DVD Documentary Reviews
By Alidė Kohlhaas
To anyone faintly familiar with the world of ballet the name Margot Fonteyn brings instant recognition. This British dancer, perhaps the most famous the mid-20th century produced, and one who has not been eclipsed internationally since her death in 1991, represents the very epitome of balletic perfection, and social glamour. Few of her adoring public knew during her lifetime that behind that perfection and the glamour lay a dark personal life.
While watching Margot, a Tony Palmer documentary about Dame Margot's life, a sense of supreme sadness enveloped me. I can well remember the joy she brought to her audiences who came to see her perform with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, or her many touring performances while the company still called itself the Sadler's Wells Ballet.
My own tenuous link to Fonteyn rests with living in a house in London that also was home to the ballerina's physiotherapist and being told stories that perhaps should not have been passed on. There is also the recollection of reading in the afternoon paper that Fonteyn and her then dancing partner, Rudolf Nureyev, had been out partying after some performance and subsequently had spontaneously broken out into dance in the early morning hours in a public square not far from my home. The Royal Ballet's prima ballerina assoluta loved to party. Perhaps it was a way to fill an otherwise empty, or unfulfilled life. That is perhaps why the years she spent being partnered by Nureyev held some of her most happy moments. Nureyev, despite his own illness remained devoted to her and is quoted as having said of this partnership that they danced with "one body and one soul."
Fonteyn attracted attention whether she wanted it or not. During her dance partnership with Nureyev stories constantly circulated in the arts community or appeared in some publication that speculated on her relationship with the much younger Nureyev while still married to Roberto (Tito) Arias, the Panamanian lawyer and then ambassador cum politician/adventurer. This speculation about the two dancers' real relationship never ceased even after Arias was shot in 1964 in Panama by a political opponent, and permanently turned into a paraplegic.
As Palmer's documentary reveals through interviews with close friends of the ballerina, Arias's assailant was never arrested. It seems it was more a crime of passion rather than a politcally motivated attack, because Arias, a great philanderer had an affair with his would-be assassin's wife. As in so many Central and South American states, crimes of passion by men carry no criminal stigma.
The documentary, however, does not start nor end with Nureyev. It tells a tale of a chubby little girl born in Reigate, Surrey in 1919, who grew up in Shanghai, where her English father had been posted. Among her dancing school peers there she became known as Little Black Cat. Her real name then was Margaret (Peggy) Hookham. Her mother Hilda, later known as the Black Queen or just BQ among dancers, was the illegitimate daughter of a Brazilian by the name of Fontes and an Irish mother. Hilda took her daughter back to London in the mid-1930s to ensure she had the right teachers to propel her into a dancing career.
The name Peggy Hookham did not quite match the young girl's ambitions, and since the Fontes family in Brazil disapprove of an entertainer using their name, Fonteyn became the next best choice. Her brother Felix also adopted the name in later years. Why this particular name was chosen is one of the little stories revealed by one of Fonteyn's closest associates in this documentary.
Although her mother was her constant companion and a figure to count on, this did not prevent Fonteyn from becoming an underaged mistress of a much older man, nor from having two abortions ballerinas in those days had to make the choice to either dance dance or be mothers, not both and of being stood up by the man at a planned wedding. Although a famous personality, Fonteyn erased his name from her life by destroying of evidence of their time together.
One of her close friends spoke of Fonteyn's very bad judgement in men, and in people in general. While eventually adored by her public, she had a need to love and be loved, ending up with neither. She married the then Panamanian lawyer Arias in 1955, in part because she had always said she would marry before she turned 36. Also in part because she had met Arias during his student years in Cambridge before WWII and she was still a young dancer. He had made an impression on her, which she would later vastly exagerate according to her friends. Little was she to know that Arias, a known womanizer when they met again, saw her not so much as a love-object, but as a good cash-cow and as someone who could advance his social position in Britain. She eventually succumbed to the charms of this married man and father of three. After his divorce and their subsequent marriage, Arias was named ambassador to Britain. While living in London to carry out his ambassadorial duties he never stopped his wife from dancing. This was unusual for a Latin man, but Fonteyn never seemed to realize this. Besides, this son of a former president of Panama had ambitions to overthrow the government of his country and needed her money for weapons.
One thing that stands out in the documentary that despite Fonteyn's prim outer appearance she was always impeccably groomed she never saw herself as being someone special. She actually believed she had no special talent or was a person of little interest right to the very end of her life. Even though she was the prima ballerina of Sadler's Wells which morphed into the Royal Ballet, she expected no special treatment when the company traveled, especially on the long tours through the US after WWII. During those years she and her female fellow dancers became known not as ballerinas, but dollarinas. They brought plenty of much needed hard currency back to depleted Britain although in those days they were paid very little themselves.
What shines through this Palmer documentary, Margot, is that little chubby Peggy became a beautiful, but dutiful dark-eyed swan. No matter how chaotic her personal life, in her dancing life she displayed extraordinary discipline, and she gave her all to those how asked favors of her. Most striking, and perhaps heartbreaking, is how she rushed to Arias's side after he was shot and never left him again, except for dancing engagements long past the age dancers usually perform. They needed the money. All this despite having contemplated divorce just before the fateful shot bound her to Arias for the next 25 years.
Some of the scenes in the documentary showing her taking care of this philanderer reveal a delicate, emaciated woman, always smiling that beguiling smile for which she became famous. She must surely have known that he continued his amorous betrayals despite his condition whenever she was absent to earn money to keep up the farm on which they had settled in the center of Panama. Arias by then was a heavily bloated individual who needed to be constantly turned, even at night, who wolved down his food with no apparent appreciation of the sacrifice this tiny woman made for him.
Arias's son, who in his youth made life often very difficult for Fonteyn, claims his father finally gave up living because he felt a burden to his wife. One doubts this, especially since his mistress committed suicide on the day her lover died. Her burial took place on the on the same day as Arias's, the funeral attended by the very same people who just hours before had been at his graveside.
Fonteyn's final years are unimaginably sad. Palmer knows how to wring the emotions out of the viewer, without turning her life into bathos. Cancer claimed her, though she apparently never acknowledged it. She was poor, with huge debts, and in the end was robbed of even her dignity in death by being placed in a pauper's grave in Panama by the Arias family. It took a British journalist friend to find the grave and ensure that she was finally buried beside her husband.
A great many more things are revealed in this documentary that is a must for those who love ballet. Some of the scenes of Fonteyn dancing are so precious that not to have seen them will be a loss to true balletomanes.