Monday 19 August 2019

The 'Irish' prima ballerina on her 100th Birthday


Margot Fonteyn
Margot Fonteyn

George Hamilton

Ballet - a French invention that became an entertainment staple in imperial Russia - has its devotees everywhere. Our own Ballet Ireland will be touring here with the ever-popular Swan Lake through November and December.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Margot Fonteyn, one of the greatest ballerinas there ever was. It may surprise you that there is an Irish thread running through her story.

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In fairness, Margot Fonteyn's own connections with Ireland were pretty tenuous, restricted to an Irish grandmother she never knew.

Evelyn Acheson lived in the north of England where she had a fling with a Brazilian businessman who was over buying cotton. Margot's mother, Hilda, was the result.

Hilda would marry Felix Hookham, and Margot - known as Peggy - was their second child.

Felix worked for the British-American Tobacco Company, and was transferred to China when Peggy was nine. It was in Shanghai that it first became clear she had a rare talent. Her teacher was a former Bolshoi dancer.

When the family returned to England, Peggy auditioned at Sadler's Wells in London. This is where the real Irish connection comes in.

In charge at Sadler's Wells was a steely woman from Baltinglass in Co Wicklow.

Edris Stannus was known as Ninette de Valois, a name that gave her credibility in a world dominated by Russians and the French.

Peggy Hookham would soon become Margot Fonteyn, her stage name directly derived form that of her Brazilian grandfather, Antonio Fontes.

The ballet school run by Ninette de Valois would evolve into the Royal Ballet and Margot Fonteyn would be its greatest attraction.

She inspired the choreographer Frederick Ashton, and he made the most of her talents.

Margot made many roles her own, dancing to the music of Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty), Stravinsky (The Firebird, Petrushka) and Prokofiev (Cinderella).

Then, just when her career should have been concluding, the arrival of Rudolf Nureyev, who'd defected from the Soviet Union, brought her a new lease of life.

She was in her early 40s and he was almost 20 years her junior, but the chemistry was undeniable.

They debuted together in 1962, in Adolphe Adam's Giselle. Swan Lake, Glazunov's Raymonda, and, inevitably, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet would follow. Their partnership became one of the most acclaimed in the history of ballet.

Margot didn't officially retire until her 60th birthday, after a dancing career of almost unbelievable longevity. She had married Roberto Arias - the son of a former President of Panama, later that country's ambassador to Britain - in 1955.

Subsequently, back home, he was involved in an attempted coup. He fled. She was arrested.

An attempted assassination left him paralysed. Part of the reason Margot danced so long was that she needed the money to pay the medical bills.

When she finally retired, she moved to Panama, where the couple lived on a ranch outside the capital.

Margot Fonteyn died in Panama City in 1991, at the age of 71. That very day, 29 years before, she had made her debut with Nureyev in Giselle.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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