fonteyn also worked with choreographer Roland Petit and, later in life, Martha Graham. In 1949 when the Royal Ballet toured the United States, Fonteyn instantly became a celebrity for her performances.[4]

Stage partners

Nureyev and Fonteyn in La Bayadère

In the 1940s she and Robert Helpmann formed a very successful dance partnership, and they toured together for several years. In the 1950s, she danced regularly with Michael Somes (they had first danced together in 1938, when they created Constant Lambert's Horoscope). In 1955 they danced together in the first ever colour telecast of a ballet, NBC's production of The Sleeping Beauty. In 1958 they appeared together in the first British televised version of The Nutcracker. She named him the favourite partner of her entire career.[citation needed]

Fonteyn began her greatest artistic partnership at a time when many people (including the head of the Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois) thought she was about to retire. In 1961, Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West, and on 21 February 1962 he and Fonteyn first performed together in Giselle. She was 42 and he was 24. Their performance was a great success; during the curtain calls Nureyev dropped to his knees and kissed Fonteyn's hand. They created an on-and-offstage partnership that lasted until her retirement in 1979 at age 61, and were lifelong friends. Fonteyn and Nureyev became known for inspiring repeated frenzied curtain calls and bouquet tosses. Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed Marguerite and Armand for them, which no other couple danced until the 21st century. They debuted Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, although MacMillan had conceived the ballet for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable. Fonteyn and Nureyev appeared together in the filmed versions of MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, and the Le Corsaire Pas de Deux.[citation needed]

Despite differences in background and temperament, and a 19-year gap in ages, Nureyev and Fonteyn became close lifelong friends and were famously loyal to each other. Fonteyn would not approve an unflattering photograph of Nureyev. He said about her:

"At the end of 'Lac des Cygnes' when she left the stage in her great white tutu I would have followed her to the end of the world."

The extent of their physical relationship remains unclear; Nureyev said that they had one, while Fonteyn denied it. Her biographer Meredith Daneman agreed with Nureyev.[5] The duo remained close even after she retired to a Panama cattle farm with her husband. She would talk with Nureyev by phone several times a week, although her farmhouse did not have a telephone. When she had to be treated for cancer, he paid many of her medical bills and visited her often, despite his busy schedule as a performer and choreographer. In a documentary about Fonteyn,[which?] Nureyev said that they danced with "one body, one soul" and that Margot was "all he had, only her". An observer said that "If most people are at level A, they were at level Z." (Nureyev had his own health problems as he was HIV positive; he died of AIDS in 1993).[citation needed]


Fonteyn in 1968

During the late 1930s and early 1940s Fonteyn had a long relationship with composer Constant Lambert. Lambert expressed some aspects of this in his ballet Horoscope (1938).

In 1955 Fonteyn married Dr Roberto Arias, a Panamanian diplomat to London. Their marriage was initially rocky because of his infidelities. She was arrested when Arias attempted a coup d'état against the Panamanian government in 1959.[6] Information released on 28 May 2010 indicated Dame Margot knew of, and at one point was involved in, the coup attempt.[7] In 1964, a rival Panamanian politician shot Arias, leaving him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.

After her retirement she spent all her time in Panama, and was close to her husband and his children from an earlier marriage. Shortly before her husband's death, in 1989, Fonteyn was diagnosed with a cancer that proved fatal.[6] She died on 21 February 1991 in a hospital in Panama City, Panama, aged 71.[8]

Legacy and honours

Bronze statue of Fonteyn in Reigate, Surrey
  • Fonteyn was awarded a DBE (made a dame) in 1956.[9]
  • She was chancellor of the University of Durham from 1981 to 1990. The main hall in Dunelm House, the Student Union building, is named the Fonteyn Ballroom in her honour. Also, the foyer to the Great Hall of University College, Durham in Durham Castle is named after Dame Margot Fonteyn. Fonteyn Court, one of the accommodation buildings at the Parsons Field site of St. Cuthbert's Society, is also named in her honour.
  • Margot Fonteyn was one of five "Women of Achievement" selected for a set of British stamps issued in August 1996.[10]
  • In her hometown of Reigate, a statue stands in tribute.[11]


Fonteyn wrote the introduction for Wushu! The Chinese Way to Family Health and Fitness.[12] The book was translated for the Western market by Timothy Tung from a series of official handbooks published in China by The People's Sports Publishing House, Beijing.

The "Margot Fonteyn Academy of Ballet" in Peekskill, New York is named in her honour.[13]

Margot wore Freed of London Ballet Pointe shoes in size 4.

During her younger years Margot resided at 44 Waldeck Road Ealing, London & 3 Elm Grove Ealing, London. It was at Waldeck Road that Danemen writes "It was on the polished oak staircase of the house in Waldeck Road that Margot claims to have had an experience of flying".

As a dancer she made her last appearance in Nureyev's 1979 summer season, and in February 1986 (aged 66) she appeared on stage for the last time, as 'The Queen' in "The Sleeping Beauty".[14]

Film and television

Fonteyn and Nureyev starred together in a colour film of Swan Lake in 1967. Under the guidance of director Paul Czinner, they also filmed their famous version of Romeo and Juliet in 1966. Fonteyn presented her own six-part BBC2 series entitled The Magic of Dance in 1975, exploring the history of dance through five centuries, but it seems to have been lost since. The series caused a stir because up to that time she had not been known for speaking on camera. Terry Wogan commented that if that was an amateur speaking then the professionals should take note.

She appeared with Michael Somes in a live US television colour production of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty (1955), for the anthology series Producers' Showcase, on NBC. This production has been preserved on black-and-white kinescope, and released on DVD. Fonteyn starred with Somes in a 1958 British TV production of The Nutcracker. (This is not to be confused with the live US television production telecast by CBS on Playhouse 90.)

The BBC made a film about Fonteyn in 2009, based on Daneman's biography and starring Anne-Marie Duff as the ballerina. It aired on 30 November 2009.[15]

Tony Palmer made a documentary about Fonteyn, titled simply Margot (2005). It includes interviews with Nureyev, Sir Frederick Ashton, Roland Petit, Ninette de Valois, Robert Helpman, Lynn Seymour, Fonteyn's sister-in-law and other relatives, and various members of the Arias family.

Main roles


  • "The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking one's self seriously. The first is imperative and the second is disastrous."
  • "Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike."
  • "Life offstage has sometimes been a wilderness of unpredictables in an unchoreographed world."
  • "Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable."

See also


  1. Obituary Variety, 25 February 1991.
  2. Fonteyn, Margot. Autobiography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1976), pp. 3–4, 50..
  3. Autobiography (1976), pp. 14, 17–18, 22–32, 84, 30–31.
  4. "Margot Fonteyn Dead at 71; Ballerina Redefined Her Art". The New York Times. 22 February 1991.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Daneman, Meredith. Margot Fonteyn, Viking, 2004; ISBN 0-670-84370-9
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lanchin, Mike (30 April 2013). "Dame Margot Fonteyn and the Panama sanitary towel coup". BBC News. Retrieved 14 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Bowcott, Owen (28 May 2010). "Dame Margot Fonteyn: the ballerina and the attempted coup in Panama". Retrieved 28 May 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "The death of Margot Fonteyn | Books". The Guardian. 5 March 2004. Retrieved 14 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Dame Margot Fonteyn". Retrieved 14 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "ROYAL MAIL STAMPS CELEBRATE '20TH CENTURY WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT' -- August 05,1996 /PR Newswire UK/". 5 August 1996.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Lovell, Cara (2 February 2005). "Who'’s the greatest?". Retrieved 14 December 2015. C1 control character in |title= at position 5 (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Mitchell Beazley Publishers 1981. ISBN 0-85533-315-4.
  13. "Margot Fonteyn Academy of Ballet". Retrieved 14 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Margot Fonteyn : Biography". Retrieved 14 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. John Preston (4 December 2009). "Margot, BBC Four, review". The Daily Telegraph.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Malcolm MacDonald
Chancellor of the University of Durham
Succeeded by
Sir Peter Ustinov