Fonteyn, Nureyev + The Dizzying Dynamics of Dance

Fonteyn, Nureyev + The Dizzying Dynamics of Dance

By Libby Longino



Before there was Madonna and JT, or Amber Riley and Derek Hough, there was Fonteyn and Nureyev. 

By Libby Longino

She was the classy one: Dame of the British Empire, decked out in Dior and pearls, wife of a diplomat offstage, and the epitome of elegance and refinement onstage. He was the monstre sacré: young, virile, prone to tantrums, the bête noir of Russia for his defection, and committed to a passionate, gritty style of dance. She was contemplating retirement at age 42, but when he showed up as her partner at age 24, those plans went out the window. Together, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were not just one of ballet’s greatest duos of all time; they were full-on superstars.

She was contemplating retirement at age 42, but when he showed up as her partner at age 24, those plans went out the window.

Fonteyn was already a big name long before Nureyev arrived on the scene. Her effortless artistry and pure line had been the embodiment of British ballet since the 1930s, and she was the muse to the great English choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton. When she performed the title role in “The Sleeping Beauty” in the Royal Ballet’s first American tour after World War II, the New York Times dance critic proclaimed himself ”in the presence of magic.” Time magazine, which put her on its cover after the tour, raved that Fonteyn ”had restored as much glitter to Britain’s tarnished tiara as any mission the English had sent abroad since the war.” The Empire may have been crumbling, but Fonteyn’s balance never wavered. 

The ’60s were a different matter, and Nureyev arrived on the scene just in time to take advantage of the moment, helping to keep ballet relevant and Fonteyn at the heart of it. Having defected to the West from the Soviet Union in 1961, Nureyev had the air of the outlaw about him, while his lacquered hair and heavy makeup contributed a touch of the exotic. But in his dancing he remained scrupulously committed to technique and to the classics. Indeed, it was this old-fashioned devotion combined with the youthful ferocity that helped to make his partnership with Fonteyn so magnetic. 

Black and white image of Margot in front facing left and Rudolf holding her from behind, during a performance

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev rehearse Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballet Marguerite and Armand.

Source Hulton-Deutsch Collections/Corbis

Ashton was not blind to this, and his final ballet for his beloved Fonteyn would essentially be a vehicle to show off their dynamism. Set to two Liszt piano concertos, ”Marguerite et Armand ” tells the story of an aging courtesan who falls in love with a young suitor (further fueling rumors that Fonteyn and Nureyev’s passion for one another was not confined to the stage — rumors they coyly neither confirmed nor denied). An event before it premiered — fifty photographers attended the dress rehearsal — Fonteyn and Nureyev received twenty-one curtain calls for their performance on opening night. 

The Empire may have been crumbling, but Fonteyn’s balance never wavered.

Fonteyn and Nureyev would continue to tour together for fifteen years and cement themselves as popular and critical darlings. But their care for one another would extend beyond the stage. When few people knew that Fonteyn was dying of ovarian cancer in Panama in the early 1990s, there was Nureyev, bringing her old ”I Love Lucy” episodes and holding her hand. 

While they immortalized many roles, the piece Ashton choreographed just for them is still the best introduction to their partnership. This clip also includes bonus commentary from Ashton at the beginning, but if you want to skip straight to the dancing, it begins at 1:40. And if you’re pressed for time, start at 9:20 to catch examples of perfectly matched lines, gorgeous lifts and smoldering chemistry, as well as Fonteyn making walking backwards on pointe look easy.