January 13th, 2018

The special qualities of ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn [Part I]

British ballerina Margot Fonteyn was never showy, never athletic, never gymnastic. She was restrained, delicate and refined, light as air. She seemed like a real (although ideal) human being rather than an infinitely stretchable creature with elastic for connective tissue.

Fonteyn’s biggest strengths were acting ability and charm, which Fonteyn had in particular abundance. They made up for her lack of the sort of modern-day high extensions I’ve referred to as “extreme ballet”:

Although many arts contain elements of the physical—for example, musicians must use their bodies to coax a glorious sound from inanimate instruments—dance has always been the art that most seamlessly merges the athletic with the esthetic as well as the dramatic. But balance must be there or it becomes an empty physical exercise (what some of my dance teachers used to call circus tricks or nightclub acts), sensational in the physical sense, empty of the soul that makes it all meaningful.

Fonteyn was the antithesis of extreme ballet. Her leg never went very high, and I doubt that she could even land a job in the corps de ballet in one of today’s ballet companies due to this gymnastics failure. Somehow she managed to get the job done in terms of technique and doing the steps, perhaps through sheer willpower, but it was her perfectly-placed torso and arms and her expressive face that carried the day. They were the calm and serene center from which she danced.

No one moves anything like this today. Film has trouble capturing what Fonteyn actually did (or for that matter, what any dancer does). But I think this clip shows you at least a small glimpse of what was so very special about seeing Fonteyn in person. It’s a brief excerpt from “Sleeping Beauty,” often thought to have been her greatest role:

I’m not sure how old Fonteyn was in that clip, but I believe it was taken fairly early on (the narrator describes an opening night in 1949, when she would have been 30, but I think the film was taken somewhat later). Here she is again in the same ballet; this was in 1965 when Fonteyn was 45 or 46, geriatric in ballet years.

But watch Fonteyn’s backbend at 20:13-20:21 in the short excerpt I’ve cued up here. It’s not just some athletic feat, although it is an athletic feat. It’s a feat of timing and expression and line—how she pushes it beyond what you expect, how she sustains it, and then how she suddenly snaps right out of it. Note also the restraint and yet the beauty of her not-very-high arabesques:

As a contrast, take a look at the same moment performed by modern-day Diana Vishneva, a Maryinsky star who has often appeared in this country with American Ballet Theater. Vishneva can dance rings around Fonteyn in the technical sense, and she’s not devoid of artistry—she’s certainly not a mere automaton. But the line and the timing of Fonteyn in that backbend—a physical feat that ought to be a piece of cake for Vishneva—are nowhere to be seen. If you blink you might even miss the backbend moment; it begins at about :50 and ends just a few seconds later:

The role is supposed to be that of a 16-year-old at her birthday, but Vishneva looks so solemn and intent on getting that leg way up there, and keeping secure in her balances (neither thing really is a problem for her) that she forgets to show us why she’s dancing—the joy of it. This is what I so often see in too many dancers today: a sequential posing, an overriding attention to and awareness of the beautiful picture they are making with each separate step rather than a liquid and expressive flow of movement. Smiles that come and go often seem fake, alternating with a sometimes-tense preparation for the physical feat that is about to come.

[NOTE: To be continued in Part II, coming soon.]

32 Responses to “The special qualities of ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn [Part I]”

  1. Steve57 Says:


  2. Steve57 Says:

    I thought I had been banned.

  3. neo-neocon Says:


    Not in the least.

    There is a slight problem with the blog today; I think it’s a caching problem. I’m working on it. Perhaps that was the cause of the problem you encountered.

  4. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Being kind of thick, I need to see an actress dancing, rather than somebody doing gymnastics to music.

  5. Steve57 Says:



  6. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    The difference is obvious to those with eyes to see.

  7. AesopFan Says:

    Fonteyn definitely had more elegance and control, very noticeable.
    Just because I have no idea and it might make a difference in confidence, how much does the male dancer contribute to the balance of the female dancer during the back-bend?

  8. Stephen Ippolito Says:

    Thank you for being my skilled guide into the wonderful world of ballet.

    Until I happened on your site I was like most of the others in the audience when I attended, convinced that good ballet was all about gymnastic ability and that the best dancers were the most eye-catching acrobats on stage.

    I now know, thanks to you pointing out the subtleties, that it’s not ultimately about high-kickin’ and that the best dancers are really those who combine technique with nuance and acting ability – thereby really inhabiting the role.

    Dame Margot is chiefly known in Australia for her long-time stage pairing with Sir Robert Helpmann.

    Interestingly, Sir Robert got his first break from Dame Ninette De Valois who recorded in her diary after first seeing him dance as a very young man that apart from being being “cute as a monkey, quick as a squirrel” the main quality commending him was “his sense of theatre” which more than compensated in her mind for a technical weakness in his style.

    Perhaps that’s why they were a good pairing.

    I also apply your advice to my other artistic interest – Italian Opera. Maria Callas perhaps didn’t have the most powerful or colourful voice but she seems to me to have made up for it by being a really great actress.

  9. The Other Chuck Says:

    Neo, you are pointing out something that is similar in all performance arts, whether it is dancing, singing, or musical instruments. It’s the difference between fake emotions and real ones. The joy you point out in Fonteyn is what I’ve seen my whole life in the best pianists. It’s why I can admire the artistry of Martha Argerich and Evgeny Kissin, but prefer to listen to Murray Perahia or old recordings of Horowitz any day. It’s the indescribable thing that can bring you to tears.

  10. Steve57 Says:

    Stephen Ippolito said:

    Thank you for being my skilled guide into the wonderful world of ballet.

    Maybe I should be banned.


    Georgian National Ballet, Tbilisi. Amazing rehearsal footage.

    I was like, “Dancing, knives? Count me in!”

  11. Stephen Ippolito Says:

    Steve 57, Why wait?

    Sometimes it’s kinder to just pull the pin.


  12. Sharon W Says:

    Thank you Neo for an interesting post. I noticed the same thing in figure skating which I used to follow. Technical brilliance is only one factor when it comes to performance. When it comes at the expense of artistry it detracts.

  13. Ben David Says:

    In the second clip there are differences in the choreography that break the focus on the 2 partners with “padding” movements before they get back together. In addition, the Russian dancer looks out at us at some crucial moments, instead of at her partner. And they even get the rush-to-kiss a bit off: it’s kind of a cheek bump fake kiss. Fonteyn only has eyes for her man, and they get the distance – and hence the emotional point – just right.

    At least in this excerpt I don’t see much difference in leg extension except for that initial back bend. In all the other bits where the ballerina is being turned on point by her partner, they both keep to hip height.

  14. AesopFan Says:

    Stephen: “I also apply your advice to my other artistic interest – Italian Opera. Maria Callas perhaps didn’t have the most powerful or colourful voice but she seems to me to have made up for it by being a really great actress.”

    I used to attend the Houston Opera while in college, in pursuit of some cultural polish (in retrospect, my hometown was more high-brow than I appreciated at the time), and noticed a similar effect in the one performance I saw by Beverly Sills — she somehow brought much more “acting” into the singing than any of the other divas I had seen.
    This was in the early seventies, which Wiki informs me was during her peak years.

  15. Ann Says:

    My goodness, what a difference. Fonteyn’s “liquid and expressive flow of movement” is something to behold. “Sequential posing” is a perfect description of the other kind of dancing. Robotic-looking in comparison with Fonteyn’s.

  16. steve walsh Says:

    This is very interesting to me. The first ballet I attended was Swan Lake back in the early 80’s. It was lovely – the music, the dancing, everything. I couldn’t make much sense of it as it was a totally new and foreign thing to me. The combination of the music and dance was just gorgeous.

    The scene that impressed me most was one in which the stage was covered with the fog from dry ice. The fog rose up to the height of the bottom of the ballerina’s tutu. Suddenly the dancer, as a swan, came onto the stage. I could not see her legs because of the fog, and her upper body, that I could see, gave no indication that she even had legs. She glided across the stage just as a swan would on the water. That blew me away and I can still see today.

  17. Steve57 Says:

    First Island chain. I bet I was the only one who knew.

  18. Steve57 Says:

    Neo, now you know.

  19. Steve57 Says:

    The point is to make sure you push the Chinese Navy into chokepoint so as they can’t make blue water.

  20. Steve57 Says:

    The Pacific.

  21. Steve57 Says:


  22. Steve57 Says:

    Like it’s a secret.

  23. neo-neocon Says:

    steve walsh:

    Yes, the fourth act of Swan Lake can be astoundingly beautiful. It’s almost a mood piece, and the music is sublime.

    I think you will enjoy this and this.

  24. Elaine T Says:

    Thanks for posting this. Fonteyn’s grace and control put the more modern dancers I’ve seen in the shade. That other one you posted just doesn’t compare, even in video.

    My kid has recently developed an interest in ballet & classical music due to a Japanese anime (me – a what?) called Princess Tutu (me – cringe) which is sort of based on Swan Lake with other folklore/ballet stories mixed in. The music, being all classical and mostly ballet compositions is fabulous, (I spotted Swan Lake, Prokofiev (R&J), Mugusorky, Beethover, and Dance Macabre whoever composed that) and the studio worked with a professional ballet corp somewhere to get movements and mime right. They draw the grace of Fonteyn in their dancers.

    It may strike you as a horrible mishmash – I discovered it grew on me as I was obliged to watch it, to be able to discuss it, and it did give the kid an appreciation for ballet and classical music previously missing. Now, though, the complaint is that no modern dancers do it that way, they’re too busy performing. —

    but if you ever took a look at it, I’d be interested in your response. (start at the end and work backwards. I’d never have stuck through watching if I hadn’t done that.)

  25. neo-neocon Says:

    Elaine T:

    Well, I just watched a 3-minute Swan Lake sequence from the movie, and although I probably won’t be watching any more, I have to say that the ballet parts are drawn more correctly than most cartoon renditions, although of course there’s nothing realistic about it.

    The best cartoon spoof of ballet by far, on the other hand, is from “Fantasia.” I don’t know whether you’re familiar with it, but I discuss some clips here. The Disney animators—who didn’t have computers—mimic ballet movement so well, and with such humor.

  26. Steve57 Says:

    I know it wasn’t aimed at me.


    Fourth Act from the ballet Swan Lake (excerpt)

  27. Steve57 Says:

    How can I repay you.

  28. Steve57 Says:

    Fonteyn definitely had more elegance and control, very noticeable.


    An Evening with the Royal Ballet, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, 1963

    Again I ask, how can I repay you.

    Oh, wait. Maybe I already did.

  29. Steve57 Says:

    You are welcome for the 20 years.

  30. Steve57 Says:

    I don’t mean to be a jerk.

  31. Elaine T Says:

    I showed your clips in this one to the kid who said ‘the other dancer is wobbling on her toes. And not interesting to watch. ‘ Fonteyn, OTOH, the kid wants MORE.

    Yes, we know Fantasia. We actually dug out the ‘making of’ discs from the set recently and saw (among other things) the animators working with a dancer to get the movements down right.

  32. neo-neocon Says:

    Elaine T:

    Your kid shows good taste, I think. I also think that in general, people hunger for beauty.

    I love those Fantasia dance sequences. They’re not only very funny, but they are spot on about movement. Nowadays computers can mimic movement. Back then it required a keen human.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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