February 10th, 2018

The special qualities of ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn: Part II

[Part I can be found here.]

This next clip is an example of an element of Fonteyn’s specialness that’s extremely subtle. It’s not even a dance step; it’s more a bit of acting expressed through movement (acting through dance was her specialty). Though small, effects like this are important in setting the tone and telling us what’s going on emotionally rather than being a mere physical exercise.

Audiences want to know (or used to want to know) why the dancer is doing something, particularly in old-fashioned classical ballet. After all, aren’t the princess and her cavalier supposed to be in love, or falling in love? Shouldn’t they be looking at each other, for example? Relating to each other, rather than just making pretty shapes with their bodies in space?

So just before Fonteyn and her Prince begin to dance here, she turns and pauses to look at him and give him her hand. Here’s the moment:

It may not seem like much, I grant you. But the more modern (and modern-style) dancer Vishneva barely even glances at her Prince. Who are these two people to each other, besides dance partners on a stage? Nothing much, it seems (the photography is much better though, of course):

And then there are those balances at the end of the Rose Adagio, the ones you saw at the end of that first Fonteyn segment in Part I. Fonteyn apparently began the tradition of putting both arms up for the balance that comes after each of her suitors takes turns circling her around in attitude (“attitude” is when the leg is up in the back and bent, as opposed to arabesque where it’s straight).

Here’s the passage again; note how secure and relaxed she appears, and how each suitor waits his turn before he approaches her. It seems she’s balancing out of sheer exuberance (unfortunately the clip is so blurry we can’t really see her face):

Here’s Svetlana Zakharova, a modern “extreme ballet” practitioner who is at her best (IMHO) in other-worldly roles such as “Swan Lake,” where her near-freakish extensions serve her well (but whose interpretations are nevertheless not my cup of tea). She doesn’t put both arms up, but nevertheless each suitor in turn lines up very close to her previous one and to Zakharova, in order to be able to rescue her quickly in case she falters:

Here’s a version from the Royal Ballet (Fonteyn’s old company) recorded in 1999, with a dancer who was supposedly a great success in the role. She puts her arms up as Fonteyn did, but you can see a problem:

I have little doubt that Fonteyn sometimes wavered in the Rose Adagio, too, particularly as she got older. But she never wavered in her ability to impart charm and grace and believability to everything she danced. She never seemed to have that frozen, deer-in-the-headlights look (or the downcast eyes, looking at the floor) I saw in the eyes of almost every more recent dancer I watched on YouTube performing this adagio, in order to research this post. And believe me, I watched many.

Here’s one of the best recent dancers I found in terms of the ability to balance. Nevertheless, why on earth is she balancing—what is she trying to express? Why is she looking at the floor, and then smiling afterward for a nanosecond, and then looking at the floor again? It seems to me as though she’s saying “Oh-oh, now I have to concentrate; whew! I made it! Smile! Oh-oh, now I have to concentrate again…”

This next clip of Fonteyn is included because it has many closeups, which showcase her acting ability. She was subtle and never hammy, but projected to the furthest reaches of the theater. Just how she accomplished that I will never know:

And here Fonteyn is on her 60th birthday, proving that technique can fade but Fonteyn went on:

I’ll give these former Royal Ballet dancers the last word:

14 Responses to “The special qualities of ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn: Part II”

  1. om Says:


    Very nice! Art for art’s sake.

  2. Sharon W Says:

    Beautiful and interesting. Thank you.

  3. Artfldgr Says:

    Dont worry, they gonna fix it for you!!!!!!!!!

    And so ballet remains a sexist view of the world — one that privileges the woman..

    Of Women, Men and Ballet in the 21st Century

    Should we agree with the choreographer George Balanchine (1904-83) that “ballet is woman”? Or do we qualify this, as the choreographer Pam Tanowitz (born in 1969) has recently done, by saying that ballet is a man’s idea of woman?

    End of the Ballerina Era?
    Those ballets are classic examples of the male gaze. The format, admittedly, permitted variations.

    Ballet Has A Sexism Problem, And Even Its Brightest Stars Don’t Know How To Solve It

    Ballet Has a Sexism Problem—but I’m Fighting Back from the Inside
    When New York City Ballet principal dancer Ashley Bouder realized that women were rarely tapped to choreograph ballets, she decided to create one herself.


    and from another point of view

    After years of training in classical dance, I gave it up aged 10 on the premise that it wasn’t ‘cool’. For years, I didn’t regret it. But, slowly, I’ve started to look back differently on the experience, as one of feeling empowered to do something I loved, and this March I decided to do something about it. I decided to take back the tutu.

    Considering that Germaine Greer once reportedly called ballet a “cultural cancer”, I know this project is not going to be easy.

    I’m not the sort of woman that people credit with ballet in her past. It could be the tattoos or the punk-rock aesthetic. But it comes down to this: ballet, in the public consciousness, is for ultra-feminine, delicate girls.

  4. Esther Says:

    Fascinating comparison, thank you.

    Not easy to balance on one set of toes, let alone with a leg in the air, both arms raised over head and still be graceful and express emotion at the same time.

    Also can’t help but notice the extreme gender contrasts in the current political climate. Shouldn’t society have encouraged these uber women to work in tech to fill gender equality quotas? (Ah well, everything can be about politics.)

  5. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    Although I’m still in a kind of romantic fog over you hoisting that tambourine, I will endeavor to be somewhat objective and sensible. I deeply appreciate your reflections on ballet. They’re a sort of rich mini-course in culture and western civilization. I know we’ve discussed this re ballet in the past, but when Margot Fonteyn dances, it’s not just that she’s a trained dancer of immense natural talent; it’s that she’s an educated dancer. She is imbued with (an appreciative of) all the music and art and history and literature that gives grace and character to Western Civilization. And this gives grace and character to what she does. What we see in her dancing is, frankly, what we see in your blog — not mere talent, not mere training, but all that is comprehensively implied in the term — upbringing.

  6. Ann Says:

    I think all of the things mentioned here capture what made Fonteyn unique:

    Her pale face, black hair, luminous eyes, and engaging smile were her trademarks. With her total musicality, her beautiful physique, her soft style of movement, her gentle loving manner, and her exquisite lines, she created a strong connection with audiences all over the world. She especially stood out in lyrical roles. She could dance the most difficult choreography with a disarming ease.

  7. arfldgrs Says:

    old white woman.. thats sexist and horrid..

    Redefining ballet: A queer feminist introduction – Shameless Magazine

    you really have to change neo, or else..

    when they came for the footballers, i did nothing
    when they came for the wrestlers, i did nothing
    when they came for ballet, there was no one to stand with me, eh?


    “I was basically kicked out of the ballet conservatory school I was attending when I was 16 because I was too muscular, too strong. My teachers told me I looked like a Mack truck because I was too powerful,” says Katy Pyle, artistic director of Ballez, a queer, feminist ballet company located in New York City.

    Unfortunately, Pyle’s experience is not unique. Ballet is notoriously exclusive, favouring a white, cis, heteronormative, thin, and able-bodied ideal. According to ballet rules, male dancers should be bulky and masculine, female dancers should be small and feminine, and anyone else is pushed to the back, alongside the people of colour forced into stereotypical side-roles.

    can we talk about some other dead arts from long ago?
    this is DEAD DEAD DEAD now, and if not, it will be soon

    i mentioned Jiang Qing for a reason..
    you do know her? Madam Mao?

    Jiang Qing
    Red Detachment of Women (ballet)

    a Chinese ballet which premiered in 1964 and was made one of the Eight Model Operas which dominated the national stage during the Cultural Revolution. It is best known in the West as the ballet performed for U.S. President Richard Nixon on his visit to China in February 1972.

    Revolutionary opera
    See also: Korean revolutionary opera

    In China, revolutionary opera refers to the model operas planned and engineered during the Cultural Revolution by Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong.

    They were considered revolutionary and modern in terms of thematic and musical features when compared with traditional operas. Many of them were adapted to film.

    Originally, eight revolutionary operas were produced, eighteen by the end of the period. Instead of the “emperors, kings, generals, chancellors, maidens, and beauties” (diwang jiangxiang yahuan xiaojie) of the traditional Peking opera, which was banned as “feudalistic and bourgeois,” they told stories from China’s recent revolutionary struggles against foreign and class enemies. They glorified the People’s Liberation Army and the bravery of the common people, and showed Mao Zedong and his thought as playing the central role in the victory of socialism in China. Although they originated as operas, they soon appeared on LPs, in comic books, on posters, postcards, and stamps; on plates, teapots, wash basins, cigarette packages, vases, and calendars. They were performed or blasted from loudspeakers in schools, factories, and fields by special performing troupes.[2] The Eight Model Operas dominated the stage in all parts of the country during these years, leading to the joke “Eight hundred million people watched eight shows.” (Bayi ren kan bage xi).

    Gong xi fa choi!!!!!!

  8. arfldgrs Says:

    i went and saw the all male version of swan lake..

    why not relize that your old dead white woman sexist ballet is gone? and is being replaced while you look backwards


    Ballez is performance, company, class and community, that invites everyone to witness and celebrate the history and performances of lesbian, queer, and transgender people.

    Ballez re-writes the narratives of Story Ballets to tell the history of our lineage, as dancers, and as queers.

    Ballez re-imagines Archetypal characters to reflect multiplicity: of identity, desire and expression.

    Ballez dancers claim our inherent nobility and belonging within, around, and on top of a form that has historically excluded us.

    Ballez celebrates the virtuosity of complexly gendered embodiment, energetic eloquence, queer coding, and the magical adaptability of expression that Ballez dancers have cultivated through their lives as a way to survive and thrive.

    Ballez is created by a community of performers of diverse trainings and backgrounds, each of whom has a unique gift to offer to this collaborative form.

  9. Steve57 Says:

    I was goofing around on the intertubes. I came across this nugget and I was captivated, but then I realized, “If this were important, neo would have written about it.” And maybe I’m only enamored of her because I’m a neo-phyte.


    Carmen – Diana Vishneva

    (Complete with Putin, this time.)

    She wasn’t one of the “Dueling Carmens” you wrote about in June 2013 (Svetlana Zakharova and Maya Plisetskaya) . I was wondering what you thought of her as a performer.

  10. neo-neocon Says:


    She certainly puts a lot more sexy fire into it than most other modern-day Carmens. That’s good. But for me, there’s no comparison to Plisetskaya, whose sexuality was smoldering and serious and almost threatening in this role, and whose extensions were not gymnastic. As Carmen, she seemed almost dangerous.

    Gymnastic extensions in ballet bother me. They spoil the line, they draw attention to themselves and away from the flow of the dance. There’s a reason they used to be discouraged. Now they seem to be required. Every time she kicks that leg up to about a 180 angle I think of the circus or acrobatics, not dance.

  11. Steve57 Says:

    I don’t know if this will encourage you to continue blogging, neo, or make you want to quit. I had absolutely no interest in ballet until you posted something on the Georgian national ballet.

    Which involves knives.


    Sometimes throwing knives. And I’m like, cool! I can get down with that.

    As I continued to follow your blog it began to dawn on my hunter-gatherer-rugby-player-brain that there might be something else beyond the sword play I should be appreciating.

    If you are interested in such a primitive’s opinion, I agree with you that Plisetskaya was smoldering and dangerous. Zakharova was seductive. I fell in love with her. And Vishneva seemed happiest and most expressive when dancing alone. She struck me as having all the qualities of an excellent ex-wife.

  12. Steve57 Says:

    I still have no idea what you mean by “ruining the line.” Which is great, since once you stop learning you start dying.

  13. neo-neocon Says:


    Take a look at my new post on the subject of the dueling Carmens.

    I love those Georgian guys! Love, love, love!

    But they might make better ex-husbands, too. Then again, maybe not. Fierce.

    I talked about line in the “extreme ballet” post, and gave some photographic examples.

  14. Ymar Sakar Says:

    Sometimes throwing knives. And I’m like, cool! I can get down with that.

    That’s not ballet, that’s guerilla assassination techniques covered up as dance routines. The Chinese red theaters had them as well in the jiangu eras. That’s probably mispelled transliteration but whatever, before China adopted gunpowder under Mao, for the Western modernists.

    The martial dance form for swords is called the Sword Dance…. okay, I guess that doesn’t even mean anything and is merely its label now. The Sword Dance, as I call it, is the integration of the physical senses, connecting the body’s nerves to the weight and em field of the sword itself. This integrates the metal tool into the user’s motor control system, allowing them to sense, balance, predict, and counter act objects in their body’s space territory.

    For dancing, this allows them to integrate weapons like the sword as a limb, to remotely control it as such. For the video, two users demonstrate their sword dance prowess by interacting with each other under melody/rhythm without accidents.

    The sword dance is useful for life and death incidents that warriors get themselves in, since dodging an enemy’s sword slash by 1 centimeter is better than dodging it by 1 inch. It is easier to counter with a sure fire kill technique, if you only have to move back 1 centimeter, and it is harder for the enemy to dodge or retreat out of the range of the sword. They would need to enter grappling range and counter long range with short range techniques, which is difficult if they are on a technique cooldown or imbalance posture.

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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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