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Ballet training in Fonteyn's day

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I've been plowing through the Daneman biography of Margot Fonteyn (and I do find it rather hard going). So far I'm only through to age 15 or so, but its rather sparse information raises lots of questions for me. I'm particularly intrigued by the differences in training then and now, in Peggy's relationship to her mother (would she have even danced without mom's insistence?), and most important: was the hiring and ascendency of Fonteyn a fortunate accident of the times?

What sort of training did Fonteyn actually get in the pre-Vic-Wells years? It sounds very haphazard (classes in her friend's apartment????). Of what did such training consist? Where did other English dancers get their training? How did training then compare to today's training? I'm genuinely puzzled. Today's young dancers take class daily, and dance very, very intensively. Surely more than a large handful of them could run technical circles around Fonteyn at age 15? And yet ... they don't get hired, let alone become adored stars. Tell me more about the general state/status of ballet in those days, please! What would one see at a performance? How would it compare to what we see today?

Did Fonteyn have such an ineffable artistic quality that she would make the cut today?

As for Fonteyn's relationship to her mother: it seems as though the mother was calling all the shots. (This biography frustrated me immensely by referring constantly to Peggy's "obstinacy" without exploring a likely origin: rebellion at the overbearing control continually excercised by her ambitious mother.) Given another mother, would Fonteyn have ever set foot in a studio, let alone kept at it? How did Fonteyn feel about dancing herself? How did this middle-class mother become so enamored of ballet, anyway?

And -- I'm afraid to ask this one -- should I stop advising zealous moms on Ballet Talk for Dancers to lay off if their daughters don't seem eager to go to class? Am I innocently depriving the world of the next Fonteyn?

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Classes in those days were a mighty catch-as-catch-can affair. Yes, there were people teaching in their flats, or the more fortunate, like Serafina Astafieva, who had a house in the suburbs of London, and converted the front and back parlours of the house into a studio. She was the teacher of both Markova and Dolin. Cecchetti actually managed to get studio space, but the amenities were quite Spartan. His "office" consisted of a cigar box with a receipt book for collecting tuition by-the-class. Edouard Espinosa had an established school, as did Nicolai Legat. Adeline Genée was teaching classes at the Empire Theatre and Carlo Coppi was teaching at the Alhambra.

If we were to go back to the Old Vic or the Mercury Theatre, we'd recognize what was going on, but the arabesques would probably be the first things that would catch our attention. They were lower. If they raised to waist height, the torso went allongé, and it wouldn't suffice today. Both of these stages were not very wide, so choreographers made up the difference by choreographing jumps and beats, as long as they didn't travel too far. Hearing that Helpmann could cross the entire Old Vic stage in one grand jeté used to impress me, until I saw the stage.

Fonteyn actually got her first standout notices playing "trouser roles" that were mostly acting.

And then there was Mrs. Hookham! Ah, what stories the aforementioned Sir Anton Dolin could tell, and did, about her! Daneman wants the term "BQ" to stand for "Black Queen" after a role in "Checkmate", but Dolin maintained that people were already referring to her as "the BQ" before that ballet. The "B" stood for some other epithet.

And lastly, on encouraging zealous mothers with reluctant daughters, if the daughter is truly reluctant, she will probably go passive-aggressive and not accomplish very much, technically. And worst of all, she won't know she's doing it. The mind squelches unpleasant truths we know about ourselves; it's a normal defense mechanism. If the dancer is just going through a moody phase, though, it's a tough road to get back to what s/he actually WANTS to do - DEEP DOWN! You practically have to be there in order to observe what's going on, and the group dynamics thereof.

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And lastly, on encouraging zealous mothers with reluctant daughters, if the daughter is truly reluctant, she will probably go passive-aggressive and not accomplish very much, technically. 

Passive-aggressive! That's exactly what I was thinking about Fonteyn. "Picky eater" -- we're told more than once that Peggy will only eat baked beans on toast -- can also translate to "I'm not gonna eat a darn thing YOU give me." Yet ... she DID accomplish tremendous amounts. Is this in spite of her mother, or because of her?

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I am also reading the Daneman biography. The book seems to be aimed to people who already know a bit about Fonteyn, it also seems to me to be aimed to the British public at large. To understand Fonteyn, her dancing and her personality, you must understand that not only did she live at a time when the technical standards of dancing were totally different, she also lived at a time which was totally different from ours in general. In England during that time, the values were still very much Victorian, if you keep reading you will see that extra marital relations were scandalous. In Margot's time a respectable, middle class, English girl always did as her mother said, parents had much more control over children, so BQ's attitude would have been understandable then. Margot often said that she did not care, really, about ballet. If you read her autobiography she explains that when she first joined the company most dancers thought it unfashionable to show that they were really dedicated, or that they worked hard at ballet, remember at that time in England it was considered bad sport to show off or to say that you were good at something, indeed this is a rather English trait. So, Margot, if taken in that context, makes sense. Margot's rise in the Vic-Wells could be said to have been a result of Markova's departure from that enterprise, it was from that moment on that De Valois decided she would be the company's leading ballerina.

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I think that you're quite correct, Lovebird, in your assessment, so far, of Dame Margot's psychological and sociological makeup. She was, in her own unique way, the lasting artifact of Edwardian society. Not quite Victorian, yet not "modern". Fornication and adultery were quite all right, as long as you didn't talk about your own. Papa and Mama knew best, and don't you forget it. To admit enthusiasm or excitement about or for anything was quite démodé. Margaret's passion for ballet must have been her own, even though she might have denied it to herself.

I'm somewhat reminded of an Edwardian story of two clubmen meeting in the common room.

C#1: I hear that Wallingford's buried his wife.

C#2: You don't say!

C#1: Yes, had to; dead, you know.

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At one of the Ashton symposia during the Lincoln Center Festival, I asked David Vaughan about classes during that time - he had taken them. It was a mixed bag, but there was a great deal of Cecchetti training.

Training varied in emphasis from today, Treefrog. We do train harder, though. There's an article I did for Dance View that looks at a similar question on the other side of the Atlantic - http://www.danceview.org/archives/balanchi...eminiscence.htm

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surely the daneman book will go into the training?

there are plenty of fonteyn videos around still. it sounds like you would really appreciate seeing her technique and performance style for yourself.

my own view is that she would not even get into any good ballet SCHOOL these days, let alone a company... what do others think on this?

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my own view is that she would not even get into any good ballet SCHOOL these days, let alone a company... what do others think on this?

I think the assessment is a bit harsh. I would gladly trade any ten of our current technical, balancing holding, bland technical wizards for one Artist of Fonteyn's caliber, and this from one who has never put Fonteyn on a pedestal.

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Hearing that Helpmann could cross the entire Old Vic stage in one grand jeté used to impress me, until I saw the stage

I wonder if my impression of the size of pre-1950s ballet stages is off. When I saw the size of the stage at the Wadsworth in Hartford, I thought it pretty amazing that Kirstein had dared to try to bring Balanchine over to a venue that tiny. Looking at Shiryeav's films, I assumed the small stage space was for the benefit of the camera. Were dance stages smaller back then? Were even the larger stages filled in with supers, scenery, corps, etc. so that the space available for dancing was smaller? Did the choreographers complain of how cramped the Old Vic was? Or the dancers?

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I saw Fonteyn at the end of her career and only rarely and barely glimpsed a bit of the qualities that caused people to love and even worship her as the standard in role after role--I've even posted on this website about tiring, as a child, of the constant invocations of Fonteyn's greatness, and perhaps even if I had seen her at her greatest I would not have become one of her fans--though I can't know. But, in my judgment, it would be a huge mistake to imagine that the qualities that made her a great artist decades ago would not make her a great artist today.

Technique/training/culture--all may have been different--but Fonteyn was a ballerina; she put an individual and memorable stamp on some of the greatest roles in the repertory and created numerous others. Many in today's audiences still consider her Odette, her Aurora, and her Giselle to be incomparable--and they say so even when they are watching today's leading ballerinas.

Even I, skeptical child as I was, felt the tingle of a certain emotional richness every time I saw her--vulnerability, sweetness, pathos, playfulness-that communicated itself out into the theater.

People don't become myths entirely by accident. My guess is that even Taglioni or Ellsler might have something to "show" us today about the art of ballet. I do not just mean personality or charisma--I mean dancing or, if you like, how classical ballet steps are made expressive (or even simply beautiful). Invocations of the nineteenth-century may seem farfetched, but I would still insist on Fonteyn's greatness as one that was not merely time-bound.

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I don't think you can evaluate Fonteyn's development as an artist without considering the enormous effect that Ashton had on her. It may have been de Valois who first anointed her Markova's successor, but it was Ashton who really formed her, creating role after role to bring out her gifts and push her beyond what she thought she could achieve. It was that, more than the classroom teaching, that made her a great ballerina, and she wouldn't have gone as far as she did without it, then or now.

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I think speculation about Fonteyn today is a bit like saying if Mozart were alive today, he would be 400 years old! But I don't think it is possible to dismiss her technique at all. I saw her Rose Adagio when she was in her 50's, and she managed very well, far better spiritually and technically than most of the NYCB dancers that tried it recently. Technique is so much more than hitting your head with you foot, and the best technique makes things look easy.

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One thing I noticed when I saw Sylvia revived at the Royal Ballet was just how hard Fonteyn's role is. That part couldn't have been done by a ballerina without technique. We often confuse technique (learned ability) for facility (body and natural ability). Most dancers have more facility today - but I'd say technique has more changed in emphasis than improved.

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Well -- it's true, Fonteyn did get a fantastic lucky break VERY early in her career.

Ashton was mad at Markova, who'd become very grand after dancing Giselle and disdained performing in his little ballets. When Markova left the Sadler's Wells ballet to form a company with Anton Dolin, she thought Ashton would come with them, and didn't realize perhaps how seriously Ashton had had it with her, for she persisted in asking him. So he set about making Fonteyn into a Markova; giving VERY young Fonteyn Markova's old roles and making them work for her.

And of course, the Sadler's Wells director, de Valois, saw Fonteyn as the future of the company and pressed her on Ashton.

Ashton also at first found Fonteyn intractable, stubborn, and unmalleable -- he'd finally had it with her, they had it out, she broke down in tears, and agreed to co-operate.

Mothers? Check out Suzanne Farrell's mother, who was almost as determined as the BQ -- though in a very American, mid-western way.

Class in the old days? Well, "The Red Shoes" has a few glimpses of company class -- I think I remember Massine assigning something like 32 rondes de jambes en l'air....

Ballet in England was not yet institutionalized when Fonteyn was a girl -- like ballet in the USA, it was transplanted there by Russians, esp by former members of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes -- Balanchine and his school in the USA, the "mothers of British ballet" in England, Miriam Rambert and Ninette de Valois.

The death of Diaghilev was almost as cataclysmic for ballet as the Russian Revolution was. Richard Buckle's infectiously readable biographies of Nijinsky and Diaghilev will maybe give you an idea of the great tradition and the shocks it went through after the Russian Revolution, once the connection with the Imperial School was broken and they could not go back to Russia for more training or for new dancers.

The Ballets Russes training was not purely classical -- esp under Massine, it became almost a character company.

but also, classicism changed as new choreographers emerged wanting new qualities. There's a lot more moving around in choreography today, there was a great deal more holding a position "back then" -- both can be difficult (e.g. what comes after a leap? it's standard training now to use a saut de chat as a preparatoin for a pirouette. In the old days it was more standard training to use a grand jete as the preparation for a long pose in arabesque fondue....) These develop different kinds of strength.

Fonteyn had beautiful placement, beautiful proportions, and wonderful musicality.... Her way of dancing, the choreography and its values, favored a look that was an abstraction of womanliness but not VERY abstracted -- not nearly as abstracted as Balanchine's, which virtually abandoned the bust as a center of interest. Fonteyn 's whole figure, and especially as Ashton wanted it, with a highly "worked" torso, had marvellous and very specific plasticity above the waist -- higher legs would have spoiled the spiraling lines of these ideal positions.

About a year ago Alexandra posted a photograph of Fonteyn on pointe in a low passe with the torso bent back in a fantastically deep cambre – she was not inflexible, far from it, but her appeal was not centered in the legs.

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To me, the quality which most endeared Fonteyn to the public was her humanity. She may have been a superbly trained ballerina, she was a consummate classical dancer, but above all she was a woman, just like all the other women in the audience. She connected with the audience, a bit like Princess Di you know, every one felt accepted and understood in their presence. Mel what a funny anecdote you told, my father used to tell his friends a similar one. I remember reading that book on Moira Shearer written by Pigeon Crowle in which Moira said that English ballet classes, read De Valois' classes, were very boring and exhausting. They would consist of doing a movement over and over again, like sixteen grand battements front, side, back then turn around, same on the other side and actually sounds quite similar to the snippet shown in the Red Shoes.

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