Almost 30 years after the death of Dame Margot Fonteyn, the heading of every programme and cast list issued by The Royal Ballet still carries her name as the company’s only Prima Ballerina Assoluta. It is as if she lives on and, in a way, she does. “The spirit of Margot is everywhere in this House,” said The Royal Ballet’s director, Kevin O’Hare, in his brief and charming onstage introduction to this celebration of the centenary of her birth, 18th May 1919.

Mayara Magri in <i>Sylvia</i> © ROH | Andrej Uspenski
Mayara Magri in Sylvia
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

Fonteyn danced for 45 years, joining the Vic-Wells Ballet in September 1934, performing on the opening night of the season in both a solo role in Ninette de Valois’ The Haunted Ballroom and, propitiously, in a pas de quatre, choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton (later added to Les Rendezvous); and although she officially retired – with performances of Salut d’Amour and the Tango from Façade – at a gala to celebrate her 60th birthday, she couldn’t help continuing, declaring herself to be “90% retired” into the early 80s, performing at the Coliseum, La Scala and in New York.

Selecting a representative sample of the works for which she was famous in a single evening of dance must have been a challenging task, but it was sensitively accomplished. The decision to include a full performance of The Firebird gave substance to the gala; and the divertissements from eleven ballets in the second half of the evening was a marvellous collage of many of her famous roles (nine of which were created on Fonteyn), including diverse choices from the Vic-Wells years, the post-war period in Covent Garden and into the twilight fame of her partnership with Rudolf Nureyev. Each of her three enduring dance partnerships were represented with roles made famous by Robert Helpmann, Michael Somes and Nureyev all in the mix.

The first task of reminding us of the genius of Fonteyn fell to Itziar Mendizabal as The Firebird, which Fonteyn first danced in Edinburgh (1954). Mendizabal essayed the essential quality of being a wild bird, striving with her eyes and arms to convince that these were not human emotions that we witness when she struggles – indignantly and not fearfully – against being captured. Nehemiah Kish gave a suitably rustic performance, in the manner of Somes, as her captor, Ivan Tsarevich.

Thomas Whitehead and Marianela Núñez in The Rose Adage from <i>The Sleeping Beauty</i> © ROH | Andrej Uspenski
Thomas Whitehead and Marianela Núñez in The Rose Adage from The Sleeping Beauty
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

The interval was followed by a performance of the Rose Adage from The Sleeping Beauty, the ballet which reopened the Royal Opera House after the war and captivated New York on The Royal Ballet’s first American tour (1949) when the audiences applauded for a 30-minute curtain call. Fonteyn was always anxious about the stark exposure of technique and developed her own tricks for extending the appearance of her balances (changing the timing of when her four courtiers should move into position). The inheritor of the Fonteyn mantle in today’s Royal Ballet is undoubtedly Marianela Nuñez and this supreme ballerina delivered a performance of great delicacy and strength.

This was followed by two Ashton solos from Fonteyn’s early career: Nocturne (1936) and The Wise Virgins (1940), danced with appropriate serenity, respectively, by Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Romany Pajdak, the latter still – after many years – in the corps de ballet, as a first artist, a status that deserves soon to be elevated on the evidence of excellent performances such as this. Then came a delightful performance by Fumi Kaneko in the terre-á-terre solo from Birthday Offering, a series of classical variations in the manner of Petipa that Ashton choreographed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (then, shortly to become The Royal Ballet), in 1956. Kaneko’s solo was followed immediately by a grounded pas de deux from the same ballet, danced impeccably by Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano.

Francesca Hayward in Ashton's <i>Ondine</i> © ROH | Andrej Uspenski
Francesca Hayward in Ashton's Ondine
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

The next pair represented Ashton’s full-length works, firstly with the Shadow pas de deux from Ondine (1958) with Francesca Hayward as the water-nymph and Edward Watson as Palemon, the mortal to whom Ondine is attracted with fatal consequences. Fonteyn was almost 40 when she premiered in the title role and her performance was all about theatricality and musicality in choreography that suited her own physical requirements (low arabesques, animated, watery arms and wrists). Hayward impressed in the same way, through playfulness and awe at a mortal world, and by limiting her own flamboyant, bravura technique to the tentative simplicity of this enchanting sea creature. This was followed by Ashton’s triumphal introduction of his heroine to Delibes’ magnificent fanfare of Les chasseresses, in his 1952 production of Sylvia, (one of my favourite scenes in all ballet). It was inevitably shorn of its usual magnificence, with the absence of scenery and context, but nonetheless it remained a powerful statement. How I would have loved to see Zenaida Yanowsky reprise this, one of her greatest roles, but since her comparatively recent retirement made this dream casting impossible, rising star, Mayara Magri grabbed her opportunity to lay down a marker for her casting in its inevitable next revival.

Another emerging star, Anna Rose O’Sullivan, replaced Laura Morera (a ballerina created in the mould of Fonteyn) to partner Alexander Campbell in an extract from Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloë (1951), a divertissement that appeared a little lost without either context or John Craxton’s sun-drenched set. This did not apply to the balcony pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, which Fonteyn danced with Nureyev at its opening on 9th February 1965 (against the wishes of the choreographer who had created the ballet on Lynn Seymour, partnering Christopher Gable). Technically, Natalia Osipova is the very antithesis of Fonteyn, having a technique built upon a prodigious jump and ferocious spins, but she also shares the rare ability with Fonteyn of being able to tell a story convincingly in movement and expression alone. Her pas de deux with David Hallberg represented a meeting of two young, headstrong individuals who have fallen in love instantaneously. Osipova’s passionate, impetuous dancing is sensitively offset by Hallberg’s sense of bewilderment, tempered by the security of his lifts. It is this contrast of uninhibited and disciplined dancing that makes this duet by MacMillan one of the most famous pas de deux of the 20th century.

Dame Darcey Bussell and Gary Avis in Ashton's <i>Tango</i> from <i>Façade</i> © ROH | Andrej Uspenski
Dame Darcey Bussell and Gary Avis in Ashton's Tango from Façade
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

This was followed by the surprise package of the evening. Exactly, twelve years to the day that she retired from The Royal Ballet, following a performance of MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, alongside Gary Avis, Dame Darcey Bussell returned to the stage to perform the Tango from Façade, again with Avis, in the role originally danced by Ashton himself. This ballet pre-dated Fonteyn’s professional career, having been made by Ashton, in 1931, but it deserved its place in the gala since it was her penultimate performance on the ROH stage (at that 60th birthday tribute), dancing with Helpmann, then aged 70. As well as marking a special cycle with one famous British ballet Dame paying tribute to another; providing its own special slice of history, with an elegant performance by Dame Darcey, it also showed yet again the remarkable abilities of Avis, not only as the securest of partners but also in his extraordinary expressiveness, exactly in the British tradition of which Fonteyn was the leading light.

Vadim Muntagirov and Yasmine Naghdi in <i>Le Corsaire</i> © ROH | Andrej Uspenski
Vadim Muntagirov and Yasmine Naghdi in Le Corsaire
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

I would have preferred the final pair of dances in the reverse order since Le Corsaire, with the heroic dancing of Vadim Muntagirov, partnering Yasmine Naghdi, provided the ideal end-of-performance fireworks and the following performance of The Ballroom scene from Apparitions (1936, revised in 1949), although of immense historic significance to British ballet, was an anti-climactic finale. Fonteyn originally danced the central role of an elegant woman, aged just sixteen. More than 80 years’ later, Lauren Cuthbertson invested her performance with exactly those attributes of charm and sophistication, nobly supported by Matthew Ball.

The old saying about spoiling the ship for a hap’orth of tar came to mind midway through when the projections that introduced the works with photos of Fonteyn in each role and quotations from the great and the good (an excellent idea) included a dreadful misspelling of Fonteyn’s name. Unfortunately, the great idea was not always well presented with some of the quotes illegible due to the lighting and positioning and others being left in place for too short a time to be read in full. Such technical issues are a minor and transient irritant but did not detract from the overall enjoyment of an excellent gala evening, in which a very large number of the current generation of company dancers were able to participate. The event clearly meant a great deal to all of them.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Ball in Ashton's <i>Apparitions</i> © ROH | Andrej Uspenski
Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Ball in Ashton's Apparitions
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

Hovering over everything was the spirit of Ashton, with eight of his works included in the celebration, ending with grainy black and white film of him dancing sedately with Fonteyn in Salut d’amour, to the music of Elgar, on her 60th birthday, freeze-framed as they gently perform the famous ‘Fred Step’ (actually, Ashton’s perpetual tribute to Anna Pavlova's indelible effect on his life). As it had been, in life, back in 1979, so this was an unashamedly sentimental ending to an important event in the history of British ballet.

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