The Kennedy Center

Margot Fonteyn



Biography

Margot Fonteyn de Arias, born Margaret Hookham on May 18, 1919, in Reigate, Surrey, England, was an extraordinary and beloved classical ballerina, whose career extended from 1934 to 1979. As a dancer for England’s Royal Ballet, she help put British ballet on the international map. Her father was British and her mother was the daughter of an Irish mother and a Brazilian father. When she was eight years old, her family moved to Shanghai, where her father had accepted a position as chief engineer of a tobacco company.

In China Fonteyn took ballet lessons from Russian instructor, George Goncharov. At 14, her mother took her back to London to give her a chance to develop a dancing career. She took lessons with Serafina Astafieva, and shortly thereafter, went to the Sadler's Wells Ballet School, with Vera Volkova as her teacher. It was while she was dancing in England that she changed to her stage name, Margot Fonteyn, a name that evolved from her mother’s family name, Fontes.

Fonteyn made her debut as a snowflake in The Nutcracker in 1934. This was followed with roles in The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and Swan Lake, opportunities that opened up because of the departure of Alicia Markova, another great ballerina from Sadler's Wells. Her first major role was in Le Baiser de la Fee, choreograpphed by the great Frederick Ashton in 1935. He also created leading roles for her which drew on characterizations from pathos and innocence to hard-headed glamour and comedy. They included Apparitions, Nocturne, Les Patineurs, A Wedding Bouquet, Horoscope, The Wise Virgins, Dante Sonata, The Quest, The Wanderer, Daphnis and Chloe, and Ondine. She was the first ballerina in George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial. In 1949, when she debuted in New York with her portrayal of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Fonteyn drew forty-eight curtain calls.

It was while she was heading a Royal Ballet tour in Russia in 1961 when an exciting young dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, aged 24, defected from the Kirov company in Paris. Ninette de Valois, who accepted Fonteyn into Vic-Wells (now Royal) Ballet School in London when she was 14, invited Nureyev and Fonteyn to appear together in Giselle at Covent Garden in 1962. It was a truly historic performance. They became a dynamic team; the combination of his spirit and her technique created a joint artistry. For the next 15 years they performed all over the world. They performed Swan Lake, Giselle, and Romeo and Juliet. Ashton created Marguerite et Armand and modern dance choreographer Martha Graham created Lucifer for them.. In 1965, they once received a 40-minute ovation and had 43 curtain calls for their performance in Romeo and Juliet at London’s Covent Garden.

Until age 35, Fonteyn’s ballet career took precedent. In 1955, at 36, she married the son of the former president of Panama, and he later became the Panamanian ambassador to London. In 1964 he was paralyzed from an attack by a political opponent, and she personally nursed him for 25 years until his death in 1989. The couple had continued their separate careers, but always remained connected.

Fonteyn was decorated a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1951, and five years later, she became Dame of the Order of the British Empire, after which she was known as Dame Margot Fonteyn. In 1979 she received from the Royal Ballet the title “prima ballerina assoluta,” a title only given to three ballerinas in the 20th century. She became president of the Royal Academy of Dancing in 1954 and was instrumental in persuading well known dancers from all the major companies to appear with the Royal Ballet. She received several awards and honorary doctorates. She wrote her autobiography in 1976, and wrote The Magic of Dance, a book about dance history interspersed with personal experiences in 1979. A documentary was made on her Panamanian ranch to celebrate her 70th birthday. She died of cancer on February 21, 1991, at age 72, two years after her husband.

Margot Fonteyn always gave a triumphant performance. She gauged exactly the style needed for that work in that place. She always achieved whatever was required of her and could hold an audience. Her range appeared to be limitless as she danced for more than 40 years, in over 30 countries, with more than 30 partners, in over 80 roles. The one thing people remembered most about her performances was that she made all who saw her cry a little.
Margot Fonteyn