It’s probably fair to say that women have played a bigger part in classical ballet than they have in any other art form. Think of the best-known ballets and the great ballerinas soon come to mind. These women were both ballet groundbreakers and are two of my ballet icons…
Dame Margot Fonteyn Britain’s Favourite Ballerina
Peggy Hookham was our nation’s favourite ballerina for nearly 40 years. She is better known today, of course, as Margot Fonteyn. I love watching Fonteyn dance. Even though technical standards in ballet have moved on a lot since her prime, only she, with her extraordinary symmetry of arms and head, could capture the spirit of a water sprite so completely.
Her statue has been at the Royal Ballet School’s White Lodge in Richmond Park, London, since the 1960s. When I first went there, as a nervous 13-year-old, Margot was right outside my dormitory. Like generations of budding ballet dancers, I used to touch her middle finger for luck. For me, she was the living link to the history of ballet in Britain.
For generations before me, Fonteyn was ballet; one of those rare artists who imprint themselves on the nation’s consciousness. Fonteyn almost single-handedly propelled the Royal Ballet and its English style onto the international stage. Margot Fonteyn was revered and admired by all who knew her and saw her dance. She came to a few of my rehearsals, and the experience was simply unforgettable.
Anna Pavlova The First Global Superstar
St Petersburg-born Pavolva was an unlikely star. She wasn’t pretty, and she wasn’t small, rounded and compact, as was then the fashion for ballerinas. Instead, she was plain and gangly and her classmates nicknamed her “The Broom”. Technically she was weak, and yet she managed to transcend all these disadvantages to become ballet’s first-ever genuine superstar.
Part of what made Pavlova special was her choice of roles. And she could be quite picky – even turning down a role with the leading ballet company of the day, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Pavlova went on to form her own dance company – first based in St Petersburg and then, unusually, in London. She moved to Ivy Lodge in Golders Green in 1912, where she stayed for the rest of her life. Her performance of The Dying Swan, first seen in 1905 [and which can be viewed on YouTube] was legendary, and she performed it more than 4,000 times.
Pavlova wasn’t the greatest dancer ballet has ever seen, but she understood the mystique of stardom. By sheer force of will she made herself into the most famous ballerina on the planet.
Darcey’s Ballerina Heroines is on Saturday at 8:15pm on BBC2.