I dragged this huge biography of Britain's most famous ballerina with me to Europe, and missed quite a few monuments along the way. Daneman's engaging, thoroughly engrossing biography of the extraordinary rise and very long reign of Fonteyn at the pinnacle of the ballet world, makes for compulsive reading. For not only is this the life of Fonetyn, it is an in-depth look at the rise of English ballet that managed to forge its own mighty presence in a world thoroughly dominated by the Russians. Peggy Hookum, with the immense and far-sighted support of a loving and determined mother, became a key player in the ascendancy of Saddler's Wells and later the Royal Ballet. Favored by the company's indomitable founder, Ninette De Valois, Fonteyn danced her first Aurora in SLEEPING BEAUTY while still in her teens. De Valois show-cased her progress in the classics as well as in ballets created by Frederick Ashton. Daneman offers vivid portraits of the fledgling company's big personalites such as Robert Helpmann (Fonteyn's first significant dancing partner), Constant Lambert (the company's music director, conductor, composer and long-time lover of Fonteyn), and Michael Somes (Fonteyn's partner in the 40s, 50s and early 60s). This is not always a harmonious group. De Valois emerges here as a shrewd leader who forced Alicia Markova,the company's first prima ballerina out in order to pave the way for her favorites, and dangerously manipulated the careers of Beryl Gray and Moira Shearer (most tellingly Shearer who was a star due to THE RED SHOES film. Sol Hurok, who presented the Saddler's Wells Ballet in it's historic first visit to the Metropolitan Opera House in 1949, demanded that Shearer dance the opening night Aurora. De Valois stuck to her guns and insisted Fonteyn have that honor--and prevailed). Ashton is revealed not only as the great choreopgraphic genius that he was, but also a petty, snobbish and often vindictive company in-fighter, fully capapble of getting what he wanted (his lack of support of Kenneth MacMillan's choice of Lynne Seymour to dance the first prima of the company's ROMEO AND JULIET, almost certainly seems to be a petty act of jealousy). Robert Helpmann's character, great humor, and ability to keep the company going through the war years, makes him admirable--and very quotable--in every way.
Throughout the many years of her long dominance, Fonteyn is totally fascinating, although she nearly seems at times a passive player in the events surrounding her. Some have complained here that the book is too long, or that Daneman resorts to gossip in trying to find out if Fonteyn and Nuryev were ever lovers. Nonsense, we all want to know and Daneman knows we want to know. Nureyev was a sacred monster, a genius and a wild man of discipline, enourmous sexual appetites, self-indugent and often thoroghly dislikable. Danenman captures the complexity of the relationship between Fonteyn and Nureyev. Each brought to the other a special quality that enhanced their partnership and enduring affection. Nureyev could be cruel, hurling verbal abuse and acting insufferably childish towards her, but Fonteyn's dancing in her early 40s was a revelation to critics, audiences, and herself--she actually managed for a few more years to top herself in her prime. De Valois actually thought this partnership could give Margot five more years of a career. Their partnership would extend to 17 years.
Daneman's effort is hardly hagiographic. Fonteyn, who was often admired for her diligence, hard work, and ability to be an inspiring team leader, was also capable of being competitive, politically naive (her questionable friendships with Imelda Marcos, General Noriega, and Chile's Pinnochet are not glossed over), and far wilder than her lady-like exterior would have us believe. She had lousy taste in men and Daneman, without resorting to too much psychologising, makes us understand her attraction to the lousy men in her life. Constant Lambert was a talented musician who cultivated Fonteyn's life-long love of books (she was poorly educated), but he was also a hopeless drunk, fat and unkempt, who ultimately abandoned Fonteyn. Even worse is her long relationship with Roberto Arias, the spoiled and pampered Panamanian who became Fonteyn's only husband. A politician, serial adulterer, Arias was shot by a political ally, rendering him a paraplegic for the rest of his life. At the time of the shooting, Fonteyn was seriously considering a divorce from a husband who was rarely around and flagrantly conducted his affairs right under his wife's nose. Yet when Arias was shot, Fonteyn more than proved her loyalty. The huge medical costs over the ensuing twenty five years of his life would bankrupt Fonteyn, forcing her to dance, her technique sagging visibly, until she was nearly 60. She endured with most of her dignity in tact--and the bum she called her husband didn't deserve her loyalty.
Some very starry dancers from Pavlova to Sibley, Ulanova, Baryshnikov, Norah Kaye, Eric Bruhn, and others all add to Daneman's disctinctive narrative. Daneman's novelistic eye constantly offers the telling detail. Her writing often soars off the page. I felt I was witnessing the aura of magic that Fonteyn radiated from the stage. Even the oft-told tale of her complete triumph as Aurora during that historic first visit to the U.S. in 1949, seems newly minted here. This is what a great biography should be, and with Fonteyn at its dazzling center, here are hours of thrilling history, behind-the-scenes drama, and all the color anyone could expect from a fabulous life brilliantly told.