British Ballerinas Now
We need to talk about Margot!
In the annals of British ballet, Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991), Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Royal Ballet, indubitably remains the most celebrated and revered ballerina. As you know, this year marks the centenary of her birth, and so, in recognition of this fact and of her status and role in the development of British ballet, our section on British ballerinas of the past in this post will be devoted entirely to Fonteyn.
It was a tricky task to select current British ballerinas to discuss, but we were led by the cast of Margot Fonteyn, a Celebration, the event organised by the Royal Ballet for June 8th of this year. The three ballerinas we decided to focus on not only displayed qualities reminiscent of Fonteyn during their performances at the celebration, but have on previous occasions all been noted for particular attributes connected to Fonteyn and the English style of performing ballet. Further, all three dancers are of British descent, which seems appropriate given that Fonteyn is the inspiration for this post and that from time to time concern is expressed regarding the number of ballerinas in the Royal Ballet who are British nationals. Our selected ballerinas are Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
Even a modicum of research uncovers interesting parallels between the careers and development of these three ballerinas. All are principal dancers of the Royal Ballet (the highest rank), who attended both White Lodge and the Royal Ballet Upper School, and joined the Company soon after graduation. In terms of career progression all three ballerinas were dancing with the Royal Ballet for between five and seven years before being promoted to Principal Dancer. There were two points that caught our eye: the early evidence and identification of talent; the particular qualities in their dancing that had an impact on the repertoire they perform, including the excerpts that were performed by them in the Fonteyn Celebration last season. While all three ballerinas won the Young British Dancer of the Year Competition before joining the Company, evidencing the calibre of their dancing, other accolades were signs of more specific characteristics: Lauren Cuthbertson and Francesca Hayward were both presented with the Lynn Seymour Award for Expressive Dance, whereas at the age of fifteen Yasmine Naghdi was recipient of the Royal Ballet School’s “Most Outstanding Classical Dancer” Award. So let’s think a little about this in relation to their individual repertoires …
Although Hayward and Naghdi are younger than Cuthbertson, both celebrating their 27th birthday this year, and their repertoires consequently not as broad as Cuthbertson’s, we feel we can make some valid comments on the repertoires of the three ballerinas. All of them performed Juliet early in their careers, Cuthbertson in fact debuting when she was still a teenager, and all have danced principal roles in some of the 19th century classics, which to this day still seem to be the ultimate measure of a ballerina’s mettle. However, it is noticeable that although Naghdi has been performing Odette/Odile since the age of 24, Hayward has not yet danced this crucial role; on the other hand, Hayward has won recognition for her interpretation of Manon, a role that requires sophisticated acting skills, and one that Naghdi still covets. It is also noticeable that Naghdi’s repertoire includes Gamzatti in La Bayadère, and Matilda Kscheshinskaya in Anastasia, both of which require impeccable classical technique. In fact, even the way in which she performs Juliet accentuates her clarity of line, revealing this way of interpreting the choreography (“Romeo and Juliet – Balcony Pas de deux”).
In the last two seasons Cuthbertson has added to her repertoire two of Frederick Ashton’s most important and celebrated creations for more mature ballerinas: the first Marguerite, choreographed on Fonteyn, in the 1963 Marguerite and Armand; the second Natalia Petrovna, created on Lynn Seymour, in A Month in the Country (1976). Although Seymour never reached the zenith of Fonteyn’s fame, in being Kenneth MacMillan’s muse she was nonetheless critical to the development of British ballet once ballet had been established as an indigenous art form: together they facilitated its evolution as a dramatic art form in response to the artistic and social upheaval that marked the late 1950s and 1960s. In a sense Cuthbertson recently also seems to have become an ambassador for British ballet. Last year she was invited by Yuri Fateev, Acting Director of the Mariinsky Ballet to perform Sylvia, a major role created for Fonteyn by Ashton, in Saint Petersburg. This year she returned to the Mariinsky to dance in Marguerite and Armand and in The Sleeping Beauty, often described as the Royal Ballet’s signature work, a work integral to the development of British ballet and its international standing, and probably Fonteyn’s most celebrated role.
In 2013 Bryony Brind, former principal of the Royal Ballet, expressed her consternation about the lack of British dancers in the highest ranks of the Royal Ballet, Britain’s most renowned ballet company (qtd.in Eden). At Britishballetnowandthen we think of British ballet as the directors, dancers and choreographers and other collaborators working with companies in the UK, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality or background. However, articles, reviews and interviews reveal the extent to which the issue of nationality looms large in the minds of some people who are interested in the status and development of ballet in this country. With the addition of Hayward and Naghdi to the list of Royal Ballet principals, headlines such as “Why British Ballet is Dancing with Death” (Eden) have been replaced by “Dancing Queens: meet Britain’s next great ballerinas” (Byrne) and “Waiting in the Wings: meet Francesca Hayward, our best young ballerina” (Craine).
The term British or English is not restricted to the description of nationality, of course, but frequently used in association with a specific school of training and performance style. Interviews with both Hayward and Naghdi emphasise their English ballet training at the Royal Ballet School, as well as their sense of Britishness in everyday life (Cappelle; Crompton). This tends to be the aspect of their identity that they highlight rather than the fact that they are both mixed race, in contrast to the American ballerina Misty Copeland, also mixed race, who champions her identity as a black ballerina – the first black principal at American Ballet Theatre. For us, however, it seems important that they are mixed race (Hayward English and Kenyan, Naghdi Belgian and Iranian), as it means that the roster of principal dancers at the Royal Ballet is becoming more reflective of an increasingly mixed-race Britain.
In a 2014 review of Cuthbertson in The Sleeping Beauty, Graham Watts focuses strongly on the notion of English training and performance style, accentuating Cuthbertson’s articulation of English style in his description of her poses and lines as “disciplined”, “refined”, “traditional” and “elegant”. For Watts the maintenance of this style is vital for the continuity of tradition, which he links directly to Fonteyn:
… after 7 years in the Royal Ballet School and 12 years in the company, she is nothing but the product of the Royal Ballet style. And – so far as it is possible to tell down the passage of all these years – she does it as Margot did.
References to Fonteyn also appear in writings about Hayward and Naghdi: Hayward has been directly compared to Fonteyn (Byrne “Dancing Queens”; Taylor), while descriptions of the impact of Naghdi’s “intense dark eyes” (Byrne, “Royal Ballet”), and the ferocity, energy and musicality of her Firebird (Dowler) are also reminiscent of both Fonteyn’s facial features and her qualities as a dancer.
The roles that were selected for our three chosen ballerinas for the Fonteyn Celebration capitalised on their particular talents. Naghdi was luminous in the classical Le Corsaire pas de deux in a replica of the tutu that Fonteyn wore in the celebrated recording with Rudolf Nureyev. Cuthbertson captured the mystique of the Woman in Ball Dress in Frederick Ashton’s Apparitions (1936). Hayward’s Ondine made us forget that we were watching a gala, so intensely did she draw us in water’s nymph’s world.
The Ballerina Then: Prima Ballerina Assoluta
It seems unlikely that any ballerina will ever compete with the status of Margot Fonteyn in terms of her significance in the history of British ballet. It was she who headed the triumphant Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty that reopened the Royal Opera House in 1946 after its transformation into a dance hall during World War II. It was she who repeated this triumph in New York three years later, earning Britain’s national ballet company the international reputation that it has enjoyed ever since.
Through the course of WWII Britain’s ballet companies, including the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, toured Britain indefatigably bringing the art form to an enormously varied audience including troops, office and factory workers, and codebreakers, sometimes giving as many as four performances a day (“Wartime Entertainment”). The combination of dedication, determination and hard graft required for the continuous round of class, rehearsals, performances, packing, travelling and finding digs has been recognised as integral to the war effort on the home front, and the indomitable spirit of company members completely in tune with the patriotic mood of the nation. In fact, historian Karen Elliot goes as far as to claim that “the artform was deemed vital to the survival of the average British citizen” (4).
In addition to a swiftly growing audience for ballet, an English style of choreography and performance was being developed through the work of Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton and Fonteyn herself as Ashton’s muse and the ballerina of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Fonteyn’s style of dancing was, and has continued to be, perceived as the essence of the English style, with her clean, unexaggerated lines, and with her musicality and focus on balance, poise and harmony rather than on a show of virtuosity.
But Fonteyn’s mother was half Brazilian, and from the ages of nine to fourteen she lived with her parents in China. So perhaps it is not surprising that back in London, when she first joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, Ninette de Valois famously referred to her as “the little Chinese girl in the corner” (Daneman 58). At the time when Fonteyn joined de Valois’ school there existed a prevalent notion that the British were incapable of performing ballet: ballet was a foreign art form, connected in people’s minds particularly to Russia, due to the influence of the Ballets Russes (1909-1929) and Anna Pavlova. Ballets Russes was firmly connected with the notion of exoticism, depicted in particular through works such as “The Polovetsian Dances” from Prince Igor, The Firebird, Cléopâtre, Schéhérazade, Une Nuit d’Egypte, and Thamar, all choreographed by Michel Fokine from 1911 to 1912, and all performed in London. On the other hand, Anna Pavlova, who regularly toured Britain for two decades between 1910 and 1930, represented the ideal of the ballerina with her “fragility” dark hair, expressive eyes and long neck. It seems unquestionable therefore that Fonteyn’s dark almond eyes and black hair would have struck audiences as both rather exotic and quintessentially ballerina-like, thereby contributing to her persona as Britain’s undisputed queen of ballet.
Importantly, during the early decades of ballet’s development as an indigenous art form in Britain, proponents of British ballet were depicting it as “both exotic and homegrown” (Elliot 19). Fonteyn seemed to personify this twofold depiction of British ballet through her stalwart “British” approach to the War years coupled with her understated virtuosity on the one hand, and through the “foreignness” of her appearance and stage name on the other.
Margot Fonteyn, a Celebration gave some sense of the range of the ballerina’s repertoire, her versatility and dance qualities, but it would be impossible to pay tribute to this range in one evening: Fonteyn danced for more than four decades in over eighty works (Money). Let us not forget, however, that the length of her career, the huge number of performances she danced, and both her national and international status were in part at least due to historical circumstance. This included de Valois’ plan to establish a canon of “classics” to give ballet as an art form some gravitas, in addition to ensuring the creation of new choreographies with a distinctly British identity. In the early years of this Company this canon consisted of existing ballets from the 19th century that de Valois had access to – Giselle, Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake – as well as Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides and Spectre de la rose. In addition to a repertoire, however, de Valois needed a ballerina who was capable of performing both these 19th century works and the new ballets being choreographed, initially primarily by herself and Ashton.
Fonteyn’s first substantial role was the Creole Girl in Ashton’s 1931 Rio Grande, which she danced in 1935, four years after de Valois had established her company, the Vic-Wells Ballet (later to become the Sadler’s Wells and finally Royal Ballet). At the tender age of sixteen she was replacing de Valois’ ballerina Alicia Markova, for whom the role had been created, because Markova had left the Company to establish her own company with Anton Dolin. As well as being a muse for early Ashton choreography, Markova was the first British Giselle, Sugar Plum Fairy and Odette/Odile. Now Fonteyn swiftly took on those roles, with the result that by the age of twenty she had performed all of them as well as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. In 1936, after seeing the seventeen-year-old Fonteyn as Odette, the influential critic Arnold Haskell enthusiastically declared her to be a ballerina (qtd. in Bland 46). And over the following two decades and more, the collaboration between Ashton and Fonteyn flourished, becoming a major force in the expansion and style of the British ballet repertoire.
The extent of Fonteyn’s international status and her unassailable standing as the nation’s only Prima Ballerina Assoluta is reflected in the words of Lynn Seymour, who grew up in the small town of Wainwright in Alberta, Canada:
She was a big name. She was as big a name as the Prime Minister of England, if not more; she was up there with Churchill in my remote little dot on the globe … She was a household word. She represented ballet; she was ballerina. (Qtd. in Margot chap. 1)
While British ballet may never again experience such a phenomenon as Fonteyn, the three current ballerinas we have highlighted in this post display qualities that are associated with Fonteyn and the “Britishness” of her style, as well as being British by nationality. In an era concerned about the impact of globalisation on the distinctiveness of national styles in ballet (Meisner 11) it feels to us important to note that the legacy of Fonteyn can still be recognised in today’s Royal Ballet ballerinas.
© British Ballet Now & Then
Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … As both English National Ballet and Northern Ballet have been performing their productions of Cinderella in 2019, we will make this the focus of our British Ballet Now & Then post for December. Perhaps we will have some surprises for you …
Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: the first 50 years. Threshold Books, 1981.
Byrne, Emma. “Dancing Queens: meet Britain’s next great ballerinas”. Spectator Life, 29 Nov. 2017, https://life.spectator.co.uk/articles/dancing-queens-meet-britains-next-great-ballerinas/. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.
Cappelle, Laura. “Francesca Hayward: the Royal Ballet’s next crown jewel”. Pointe Magazine, Feb./Mar. 2016, http://www.pointemagazine.com/francesca-hayward-the-royal-ballet-2412851665.html. Accesed 19. Oct. 2019.
Craine, Debra. “Waiting in the Wings: meet Francesca Hayward, our best young ballerina”. The Times, 2 Oct. 2015, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/waiting-in-the-wings-meet-francesca-hayward-our-best-young-ballerina-rr5jpfprs9z. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.
Crompton, Sarah. “Yasmine Naghdi Interview: the British ballerina on her stellar rise at the Royal Ballet”. The Sunday Times, 17 Dec. 2017, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/yasmine-naghdi-interview-the-british-ballerina-on-her-stellar-rise-at-the-royal-ballet-hpbhmlqmt. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.
Daneman, Meredith. Margot Fonteyn. Viking, 2004.
Dowler, G. J. “The Royal Ballet – Triple Bill – The Firebird/A Month in the Country/Symphony in C”. Classical Source, 4 June 2019, http://www.classicalsource.com/db_control/db_concert_review.php?id=16531. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.
Eden, Richard. “Why British Ballet is Dancing with Death”, The Telegraph, 12 May 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/10051368/Why-British-ballet-is-dancing-with-death.html. Accessed date 19 Oct 2019.
Elliot, Karen. Albion’s Dance: British ballet during the second world war. Oxford UP, 2016.
Margot. Directed by Tony Palmer. Isolde Films, 2008.
Meisner, Nadine. “Talking Point”. Dancing Times, vol. 96, no. 1150, 2006, p. 11.
Money, Keith. Fonteyn: The Making of a Legend. Reynal and Company, 1974.
“Romeo and Juliet – Balcony Pas de deux”. YouTube, uploaded by Royal Opera House, 17 June 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zXfYygXX0I. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.
Taylor, Jeffery. “Is Francesca Hayward the New Margot Fonteyn?”. Express, 20 Feb. 2017, http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/theatre/769489/Royal-Ballet-star-Margot-Fonteyn-Sleeping-Beauty. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.
Winter, Anna. “Royal Ballet Principal Lauren Cuthbertson: ‘I strive to improve, but I’m comfortable with who I am”. The Stage, 4 June 2019, http://www.thestage.co.uk/features/interviews/2019/royal-ballet-principal-lauren-cuthbertson/. Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.