Oh, I’ve just never paid any attention to my age,” says Dame Margot Fonteyn, who turns 57 this week. “There isn’t much one can do about it, is there?” For now, one thing is certain: the woman who has often been hailed during her four-decade career as the world’s greatest ballerina has no intention of bowing out.
Fonteyn is in the U.S. this month to promote her long-awaited memoirs, titled simply Autobiography. Then follows a four-week engagement with the Australian Ballet in New York and Washington with first performances of a new work, based on The Merry Widow, specially choreographed for Fonteyn.
The schedule should help again to quiet the speculation that has been going on for 15 years over the question of Margot’s retirement. The one thing that almost forced her to quit, she adds gaily, was not the rigors of ballet but the discontinuance of pure silk tights. “Everyone else in the world except me can manage to wear nylon,” she grimaces. She finds that nylon stretches and bunches in the toes of her ballet slippers. Happily to the rescue came Lithuanian ballerina Svetlana Beriosova, who handed over her supply of silk tights to Margot when she stopped dancing classical roles.
“Retire?” asks Fonteyn. “I’m not sure it isn’t a good idea. I know there are those who think I should have stopped years ago. But when there are those who are glad I go on, new dances being choreographed for me, new places to see, why should I? Besides,” she adds, “I’ve learned not to plan life too definitely. It’s better that way.”
Fonteyn long ago became accustomed to the unexpected. Born in England, she was trained under the demanding Ninette de Valois and the emerging Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Fonteyn’s magical onstage success story started at age 17. In 1937, the same year she rocked the ballet world with her Giselle (while still a teenager, Mar-got also established her signature roles in Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty), she met the dashing Panamanian Roberto (“Tito”) Arias. She fell instantly in love. After abruptly disappearing from her life for 14 years, Arias—by then a lawyer, diplomat and controversial politician—suddenly turned up when Fonteyn was dancing with Sadler’s Wells during its 1953 New York season. Within 18 months Arias divorced his wife and married Margot. Ten years later, in the heat of a Panamanian campaign, Arias was shot by a rival politician and left almost completely paralyzed below the neck.
It was a shattering event which almost suspended what had become Fonteyn’s second career, the celebrated collaboration of the ballerina, then in her 40s, with the startling, 24-year-old Rudolf Nureyev. “At first I thought it would be like mutton with lamb. I didn’t approve of old ballerinas dancing with young men and I still don’t.” But, laughs Fonteyn, “I’m always doing it.”
As for rumors that their pas de deux continued offstage: “There’s nothing I can do about that,” shrugs Fonteyn, who still dances with Nureyev, though less frequently. “People see what they want to. I never could explain what happens between us when we dance. But having lovers isn’t what I need to sustain me.”
Fonteyn and her husband remain devoted. “Our separations are only geographical,” Tito likes to quip. Both spend more time on airplanes or traveling than in their six-room rented London flat or home in Panama. Assisted by a full-time manservant, Tito jets around the world on legal business at a pace that rivals Margot’s own.
They are in telephone contact daily. Since she is one of the few who can understand his barely audible speech, Margot often translates business negotiations for Arias. When they are together, she attends to his food and pushes his wheelchair with casual grace. “Neither Tito nor I look upon it as a tragedy. He is,” she says quietly, “the most exceptional man I know.” Observes one longtime associate: “Margot does nothing if not wholeheartedly, and that applies to her attitude toward Tito.”
Arias’ medical bills could be a factor in Fonteyn’s decision to go on dancing, but equally decisive may be her desire to maintain a luxurious life-style. “Margot loved ballet, Dior, the Mediterranean, Cartier—the best,” teases Arias. “It’s still the same. What’s wrong with that?”
And the future? Fonteyn rarely plans her schedule more than six months in advance. She claims to have no aptitude for ballet administration, teaching or choreography. “Others have good reason to plan,” she says. “I do not. I just go from day to day.” Fonteyn is fond of recalling one of her mother’s sayings. “When I was very small, I would ask, ‘What’s for dinner today, Mummy?’ And she would reply enigmatically, ‘Wait and see when the time comes.’ ”