Margot Fonteyn was a simple dancer. She wanted urgently to live up to the expectations of others, placing no limit on how hard she would work to do that. In 1935, just 16, she danced her first leading role in The Sleeping Beauty. By four years later, in 1939, she had also danced the leads in Giselle, and Swan Lake in such a way that earned her the title of Prima Ballerina. Over the next decade, which included WWII and much disarray and interruption of public performances, she had become a household name worldwide, having achieved unprecedented fame. Fonteyn had only danced in classical ballets, nothing more. The way she danced had, in just 14 short years, earned fame that reached far beyond those who attended. In 1949 she took New York by storm as Aurora, and by 1959 had earned the title Prima Ballerina Assoluta du Monde, a distinction only a small handful of artists has ever achieved.
Retirement is expected of ballerinas at age 40, but she hesitated as it didn't feel right to her. This hesitation proved to be an inspiration, for in 1961 Rudolf Nureyev defected and, starting in 1962, they danced together for the next 17 years until she was 60. She then stayed on stage in non-dance roles until the age of 67. From early in her career she turned her efforts to education, having served as President of the Royal Academy of Dance, and in the final 23 years of her life became Chancellor of Durham University, and founder of the Margot Fonteyn Academy of Ballet, and its Academy Method of teaching dancers, thus forming a detailed educational program for dancers of the 21st century and beyond. She presented various publications and programs to the world, all by the time she died in 1991, only 72 years old. To this day she is remembered and revered. Why? What is so extraordinary about this woman?
Having met her in 1967 when I was 15, our lives became forever entwined, and I grew to understand the answer to those questions. And the answer speaks to us all today; an answer found in the basic fact of her fame.
For Fonteyn fame was earned, not manufactured. In today's world, most orchestrate or purchase their own fame, yet falter when they lack extraordinary character. Fonteyn had this extraordinary character. It was in every cell of her body, every area of her life, and every moment of her existence. She was loyal to an astonishing degree, and resolute to do her very best. She did not take fame as an opportunity, but as a grave responsibility. She knew what she represented, and the power fame allowed her. And, until her very last breaths, she concerned herself with what she might do for others.
When I set out to write about Margot I wanted to preserve the story of my close relationship with Fonteyn privately for my children and family, and allow them to "know" her. I hoped they would reap the same benefits as I had. When I realized that all people might benefit, the memoir became a book. Margot's family gave me the idea at her funeral in London when they said it was my duty to write 'the' book about her. It was clear that much would be written by those who mainly knew her public or professional life. Such books would record facts of her public works, and the rest would be conjecture. The family wanted people to know her as a human being, as a person, and as a friend. For all of her greatness on stage, it was in private that she shown most brightly.
This led to my recent work My Margot. The writing is done and the book is now published. The long road of editing and fact checking is now complete. I learned from the solitary focus writing a book requires that earned fame, and the artistry that earns it, is a true delimiter to which manufactured fame cannot compare. True artistry is a hard fought achievement, and must have serious talent as its base. In addition to talent and developed artistry, Margot Fonteyn had personal integrity and humility. And in Fonteyn this was authentic. This is why she will serve as an inspiration forever.
Purchased notoriety, manufactured fame, orchestrated sensation, calculated risk and manipulated public opinion hold no authenticity. The authentic is too quiet to be heard above the din, and humility only makes it more silent. But with Fonteyn, her authenticity continually leads by example, even now.
Fonteyn made an art form of fame. She approached each person as the most important and interesting person alive, showing us how to behave, and to notables what great purpose fame has, should they embrace the responsibility that comes with the opportunity. Fonteyn believed that in each of us resided something authentic, and it is to that authenticity we must turn our most concerted efforts. This unique perspective illuminates what is truly important.
In the end, Fonteyn's magic and majesty endures because she is wholly authentic, and humble. Loyal to her friends, her art form, and the public that fine art serves. We need only be sincere, and work hard to provide the best we can. And this is why she will always be relevant, and will always amaze us.
Ken Ludden's ballet books are published by Fonteyn Academy Press through Lulu.com. All proceeds from sales go to The Margot Fonteyn Academy of Ballet, a non-profit organization. Visit Fonteyn Academy on Facebook.
Photo Credits: Ludden in Studio - (c)MFAB 2006; Ludden and Fonteyn portrait (c)MFAB 2014 (enlargement donated to MFAB by Lincoln Center Library from "Fonteyn in America Exhibition," courtesy Joy Brown) My Margot book cover design (c)Loron Lavoie 2014, Photo: (c)Hilda Hookham 1975, gift to Ludden from Dame Margot Fonteyn