Fonteyn of Youth

17 12 2011

Christmas is almost upon us, and the shopping frenzy is reaching its peak. It’s also a season where the great unwashed dabble in culture. There’s music everywhere – from Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (biggest selling single of all time apparently!) to Lennon’s deeply poignant “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and McCartney’s equally banal “Wonderful Christmas Time“. It’s also a time when the ballet comes to town and The Nutcracker is performed  to various degrees of success. I have a vague recollection of seeing Swan Lake danced by an all male ballet company many moons ago, but I’m vague enough that it might only have been someone I know who told me about it. Either way, it wasn’t particularly memorable… despite the all male company part. Let’s just assume that, for all intents and purposes, I haven’t seen a ballet being performed. I have however seen a world class ballet dancer. Up close and personal. She even shook my hand and spoke my name. Dame Margot Fonteyn was her name. A more elegant and poised person I have yet to meet. She was 66 at the time, and as delicate and willowy as… well a willow I suppose. (Just as an aside – did you know the Latin name for willow is Salix, and Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid – ASA) was isolated from it? No, I didn’t either. Then I read it somewhere. And now you have too!)

Dame Margot wasn’t just a Prima Ballerina in her day. Oh no… the Queen made her a Prima ballerina assoluta – and there’s only been 11 of those in the last 110 years, the last being Alessandra Ferri in 1992 – at least according to Wikipedia, which has no obvious reason to lie. At the time, Dame Margot was the chancellor of Durham University in the north of the UK. It was an interesting time and place in modern history, with Maggie (The Iron Lady (film)) setting about the dismantling of the power base of the miners’ union, with the Durham/Newcastle area being historically dependent on mining, and a bit of a stronghold (well, after Yorkshire, of course…). If you’re into dance and music, check out Billy Elliot the Musical. The miners’ strike is the back story. Anyway, the other Maggie – Fonteyn – began her dancing career in the 1930s, but in 1962 she danced with a newly defected Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and began a magical partnership – both on and off stage that lasted their lifetimes. She was 42 at the time, he 24.


Wikipedia: Margot Fonteyn in the 1960s

She retired in 1979, and took up professional handshaking as Durham’s chancellor in 1981.

Illness cut both their lives short – cancer for her in 1991, AIDS for him shortly after in 1993. There’s controversey about whether they had a physical relationship but their unwavering loyalty to one another is beyond doubt.

Dame Margot was implicated and arrested in a Panamanian coup in 1964, so controversy wasn’t something she shied away from.

The year I graduated, 1985, I spent the summer at my girlfriend’s summer cottage in Kent. It was the year that Live Aid launched the greatest music event the world has ever seen, to bring famine relief to Ethiopia. The Previous Christmas, Midge Ure and Bob Geldhof (who got most of the praise) penned “Feed the World” and got all their singer mates to lend a voice or two. How many faces do you recognise from the YouTube video?

So, as Christmas approaches, I respectfully ask two things of you, honoured reader: (i) remember to buy lots of batteries ahead of time and (ii) be grateful for what you already have, rather than moan about what you didn’t get.

I like the quote at the end of the Lennon video too: “An eye for an eye will make us all blind” – Mahatma Ghandi. True that.



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