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Book Review

Belle on her toes

Judith Mackrell

After her death in 1991 Margot Fonteyn became enshrined as England's defining prima ballerina assoluta, renowned not only for her talent but her modesty and sweetness. When she danced her core repertory, Aurora, Ondine and Chloe, the image Fonteyn presented was of unequalled purity - as choreographer Ronald Hynd remarked, "There was something... oh, just stainless about her."

This image was one Fonteyn worked assiduously to maintain during her lifetime. She was never less than perfectly groomed (refusing to wear trousers in public) and the biography she published in 1975 was a masterpiece of blithe self-censorship. That she lost her virginity at 16, enjoyed a string of lovers, had two abortions and cosmetic surgery was not for general consumption.

The care with which the ballet world has long guarded Fonteyn's image is one very good reason to welcome Meredith Daneman's energetically researched new biography. Over the past 10 years Daneman has chipped away at the reserve of Fonteyn's family, colleagues and friends and trawled through previously inaccessible correspondence. Compared with the small, respectful body of literature that's been written about Fonteyn the dancer, Daneman's book aims to tell the story of Fonteyn the woman.

That story is a gift, for despite Fonteyn's seemingly impeccable Englishness, she led an exotic, even adventurous life. She was born Peggy Hookham, in Reigate, in 1919, but her mother was the illegitimate daughter of a Brazilian businessman, Antonio Goncalvez Fontes, and it was from him that Fonteyn not only took her stage name but her dark eyes and olive skin. From her engineer father, Felix, Fonteyn inherited the fine moulding of her body and also her disrupted childhood, as his work took the family from the Surrey suburbs to the teeming international city of Shanghai.

Fonteyn's education suffered from the move (she would always feel disadvantaged intellectually) but her mother, Nita, made sure young Peggy kept up her dance classes and when Fonteyn was 14, she was brought back to London to be groomed for the stage.

Fonteyn was actually far from a textbook prodigy, later disparaging "my no elevation, no extension, no instep and feeble pirouettes". She didn't even particularly want to be a ballerina. But Nita was determined that Peggy had star potential and her view was shared by Ninette de Valois, director of the then fledgling Vic-Wells Ballet.

It was Fonteyn's fate, or fortune, to be in the right place at the right time, for De Valois in 1933 was embarked on a mission to build up a national ballet company and needed a home-grown ballerina around whom to build it. Something about Fonteyn's "colt-like" appearance caught the director's eye and when she was still only 14 Fonteyn was hired to join the company. Under De Valois's tutelage, and in the "magic hands" of choreographer Frederick Ashton, Fonteyn matured with astounding rapidity to become one of the greatest dancers in history.

Daneman acknowledges that any analysis of Fonteyn's technique - her intuitive gift for phrasing, her perfectly proportioned body, her singing line - cannot pin down the sublime quality of dancing. That rightly doesn't stop her trying, but it's one of the weaknesses of her book that it falls too readily into the magical writing and sentimental overload that are endemic to dance writing.

As a onetime dancer, however, Daneman is very good at charting the physical struggles of Fonteyn's career and at describing the peculiar blend of ambition and passivity that made her ideal ballerina material. Fonteyn certainly fought for the limelight yet she was peculiarly submissive to those in charge of her career. And it may partly have been the dominance of her mother, De Valois and Ashton that cornered Fonteyn into her dysfunctional private life. Fonteyn liked sex (the composer Constant Lambert circulated crass reports about the power of her pelvic floor muscles) but her search for love seemed jinxed. Safe men she discarded and those she cared for most were unattainable - either married and drunk, like Lambert, or gay. She finally married Tito Arias, a murky Panamanian diplomat and serial adulterer who kept her dangling (even using her as cover in an attempted political coup) until an assassination attempt left him a quadriplegic.

Daneman leaves the question of her emotional life unsolved, just as she leaves unsolved the issue of Fonteyn's dedication to the paralysed Tito. While some saw her devotion as saintly, others privately wondered if she wasn't relishing the chance to keep Tito under her thumb. There is no question that one reason why Fonteyn carried on dancing till the startlingly late age of 60 was to pay for Tito's nursing bills. But she also found it hard to relinquish a career that had been given a fabulous second wind by her new stage partner Rudolf Nureyev. The chemistry between her and the young, swaggering Russian was legendarily extravagant (and Daneman suspects it may occasionally have propelled them into each other's bed) and in the dawning age of television and the paparazzi it earned them an international celebrity no other dancers had known.

It didn't, however, make Fonteyn rich and when she eventually retired with Tito to a cattle farm in Panama, she was almost struggling. Yet as Daneman reveals, Fonteyn found both freedom and contentment in her release from the stage - and it's in these closing pages of Fonteyn's life that Daneman too seems most confident in picturing her subject.

Elsewhere, though, this biography is a curious mix. Daneman is a good writer and she is especially good on professional politics and personalities, but her style doesn't settle. The 10 years of research that went into this book have yielded remarkable material and it will surely rank as the definitive Fonteyn biography for a long time. But given the power of Daneman's story, it's a slightly disappointing read.

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