Margot Fonteyn by Meredith Daneman

Life and art in the balance
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The Independent Culture

Do you have to be a fan of the ballet to read this book? Do you have to be, indeed, a fan of Margot Fonteyn? No, you don't. If a biography were a kind of police report, as people sometimes seem to think, there would be no point in reading it unless you had a special interest in that particular life. But biography - at any rate good biography - is a window on the world, like any work of literature.

True, biographies are often long and detailed, as this one is. But the fascination of any world is in the detail. This is a marvellous study, and all you need to be a fan of to enjoy it is reading itself.

The secret of its success is that it is perfectly matched to its subject, perfectly in tune. Fonteyn's greatest gifts, Meredith Daneman shows, were her musicality, her inner balance and poise, and her integrity, her submission to her art, her refusal to make an unfelt gesture, and her ability, right to the end of her long and exalted career, to learn.

Daneman's book is musical too, moving from andante to allegro to the final adagio, and bringing on the ballerina with her key partners - her mother, Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Rudolf Nureyev, her husband. And it has something of Fonteyn's balance and integrity: a combination of old-fashioned decency and romance with a dedication to emotional, professional and - so inescapable in the life of a dancer - physical truth.

The old-fashioned decency and romance are like Fonteyn's. Daneman doesn't dissemble about the dark side of ballet life: the ignorance, the abortions, the vicious rivalries. Nor does she hide the way that great dancers such as Moira Shearer, Lynn Seymour and Beryl Grey were damaged and destroyed to make way for Margot, de Valois' favourite. Yet Daneman credits almost everyone with higher motives as well - loyalty, generosity and, above all, devotion to their art.

On the question of Fonteyn's own ambition, for example, she quotes Clive Barnes - "The most competitive woman I have known" - but herself puts the emphasis on Margot's perfectionism, and her desire to live up to other people's expectations, especially her mother's.

As to romance, ballet has always been the home of beautiful princesses, handsome princes and dying swans - one reason, perhaps, why it was so late to flourish in sceptical, down-to-earth England. And readers who secretly yearn for the pre-feminist romances of princesses woken with a kiss will find both Daneman and Fonteyn their unrepentant champions. Fonteyn lived out an old-fashioned ideal of marriage, remaining silently loyal to her philandering husband Tito Arias for decades, dedicating herself to his care in his later, paralysed years, and surviving him by only 27 months.

Daneman herself is a joyous romantic. She understands the young Margot's conquest by Constant Lambert, fat and drunk but brilliantly gifted; she sympathises with her wifely devotion, and her late, more than half maternal passion for the wild boy Nureyev.

When Margot takes a dashing lover, Daneman quotes his comparison of women to aeroplanes ("both need skilful handling") without satire; when Tito embarks on one of his mad attempts to seize power in Panama, she notes that it warms a woman's heart to see her man set off on an adventure. If you are a hardcore feminist, this book is not for you. But then most books aren't, or much of life, either.

Fonteyn, however, was famously reserved - an "ice maiden", "like the Queen". In this way, Daneman is much more modern. She tells the whole story, starting with Fonteyn's real, unromantic name: Peggy Hookham.

We follow an ordinary suburban childhood, a slightly more exotic period in Shanghai (where Margot's father was sent by his company), then the return to England at 15, and from then on the making of Britain's first prima ballerina assoluta, in all its blood, sweat and tears.

There are beautiful evocations of all the famous ballets, and touchable, smellable accounts of the stages, the rehearsal rooms, the tights and tutus (Daneman is brilliant on clothes). Above all, there are living, rounded portraits of everyone in Fonteyn's world - her partners, her lovers, her teachers. Inevitably, perhaps, the high point of the book is the last, miraculous, 18-year-long partnership with Nureyev.

Daneman's portraits of Fonteyn's family, partners and lovers, of Lambert, of Ashton, especially of Robert Helpmann - "that monkey", de Valois called him, the best partner Margot ever had, including Nureyev - are vivid and unsparing. And she offers honest answers to every question you ever wanted to ask about Fonteyn and Nureyev. But whatever happened between them off stage, she says, "was as nothing compared to what happened on the stage, in front of our eyes".

And that is also her conclusion about Fonteyn herself. For all her longing and determination to be a wife, her truest and longest love affair was with her art.

Carole Angier's 'Primo Levi: the Double Bond' is published by Penguin

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