I’ve always had a soft spot for ballerinas, probably because they seem to take suffering for their art to such deadly-serious extremes. The broken feet, the strict figure control, the scraped-back hair, the vicious competitiveness – it’s all bonkers, but there’s something weirdly fascinating about it too. Perhaps it’s the dedication to something so unequivocally frivolous. Utterly beautiful, fleeting, minor and frivolous. Sitting at home in pyjamas with a laptop resting on my belly and a steady supply of cheese on toast, I can but applaud them. These women got vision.
Margot Fonteyn, the prima ballerina in a cut-throat, conservative institution, is most deserved of style icon status, because, unlike the sad stereotype of the obsessive adolescent ballerina (i.e, Natalie Portman losing her shit in Black Swan) she was strong, and a bit mad, beloved by other dancers, eccentric, hugely in love with her own status, and she had excellent eyebrows. Here are just a few amazing things about Fonteyn, some of them bad, some of them good, all of them fantastically unexpected in the staid world of ballet:
1. She was involved in an attempted coup of Panama, along with her husband and Fidel Castro. Oh, and John Profumo was part of the story. Also John Wain. And Prince Philip too. Not making a bit of this up.
2. She said: “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”. If Margot Fonteyn doesn’t take herself seriously, I’m sure I’m not going to.
3. In 1961, at the age of 42, she was expected to retire… and then she met the dancer Rudolph Nureyev, 19 years her junior, and began an intense, enduring relationship. The first time they danced together, in Giselle, he dropped to his knees and kissed her hand during the curtain-call. Smitten.
She never admitted they were lovers; he said otherwise. They danced their way through Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake (ofcourse), Les Sylphides, Marguerite and Armand and heaps else, and years later when she retired to a cattle farm in Panama with her husband, they would talk several times a week on the phone. He paid for her bills when she got sick with the illness that killed her, and he said of 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.”
4. After retirement, she kept pet swans. Ever been up close to a swan? They’re kind of mean. They’re pretty thuggish. She seems to have tamed them to the point of besottedness. Maybe they sensed a kindred spirit.