writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Letter from New York

Margot Fonteyn in America: A Celebration
18 May through 3 September 2004

24 May 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff

Just installed in the Vincent Astor Gallery of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, this highly focused, authoritative, elegant, and deeply affectionate show of photographs, films, evening gowns by Yves Saint Laurent, costumes, and quotations invokes the late prima ballerina assoluta of The Royal Ballet, who took New York by storm with her debut as Aurora at the Old Met in 1949 and who continues to reign as a standard of beauty and classical purity in the memories of Americans who saw her then and in several subsequent decades. (For those who never saw her, the library is also offering two free programs of films: a mixed bill on Thursday, 17 June, and, on Thursday, 24 June, a screening of Victor Jessen’s full-length film that compiles a decade of Fonteyn’s American appearances with The Royal in The Sleeping Beauty.)

The Fonteyn whom one finds in the Astor Gallery is already a goddess if not an icon, fully formed as an artist and as a woman, the beloved figure that her friends and her fans cherish in memory. The exhibition demonstrates what enchanted and moved them about her on and off the stage: her personal admixture of a queen’s reserve and a commoner’s passion, her harmonious blend of rigorous classicism with individual characterizations, her perfect proportions, her deeply dimpled smile, and, in everything, her profound simplicity. The still photography, alone—most of it black and white—comprises an exhibit-within-an-exhibit of the dance photographer’s art; it includes such wonders as a view of Fonteyn being coached by Tamara Karsavina, a winking backstage moment for Fonteyn and George Balanchine (whose Ballet Imperial she danced at The Royal), performance photographs of exceptional quality, an album of Fonteyn demonstrating the lexicon of ballet mime, an album of the ballerina smiling, and another of her bowing. Within the last are several photographs by the late brilliant critic and photographer David Daniel, including a heartbreaker of Fonteyn holding what looks like an entire florist’s shop of roses and presenting her public with an expression of unshadowed happiness that is so transparent one mists up to see it. Also extensively chronicled in the show is her landmark partnership with Rudolf Nureyev, which began in 1961, when Fonteyn was already in her mid-40s, and which awakened the youth in her own dancing for another 15 years. In the free 20-page souvenir monograph—one of the most magnificently edited publications on any ballet subject to appear in New York in the past two decades—one can also find a bouquet of word memories of that 1949 debut in The Sleeping Beauty, including one by Frederic Franklin, who entered the opera house with Alicia Markova on one arm and Alexandra Danilova on the other. At the end of the monograph is a summary of Fonteyn’s artistry by David Daniel, from Stagebill (a now-defunct publication whose loss is much lamented by New York dancegoers) that may well be the three most astute and most wonderfully written paragraphs ever published about her—or, indeed, about any ballerina.

Margot Fonteyn in America: A Celebration represents some eight years of research, planning, hopefulness, and perseverance by its co-curators, Joy Williams Brown and Robert A. Gottlieb. Brown, a former dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, met Fonteyn in 1949, when both were performing with Roland Petit’s Les Ballets de Paris, and they became fast friends until Fonteyn’s death in 1991. Gottlieb knew her as an early member of her New York audience and, later, as the editor of her autobiography and of her highly personal and charming history, The Magic of Dance. At a press conference last Monday, the day before the show opened, both were present to speak. “Margot was spectacular as a person, as well as an artist and a dancer,” Gottlieb said. “I loved Margot Fonteyn. Joy loved her longer and knew her better, but I loved her a lot.” Said Brown: “It’s a very personal show, an act of love by Bob and me.”

At the reception that followed, the press were delighted to discover, on the table among the canapés, a birthday cake lathered and sculpted in buttercream frosting for the English-born dance critic David Vaughan, who shares his birthday with Fonteyn’s (he reached a rather boyish 80 last week), who also loved her, and who wrote about her with great understanding and exactitude in many forums—notably his indispensable biography of Frederick Ashton, the choreographer whose career was so entwined with this ballerina, who served as Ashton’s muse for most of the decades in which he needed one. In this issue of The DanceView Times, Vaughan addresses Daphnis and Chloe, one of the lasting Ashton-Fonteyn ballets, which will be performed in New York this summer during a festival in tribute to Ashton, the centenary of whose birth is also being celebrated this year.—Mindy Aloff


First:  Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev rehearsing Marguerite and Armand. Photograph by Zoe Dominic [no date]. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Second:  Margot Fonteyn accepting applause after a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Photograph by Louis Peres. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Third: Margot Fonteyn in The Sleeping Beauty. Photograph by Richard Dormer. By kind permission of The Royal Academy of Dance from the Philip Richardson Library collection.

More photos below:












First: Margot Fonteyn as “Odette,” in The Royal Ballet production of Swan Lake. Photograph by Frederika Davis. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.










Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in a waiting room. (no photographer credit). The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.













Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in The Royal Ballet production of The Sleeping Beauty. Photograph by Mira, used to promote Town Hall Presents Great Artists of the Dance, March 7, 1977. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 19
May 24, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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last updated on May 24, 2004