Margot and Rudi: were they lovers?

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Royal Opera House

In part two of The Daily Telegraph’s serialisation of his extraordinary book on the Royal Opera House, Norman Lebrecht recounts the explosive impact the young Rudolf Nureyev had on both the Royal Ballet and the flagging career of Margot Fonteyn

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WHILE the Royal Ballet was dancing in Russia in June 1961, news broke that would change its destiny. A young soloist had broken free from the Kirov Ballet in Paris and requested political asylum. At the height of the Cold War, weeks before the Berlin Wall went up, the defection made the world’s front pages.
Nothing was reported in Russia until the Central Committee of the Communist Party had issued a statement averring that Rudolf Hametovich Nureyev, aged 23, had betrayed his motherland and run off with a Frenchwoman. The Kremlin warned the Elysée that cultural exchanges between the two countries would be terminated if Nureyev were ever allowed to appear with a French state ensemble. The rest of the Kirov company flew on to London to make an acclaimed debut at Covert Garden. Of the male lead, Yuri Soloviev, Andrew Porter reported that “we have seen no one quite like him”. Nureyev was not the best, nor the best-known, dancer in the Kirov. Soviet ballet would survive without him.
Whether Nureyev would survive in the West was less certain. Trailed by photographers and KGB spies, he took work with the eccentric Marquis de Cuevas’s travelling troupe. That summer, he fell for the austere Danish dancer, Erik Bruhn, who became his lifelong lover. In Copenhagen he also found a teacher he could trust, the Russian émigrée Vera Volkova, who once taught Margot Fonteyn.
In October, there was a call for him one night at Volkova’s flat. Would he dance with Margot Fonteyn in a charity gala at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane? Galina Ulanova had dropped out under Kremlin pressure and Fonteyn had been persuaded that their best bet was the recent Kirov defector. “He sounds rather tiresome to me,” sighed Margot.
The gala was a sensational success. “He’s better than Nijinsky,” gasped the dowager Lady Diana Cooper, to her neighbour, Cecil Beaton. The next morning, the Royal Ballet’s artistic director, Ninette de Valois, called Fonteyn to tell her that she had engaged Nureyev for Giselle. “Do you want to do it with him?” she demanded.
“Oh my goodness,” said Fonteyn, “I think it would be like mutton dancing with lamb. Don’t you think I’m too old?” She was 19 years his senior, and looked it. But after consulting her husband, Fonteyn decided that Nureyev was going to be the hottest thing in ballet and she had no choice: either dance with him, or get out.
She called Madam (the name by which de Valois was invariably known at the Garden) and accepted the role. Nureyev’s fee was £500 for three performances; Fonteyn was paid £400 a night. They were in no sense equals – not yet and perhaps never.
From their first rehearsal, Nureyev asserted his natural authority. No Englishman had ever handled Fonteyn with such arrogant aplomb. Giselle, a role she had never fully possessed, suddenly became hers.
At Nureyev’s ROH debut, on February 21, 1962, there were 23 curtain calls. As the ovations swelled, Fonteyn plucked a rose from her bouquet and handed it to Nureyev, who dropped on one knee and lavished her hand with kisses. At that precise moment, the legend was born, stopping ballet history in its tracks and changing the course of English culture.
“If one person can come in and spoil the Royal Ballet style,” said Ninette de Valois, “we deserve for it to be spoiled.” The dream that British ballet could be nurtured entirely from kith-and-kin resources died that night. For the Royal Ballet to hold its own on the world stage, it would have to shed national pride and engage with the best.
F OR Madam, Nureyev brought a form of liberation. Anxious about the effortless superiority of Russian ballet and the high-octane energy of American upstarts, she knew that her male dancers lacked training, technique and hunger for success. With Nureyev’s arrival, her troubles were over. “Until Rudi came along,” said one young company male, “all a man had to do to get into the Royal Ballet was, more or less, turn up and show willing. Nureyev completely changed the pace. He engaged with female dancers, manhandled them. It was exciting, virile.”
“The standard of virtuosity rose, literally, by leaps and bounds,” said Fonteyn.
N UREYEV, the least monogamous of men, danced with other leading ladies. The tension that preceded each performance as he changed his shoes obsessively amid a torrent of curses until the moment came to go on stage, generated a magnetism that outshone his female, politely English partners. “The age of the ballerina is over,” sighed Fonteyn.
Fonteyn, said the lonely Nureyev, was the only person who truly understood him. She owed him her second life, as he owed her his second home. Whether or not they were lovers in real life was hotly speculated in gossip columns and around fashionable dinner tables. Fonteyn was coy when writing about the affair in her memoirs. “As I was obviously very fond of Rudolf and spent so much time with him,” she wrote, “it was food for scandal for those who liked it that way. I decided there was little I could do but wait for it to pass. The truth will out eventually, I thought.”
“She must have had an affair with him,” said fellow ballerina Nadia Nerina, “because it showed on stage.” Others, including Nureyev’s secretary Jean Thring, were equally convinced that sex was “out of the question . . . there was never any sign of anything like that.” Nureyev preferred boys and had a prodigious appetite for casual sex. He was also headily in love with Bruhn. Fonteyn was fastidious, private and puritanical. They seemed ill-matched, but the heart and loins are seldom ruled by logic.
Nicholas Johnson, a young company member at the time, recalled: “In class and rehearsal, you can usually tell if two dancers have had sex from the way they treat each other. Rudi was very brutal to Margot, abused her terribly and called her all sorts of names. We all assumed they were lovers, or had been.”
Nureyev told friends that they had been lovers, but his accounts were contradictory and unreliable. Whether or not there was an affair, Fonteyn and Nureyev were probably as close as two human beings can get. They drew closer still after June 1964, when Fonteyn’s husband, the Panamanian politician Tito Arias, was shot five times in his car while waiting at traffic lights in Panama City.
Tito had been rushed to hospital but was expected to live. The would-be assassin was a political ally, Alfredo Jimenez, and press reports assumed that the attack had been politically motivated. It emerged years later that Titohad seduced the wife of Jimenez, who shot him in a fit of sexual jealousy.
Fonteyn flew to Panama to extricate her paralysed husband from a primitive hospital and transport him to the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville. That summer Tito suffered a further collapse and almost died, losing his power of speech. His medical bills were crippling, and his children looked to Fonteyn to pay for their weddings. She had no alternative but to carry on dancing.
Whenever possible, she took Tito along, feeding him solicitously, spoon by spoon. She lost none of her good humour, but a steely look entered her eye and there was no more talk of retirement. She could not afford to give up, and would end up dancing longer than any ballerina in history, a career span of almost 50 years.
Her almost superhuman determination proved a mixed blessing for Covent Garden. Delighted as friends were that Margot had coped so well with tragedy, fears were voiced for the next lines of soloists whose chances she was unwittingly blighting.
It was not Fonteyn’s fault, said James Monahan, husband of the overshadowed Merle Park, “because it was up to the management, not to her, to see that opportunities were given to the young; and managements are – must be – inclined to favour the sure box-office success over the doubtful returns on a probationer. Yet the fact is that very fine dancers – Beriosova and Nerina among others – languished in the Fonteyn shadow and that . . . progress to the top of the Royal Ballet became discouragingly slow.”
* © Norman Lebrecht 2000. From the book ‘Covent Garden’ to be published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd on Sept 18 at £25. Available at the special price of £21 from Telegraph Books Direct, 24 Seward Street, London EC1V 3GB, or call 0870 1557222 (quote ref NB1016)


About Author

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review // Norman Lebrecht est un rédacteur prolifique couvrant les événements musicaux et Slipped Disc, est un des plus populaires sites de nouvelles culturelles. Il anime The Lebrecht Interview sur la BBC Radio 3 et collabore à plusieurs publications, dont The Wall Street Journal et The Standpoint. Vous pouvez lire ses critiques de disques chaque vendredi.

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