Meredith Daneman’s Margot Fonteyn: A Life helps explain how Peggy Hookham became Margot Fonteyn, England’s prima ballerina assoluta, and how her dancing career lasted long after her competitors had retreated or retired. Honing in on Fonteyn’s personal life, Daneman recounts how Nita Hookham (labeled the “Black Queen”) advanced her daughter’s career, how Frederick Ashton, choreographer, wrote his best ballets for her, how Ninette deValois, who ran the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, advanced her career, often at the expense of other dancers, how Constant Lambert, one of her lovers, directed music attuned to her strengths, and how Rudolf Nureyev, her best-known partner, helped her extend her career. Daneman also covers the history of English ballet, distinguishing it from Russian and French ballet, and defines the ballet terms she uses so that even a novice balletomane can understand and appreciate not only Fonteyn’s style, but her strengths and weaknesses.
Daneman takes her readers backstage, exposing the pettiness, competition (especially between Fonteyn and Moira Shearer), and sexual dynamics of the ballet world (including Fonteyn’s sexual prowess). Fonteyn emerges as academically insecure, extremely loyal, dutiful (taking on the presidency of the Royal Academy of Dance and advancing ballet internationally), and industrious (writing books, including an autobiography, and appearing in a British Broadcasting series on ballet, despite severe arthritis). She seems politically naïve or unable to sense the political implications of associating with right-wing dictators like Manual Noriega of Panama, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, as well as dancing in apartheid South Africa. Her adoring public forgave her and focused instead on her devotion to her husband, Tito Arias, who was paralyzed by a would-be assassin in Panama.
Daneman, herself a graduate of London’s Royal Ballet School, supplements her narrative with many candid photos and provides an exhaustive bibliography, including lengthy interviews with Fonteyn’s contemporaries.