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I believe that Fonteyn was at the height of her great powers as a dancer from about 1964-68, at least from my poor powers of observation.

For whatever reason, she was an astonishing technical being, but also had the indefinable "soul" which carried her after her physical abilities declined. Her last recorded performances, including the Ballerina in a Baryshnikov video, still had the unusual cool fire of what she was able to achieve, and the "Fred step" with Ashton in "Salut d'Amour" could serve as an object lesson to us all.

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I don't think it's all a matter of technique. Quite simply, I don't like that generation of English dancers that Fonteyn belonged to. I've always felt the English have tried to lionize artists like Helpman and Soames who were just not great artists. She's never appealed to me because she just plain doesn't seem like a very expressive dancer. Even dancing with Rudy, I find her to be a cold fish and have always been perplexed by her stardom. Did she have an exciting stage presense? (in fairness, I've never seen her on stage, only in videos, including some from earlier in her career). I don't expect a woman dancing in her 40's to have knockout technique (although dancers like Plisetskaya and Hightower certainly did) but I do expect her to use what she's got and have some panache and I really have never seen it. This is not a putdown, I just don't see what other people do. Looking at her Corsaire, other than Rudy's dynamism, it seems completely flat to me. I think Alicia Alonso was a better Giselle at an advanced age than Fonteyn was. And I've always preferred Moira Shearer to Margot. Perhaps that sound stupid to some, but I'll stand by it.

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lu! don't feel like you have to go away just because some people don't agree with you!. you have every right to your opinion. i think that because people love fonteyn a great deal and because you asked, they want to tell you what they see and why they love her. i think she was really special, but i wouldn't be angry with you if you really didn't, as long as you weren't with me; i wouldn't put you down for your opinions, as long as they were considered, as i wouldn't expect to be put down for mine. stick around! this is a great place!

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I have seen several recent comments along the lines of of course Fonteyn had no technique (there was one in the Peter Martins interview in Talk, as well), and it is odd. She clearly had enough technique to dance the most difficult classical ballets, so clearly her techinque cannot be just dismissed. I also think that ballet technique has to include things like epaulment, musicality, placement, hands, grace, and I would think ability to mime effectively. It is probably harder to hold a perfect 90 degree arabesque for just the exact amount of time without any seeming effort that to hurl a leg up any which way, no matter how flashy that looks. For those that found her cold, well, tastes differ, but that is not a matter of techinque. I don't think she was my absolute favorite, because if I had the chance to see someone one more time, I would probably choose Beriosova, but even late in her career she had the ability to make the audience (at least me in the audience) believe in her character.

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ralphsf, you ask if Fonteyn had an exciting stage presence. You bet she did! She could light up the entire theatre and was the very opposite of a cold fish. I saw her dancing occasionally in the 1950s and then frequently from the mid sixties through to the end of her career and if, for example, I think of her in the Rose adagio I remember her with a beautiful classical line, balancing seemingly endlessly and effortlessly, and wreathed in smiles.

But this posting has raised what for me is an interesting point, and one I've often wondered about. And that is just how much sense of a performance do you get from a video? Leaving aside the Fonteyn question, I was lucky enough to see Vasiliev's Spartacus on a number of occasions and whatever I might think of the ballet as a whole I found his performance sensational on any number of levels. But for me, very little of that comes through on the video. And the same could be said for a number of other performances I've seen in both live and recorded versions. Also I've seen footage of Chaboukiani which shows him to have been an impressive dancer, but I don't really get more than a glimpses of what made him one of the major artists of the last century, according to people whose opinions I respect. So, what I wonder is how much do you really get from a video and can you judge a dancer fairly on that basis alone?

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no, i can pretty much unequivocally say IMHO that you can't judge anyone on that basis alone. it's of course unparalleled in the sense that we can see what people looked like that we have no chance of seeing live. but it is no substitute at all for a live performance, not for me anyway.

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I could not agree more that videos are inadequate - better than nothing, but cannot convey the electric atmosphere of a really good performance. I saw Fonteyn live many times from 1951 onwards, though mostly in the 1960s, and I have seen the videos. Absolutely no comparison, particularly in Marguerite and Armand. I have never experienced audience atmosphere like that at the early Fonteyn/Nureyev performances. Exciting stage presence - yes! And doubly exciting when Nureyev was there.

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Though I'm too young to have seen Fonteyn dance live, many of her filmed performances with and without Nureyev capture her unique brand of magic *and* very fine technique. Her radiant stage presence and strength as a dancer are clear to see in the 'Rose Adagio', 'Romeo & Juliet', 'Marguerite & Armand', 'Le Corsaire' pdd and 'Ondine'.

What I think is most important about Fonteyn is that she had a distinct style and personality that is lacking in many ballerinas today who seem concerned only with showing off their virtuosity and care little or not at all for expressiveness. Darci Kistler is a case in point, in my opinion.

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Melissa, I'm so glad you think that the videos have shown you something of the magic - and I agree with your comments about virtuosity being too important today, as well, though I can't comment on Darci Kistler because I've never seen her, even on video, as far as I know!

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This thread caused me to hop over to Amazon to buy Fonteyn video to see for myself. But I'm wondering which one to buy. "An evening with the Royal Ballet?", "Swan Lake"?, "Fonteyn & Nureyev: A perfect Partnership" or "The Margot Fonteyn story" Or something else entirely? Does anyone have suggestions for the first Fonteyn/Nureyev video?.

Also, I don't understand Mellisa's comment about Darci Kistler. Can you expand on it?

To my eye, Kistler has fine technique, but it is her lyrical qualities as a dancer that make such a wonderful ballerina. It sounds as if you would disagree with one of those opinions.

Cargill's comment about the Peter Martins Talk interview, is also interesting. I always wondered who he was referring to, but I thought he was referring to a male dancer.

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Hi Justafan,

I agree with you that Kistler has fine technique, but when I've seen her dance live and on tape there seems to be nothing going on inside her: no personality, no expresiveness, nothing. And she has that permanent smile on her face that drives me a little crazy. Frankly, I don't understand what Balanchine saw in her, and she's not in the league of dancers that he fostered like Farrell and LeClerq.

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For your first Fonteyn video, I'd recommend 'Fonteyn & Nureyev: A Perfect Partnership'. It includes great clips from 'Le Corsaire' pas de deux, 'Giselle', 'Romeo & Juliet' 'Les Sylphides', 'Marguerite & Armand' and even an excerpt of them dancing a work by Martha Graham.

If you're able to get a second video, 'The Margot Fonteyn Story' is also excellent. Fonteyn herself narrates the story of her life in dance. The film includes wonderful dance footage including a beautiful clip of her dancing 'Ondine' which Frederic Ashton made on her in the late 1950's.

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I saw Fonteyn and Nureyev a couple of times in the mid 1960’s, first in MacMillan’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ then in Roland Petit’s pop-art ballet ‘Paradise Lost’. I’ve appreciated the various posts from those who saw them, and the comments by many on Fonteyn’s very fine qualities.

Fonteyn joined the Vic-Wells Ballet (forerunner of the RB) in 1934, rapidly succeeding Markova (who had danced for Diaghilev) in the classical roles, and creating roles in new ballets. This was a seminal period for the development of British ballet. Inevitably, as in the other arts such as music, these developments reflected the propensities of the English middle and upper-middle classes of the period. The English style emerged; neat, elegant, restrained and under-stated. Much of what has been said in previous posts effectively alludes to her part in the development of the English style when Ashton reigned (especially read de Valois and Beaumont). Fonteyn led the first Sadler’s Wells visit to New York in 1949, playing a crucial part in the acceptance of the company as one of the great players on the world stage.

It is difficult to realise now how different was the artistic scene (or life in general) in England half a century ago. There have recently been discussions on radio and TV in the UK as to what now constitutes ‘Englishness’. Whatever it was, there was certainly a shock to the system when Nureyev burst onto the scene. Not long ago, one former member of the RB said to me “it is easy to forget what we owe to him”. The partnership with Fonteyn was certainly electric. I don’t think the video of R & J could possibly do full justice to the atmosphere of the live performance, but it is still better than nothing!. I can still sense the sharp intake of breath by the whole audience as she paused before departing to Friar L for help (and the potion), and then seemed to skim across the stage, barely touching the floor, for her exit. However, it must be remembered that the casting of that ballet was a controversial affair; MacMillan’s muse was Lynn Seymour, and the ballet was made for her and Christopher Gable. MacMillan and his leading dancers were devastated when the management decreed that F & N should dance the premiere. My first visit to the ROH, in 1965, was for one of the earliest performances of R and J by Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell; overall, I might still prefer them to Fonteyn and Nureyev for various reasons, great though F & N were. (But, for a video of R & J, see the RB with Ferri and Eagling – Wow!). Sadly I did not see Seymour and Gable.

I have found some comments on Fonteyn by Oleg Kerensky, born in Britain of Russian parents, and onetime ballet critic of the International Herald Tribune. This should be an objective view! He says that for many years Aurora was her most famous classical role, closely followed by her Odette-Odile, but her Giselle came into full fruition when she partnered Nureyev. Then:

“Fonteyn was famous for her musicality, ‘line’, and interpretative powers, which were helped by her perfect physique and remarkably expressive eyes. She shared with Pavlova the special gift of imprinting her image and personality on most of her roles, so that those who saw her always remembered her and used her as a standard of comparison for subsequent interpreters. Also, like Pavlova, she had comparatively weak feet and elevation. Neither ballerina was a sensational technical virtuoso, though both had much stronger techniques than was sometimes realized by their critics”.

Finally, she had a delightful TV personality; her presentation of a series on dance was beautifully done, and I can well remember her telling an interviewer on another occasion, when discussing ballet in general, that “there’s nothing very sexy about Siegfried”!………

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I've just found my way to this topic via the NEW SITE SOFTWARE -- which means I'm lost, but I followed an interesting post by Ralph sf to his "I don't get it" comments about Foteyn.

o tempora, o mores!

Her style is now so old-fashioned -- and by Balanchine standards, it ALREADY was; but the way she danced does come through on video tape -- no she did not have a great jump, no she was not a great turner, yes, she was "lowinocteyn" (as the Trockaderos put it).

But she had glorious placement, and she was wonderfully musical, and she had incredible human sense. She was a real poet, a fantast with a tragic sense. Look at her old Swan Lake -- she looks like a woman under a spell who WANTS THE CHARM TO BE BROKEN..... it takes a great deal of intelligence in a ballerina to realize that the idea of being turned into a swan is charming but REMAINS A CURSE -- hardly anybody plays the role these days as anything but one of life's most glamorous moments -- they forget that this is not just dress-up, this is not just an excuse to look as exotic as hell -- it's an opportunity to imagine what it would be like to become trapped in such a fantasy, and how you'd want OUT.

Fonteyn's body would not let her go too far into becoming the bird -- she was not very flexible, her extensions were not high, her knees were not rubbery, her back in particular would not allow her fantastic effects of plastique.

But she was beautifully proportioned, beautifully, rotated, and her line in arabesque was noble. Furthermore, her placement was so good she could balance easily and forever.... bUT THE DIFFICULTY OF SCULPTING HER BACK INTO ARABESQUE IS A FACT, IT IS SOMETHING YOU CAN FEEL, AND IT PAYS OFF-- IT ACTUALLY ADDS TO THE PATHOS OF HER oDETTE. It makes us identify kinesthetically with Odette's suffering..... if that arabesque were easier, we'd lose the dimension of her public duties -- she is the queen of the swans, this is not just about HER, she has all of them in her charge, like a lieutenant trying to get his squad out of the battle of the Bulge alive...

See that performance, how momentous it is. She builds to a climax in the back-bend in attitude; it's so much more powerful than anybody else's -- it's not just a stunt, that's where Odette declares herself, "I give up, I'm in your hands, for God's sake please save me" -- the fact that her body WON't do easily what any female dancer in Leigh's company (no offense, Leigh) can do with much greater amplitude and much more easily is what makes it look like THIS IS IT, it makes the gesture register as a turning point..

Fonteyn had those qualities in hr own character, and she brought them to the role. Similarly, as Aurora, she was someone you'd want to grow up to be queen and take over the governance of the state...

This does make her liable to criticism as dutiful, or overly decent -- and who wants that at the ballet..... well, it COULD get tiresome. BUt she wasn't overly decent. She could hang out with GENET, for Christ's sake, and it didn't bother her if he seemed to have the police on his tail.... And I'm convinced that if they'd shown up, she'd have covered his tracks and given the cops a false scent.

In her autobiography, she talks about how her husband, after he was paralyzed by his would-be assassins, asked her to kill him, since he couldn't do it himself. She says she agreed to do it if the doctors gave them no hope. I believe she came through for him, and that she came through for her public in a similar way....

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Paul and others -

Because my only viewing of Fonteyn was off brief video clips (single viewings of R&J Balcony scene, Corsaire) I haven't really participated in this discussion, but since the company's been invoked. . .

One of the things I've learned from my own dancers is what you lose if you choose by body type. I've had very few dancers in the company with stereotypically perfect bodies, paradoxically, in many cases they've not been the best dancers - but my guess is the explanation for that is how many rungs from the top of the ladder we are. Companies like NYCB, etal that get first choice of dancers, can be so selective at this point that they ask for a dancer who has everything and those get removed from the pool of available dancers. What's left after that selection are often those with everything but a single flaw (ie, X has got gorgeous line and technique, but she isn't musical - or Y is musical and great on stage, but short or no turnout - or what have you.)

At the time Fonteyn was dancing, she didn't have the "wrong" body, but another point I'd make is if she and Ashton were working today, my guess is that flaws that might be noticeable on a video might still be there, but you wouldn't see them. Craft in choreography is like couture; you drape it on the dancer and then fit it individually, and Ashton was a master courturier.

You mentioned my own company all of my dancers are wonderful, but in all probablility not all of my dancers can outdo Fonteyn in every area. They each have their "figure flaws" to continue the couture metaphor, and it's my job as a choreographer to clothe them. It's actually the part I like. There's a ballet I did a few years back which was very classical, but had four very different dancers in it - my task was to make them all look like they should be in the same ballet. They each had a section in the adagio, so I made it in different styles, a "French" one for the dancer who was all about positions and aplomb, a "Danish" trio for the ones who were light and fleet, and a "Balanchine" one at the end - this was a special case. The dancer had scoliosis, so looked exposed in orthodox positions, so the adagio was choroegraphed so every position she hit was torqued, instead of an up and down a la seconde like I gave the first dancer, she moved into ecarte and then through it to fall back into a swoon. So the curve in her back became part of the choreography. And couture in dance extends to real couture. Each of their tutus was cut differently - shorter skirts for the smaller women, trims placed strategically. . .there is so much that can be mitigated simply by building the costume on the dancer.

The point of this is that if Fonteyn were working today, my guess is that not only would she have probably come closer to today's norms simply because she would have worked according to what was around her, but also that her partnership with Ashton as a choreographer makes me think that he would have done his work as well to make her look her best. He knew what she could do, and he would have known what was exposing. After all, her gift at balances literally changed the standard of the Rose Adagio, did it not? Like Legnani, who made all ballerinas have to be able do 32 fouettes (whether they wanted to or not), or Farrell, who remade both Concerto Barocco and Symphony in C (among other ballets), couldn't one say that when a dancer's special qualities become the text of choreography for later generations to match, it's a pretty good argument for their worth as a dancer?

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I'd really like to see some of your work sometime. i was very interested to read about how you create on your dancers, and the clear way you put the facts about what dancers you get to use.

I think about those things a lot, especially when I think about he Oakland Ballet, which was for 25 years a demi-caractere ballet company, in a class of its own.....

Guidi selected dancers for a lot of reasons, including some very 70's use of the casting couch -- but they had a great flair for dancing. Lots of sickled feet, that sort of thing, but hte PHRASING! Guidi could not get long-legged pretty young dancers unless they were short (like Janet Carole, my god what a beautiful dancer -- beautifully trained by Danilova, feet so flexible and alive they were like small animals, luscious flexibility, hilarious wit, what a passionate mover, painfully painfully shy except on stage....) so he used brilliant dancers who'd had children adn wanted a second career, oddly built dancers who could really move, and made a virtue of the same necessity Diaghilev had had to when he couldn't get dancers from the Maryinsky any more.

Not even Joffrey was so committed to continuing the tradition of the Ballets Russes, the Massine-Nijinska-Lichine character style that used weight and rhythm so powerfully.... Their versoin of Fall River Legend was much better than ABT's, their Les Noces was in some ways better than the Royal BAllet's, THeir Billy the Kid was better than the joffrey's, their GIselle was like a Lillian GIsh movie and broke your heart, because htese dancers were not sophisticated enough to be embarrassed by hte "dated" aspects of hte material.....

When I was in Poland at a dance festival a few years ago, I realized that in Oakland you could see 5 or 6 ballets by Nijinska that none of my Polish dance friends had ever seen -- the Chopin COncerto, Les NOces, Les Biches, Bolero, Le Train Bleu; Nijinska choreographed the Chopin Concerto in Warsaw, and escaped with her young ballerina Nina Youshkevitch in 1938 in the nick of time... it was Mme Youshkevitch who taught the ballet to the Oakland dancers....

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I think there's always a bit of a shock for the newcomer who's read and heard about Fonteyn, Ballerina of the Century, and then sees a video or two and says, Huh? (That's what I said, anyway.) Kind of slow. No extension. Less than stunning feet. And while I thought it was nasty of Balanchine to compare her hands to spatulas, I sort of saw his point. He preferred Moira Shearer, who was better suited physically and temperamentally to his style; by Fonteyn's own admission, she didn't get the hang of Ballet Imperial at all. The problem wasn't that she couldn't do the steps, let it be noted; but the speed and off balance movement required seems to have escaped her. (I should also note that Balanchine had his problems with Fonteyn people, too; in William Chappell's little book about Fonteyn, he explains that Fonteyn had trouble with Ballet Imperial because Balanchine's work was just so cold, unemotional, classroom steps -- you know, the usual. Those British.)

Later on I could appreciate that her dancing was clean and musical and sans gimmickry, but if I'd been watching the company in the forties and fifties I might very well be in the Shearer camp.

Even so, it's plainly legitimate to allow that Fonteyn's dancing didn't interest you, VHS, live, or whenever. PLEASE NO ONE take this the wrong way, but there's a difference between defending a dancer you admire and implying that people who don't admire her have no taste, only appreciate the obvious, and so on. I would hope that we could avoid that.

Paul, I was especially interested in your comments about how Fonteyn's physique affected her approach to certain roles. You can see this in Romeo and Juliet, too, in the adjustments she made to MacMillan's choreography for Seymour.

I would second the vote for the Perfect Partnership video. I also like Keith Money's books -- there are several Fonteyn-related ones, and they're all good, with some wonderful photographs.

Re: Martins' Talk interview. I thought he was making not so veiled references to both F&N in that piece. He was trying to defend his dancers against invidious comparisons to stars of the past, a laudable intention, although I wish he hadn't chosen that particular way to do it.

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Some asked, somewhere on this long thread, what the best video was of Fonteyn, or at least the one that really showed her qualities, and I'm not sure there is one. (I might suggest Nureyev's staging of "Swan Lake" for Vienna.) I also didn't "get" Fonteyn on video at first, and I still haven't found a commercially available video that makes me see what I've read, or even matches the few glimpses I got of her, when she was 57. The best film of Fonteyn that I've seen is a record of her "Sleeping Beauty" filmed by a fan, who snuck a camera into the Met over a 10-year period. The whole company looks wonderful, young and fresh and very confident; the dancers know they're loved. Films of the Royal seem very state occasion, a bit stolid, to me. But this one is as though they're dancing in private. If there were one film I've seen that I wish could be released commercially, this is it.

A quick comment on Balanchine. He did prefer Shearer to Fonteyn in "Ballet Imperial" (she made a book out of that) but I've never read or heard that this was a general preference, or that he diid not admire Fonteyn. I remember saying this (that Balanchine didn't like Fonteyn) to an older critic and getting a puzzled reaction, and a few stories about what Balanchine had admired about her. Some stories grow over time, and with repetition, and I think this may be one of them.

Fonteyn also was quoted as saying she didn't think she was suited to "Dying Swan" and didn't like to perform it -- once, at least, it was a command performance at Churchill's request. The photos show her looking extremely uncomfortable. Pavlova is another great dancer whose qualities don't quite come across on video -- at least, not to me. I always think she looks like a bunch of flailing feathers -- but I've always understood she was a very great dancer and found it worth the time and effort to figure out why. (Keith Money's wonderful, IMO, book on Pavlova, with a gazillion photos, helped there, and his photo books of Fonteyn are, to me, more valuable than any video I've seen in showing what she was like, at least to someone who barely saw her.

It's interesting tracking the "she can't dance" syndrome. When I first came to ballet, I read ad nauseum that "Pavlova had no technique" and "why, any girl in the corps de ballet today can do more than she could." (It was the "why" in that sentence that always got my goat.) About a decade or so ago, I was told a story by someone who overheard, in the corridors of SAB, a miffed 14-year-old coming out of Farrell's class muttering, "Was she ever any good?" I'm curious as to who the next "she had no technique, you know" will be and when that will come.

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I have to get behind Dirac and agree, we love the dancers we love for very deep reasoons, the reasons why are almost as mysterious as it's possible to connect with -- and if htey matte to you, they matter to you, and there's no need to justify it, nor any reason o let someone talk you out of it..... arguments aren't very important....

ALso, videos show us SO LITTLE..... look how dull Baryshnikov looks on video. The only one that gets ANYWHERE NEAR how exciting he was is Vestris, which Jakobson made very carefully, brilliantly, to show Baryshnikov's ability to change style and energy state instantaneously..... But the way he built a performance over time, and the level of excitement he dared to SART OFF with, you had to have the live experience, to be in he same room with this fabulously controlled, fabulously dangerous man to feel that.....

only the tap dancers really come through -- the Nicholas Brothers are IMMORTAL in their film clips...

Speaking of not coming through, i don't get it with Moira Shearer --

fonteyn's gifts weren't modern, and they were very English -- where as Mr. B so wickedly said, "if you're awake it's vulgar already."

Fonteyn excelled at stillness, which is actually electrifying onstage, though not onscreen. She had excellent placement, which, again, is miraculous to see if you're actually in the same room, but on screen just looks like in effect trick photography.

A friend who'd danced in some Petipa thing described it as "total placement anxiety" -- which is witty, and also it's spot-on, for hte theatrical excitement is in hte exposure of the dancer to our gaze -- it IS scary, like a high-wire act.

Balanchine's more dynamic -- he wanted people to be moving -- moving through positions, but moving -- it's much more touch and go. ...

Alexandra, is there any way you could recover the specifics of what Balanchine said? Maybe a course of hypnosis? I'd love to know....

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Paul wrote:

Alexandra, is there any way you could recover the specifics of what Balanchine said? Maybe a course of hypnosis? I'd love to know....

Actually, yes, I think so. Not from my memory, when retains only the summary, but from reasking the people who (very gently) lectured me then. I remember one story about Balanchine's liking Fonteyn's elbows, which struck me at the time as rather odd. I didn't get the impression he was trying to recruit her :) just that he recognized her qualities.

I think your point about Fonteyn's placement is key. She must have had speed; Ashton choreography is speedy. One Danish ballerina, based on Juliet -- not obviously a speed demon role at all, at least not to my eyes -- told me that Ashton choreography had the fastest footwork she'd ever encountered. I almost wrote "but Ashton is very centered" and then realized, I don't really know that. It LOOKS centered, just as it does not look speedy, but what does it feel like to dance?

I agree on the points both dirac and Paul made about the passions of loving dancers -- neither loves nor hates need to be defended, and I think dirac's point about realizing that someone who doesn't share one's opinion does not necessarily have bad taste is a good one. A distinction I'll always think worth making, though, is that there's a difference between saying, "I hate Fonteyn," or "I never got Fonteyn," which is fine, and "Fonteyn couldn't dance" or "of course, she had no technique." Or between "I don't get Balanchine" and "Everyone knows that Balanchine is overrated," say. That's when the troops come charging over the top, although I think we've learned to do it nicely. :) (I think our teachers got involved in this debate, too, because the original poster was a student, and they felt it worth pointing out all of the matters of technique and judging dancers that they pointed out and I think that's perfectly appropriate and expect it to continue.) I don't think anyone crossed the line in this debate, though.

Maybe we should have an FAQ on Fonteyn (and Pavlova and Ulanova explaining many of the points in this thread -- the difference in how technique is defined, the difference in emphasis from one era to the next, etc. I can well understand how someone (especially a young student) would be very confused reading: "She is one of the greatest dancers of the century" and then "she didn't have a jump," "didn't have a high extension," etc.

[edited to add the last paragraph 3/27/2002]

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