Zoe Anderson: She'd dance through air raids

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The Second World War was a turning point in Fonteyn's career, as it was for the company that became the Royal Ballet. Audiences who had seen her dance through air raids, holding balances on stages that trembled with the impact of bombs, never forgot it. She was a national heroine by the end of the war, but her greatest triumphs lay ahead.

Fonteyn was a dancer of lyrical simplicity. Her proportions were ideally graceful: the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton once said it was hard for her to make an unpleasing shape. She was intensely musical. And she had a heart-catching quality.

Fonteyn was born in Reigate, Surrey, in 1919, under the name Margaret Hookham, and moved with her family to Shanghai. Her mother, noting her daughter's talent, brought her back to Britain, where she joined the fledgling Vic-Wells ballet - which became the Royal Ballet - in 1934.

Her chance came the next year, with the departure of Alicia Markova, the company's star ballerina. Ninette de Valois, the company's founder, had spotted Fonteyn as a future star. Constant Lambert, its music director, adored her. The most resistant was Ashton, the chief choreographer. Having worked with Markova, he was not impressed by the gentler Fonteyn. Then, after a nagging rehearsal, Fonteyn burst into tears, flinging her arms around him. Won over, Ashton created a long series of roles for her.

Fonteyn led the company through the war, sometimes dancing three performances a day. At the end of the conflict, the company moved to the Royal Opera House, reopening it with The Sleeping Beauty. The show went to New York in 1949, when Fonteyn's first-night performance made her a world star overnight. Newsweek and Time put her on their fronts.

She was approaching retirement when, in 1961, Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union. Their partnership extended her career by many years.

Fonteyn was perhaps one of the best-loved ballerina of the 20th century. Other dancers had stronger techniques but few could match her beauty of line, her eloquent musical phrasing or her ability to win the affection of audiences.

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