Nureyev and Fonteyn Debut Ashton’s

Frederick Ashton took advantage of Rudolf Nureyev’s extraordinary partnership with Margot Fonteyn to choreograph Marguerite and Armand, one of the first works of modern ballet in which the male lead was of equal dramatic weight to the female lead.

Summary of Event

Rudolf Nureyev’s dazzling defection from the Soviet Union and the Kirov Ballet in Paris in 1961 brought a male dancer to the attention of the world whose like had not been seen since Vaslav Nijinsky danced for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the 1910’s and 1920’s. Teaming up with Margot Fonteyn, the cool and serenely elegant dancer who was the epitome of the English style, Nureyev brought a new vitality to the ballet, became a multimedia megastar in the process, and gave this once limited-appeal art form a passion that translated into vastly increased popular involvement. Marguerite and Armand (Ashton)
[kw]Nu reyev and Fonteyn Debut Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand (Mar. 12, 1963)
[kw]Fonteyn Debut Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, Nureyev and (Mar. 12, 1963)
[kw]Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, Nureyev and Fonteyn Debut (Mar. 12, 1963)
[kw]Marguerite and Armand, Nureyev and Fonteyn Debut Ashton’s (Mar. 12, 1963)
Marguerite and Armand (Ashton)
[g]Euro pe;Mar. 12, 1963: Nureyev and Fonteyn Debut Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand[07560]
[g]United Kingdom;Mar. 12, 1963: Nureyev and Fonteyn Debut Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand[07560]
[c]Dance;Mar. 12, 1963: Nureyev and Fonteyn Debut Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand[07560]
[c]Theater;Mar. 12, 1963: Nureyev and Fonteyn Debut Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand[07560]
Nureyev, Rudolf
Fonteyn, Margot
Ashton, Frederick
Baryshnikov, Mikhail

Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand (1963), choreographed expressly for Nureyev and Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet Royal Ballet , was among the first major works to take advantage of Nureyev’s extraordinary stage presence and skills by giving the male lead a dramatic weight equal to that of the ballerina. Cecil Beaton Beaton, Cecil designed the set and costumes, and Humphrey Searle Searle, Humphrey arranged the orchestral score. The ballet premiered at Covent Garden on March 12, 1963. The event was a Royal Gala performance held in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, whose favorite choreographer was Ashton. Thousands of white carnations decorated the old theater as a fitting tribute to the ballet’s tragic heroine.

The ballet is based on Alexandre Dumas’s play La Dame aux camélias
Camille (Dumas) (1852; Camille, 1856), which was in turn based on the true story of an ill-starred courtesan who had counted among her lovers the pianist and composer Franz Liszt Liszt, Franz . Using Liszt’s own Piano Sonata in B-minor Piano Sonata in B-minor (Liszt) for his score, Ashton compressed the action into six short, highly dramatic scenes: the lovers’ first meeting, their escape to the countryside, Armand’s father’s confrontation with Marguerite, Marguerite’s consequent renunciation of her beloved, her return to Paris, and Armand’s return to attend at Marguerite’s deathbed.

Ashton set the ballet as a fevered dream in which Marguerite, from her sickbed, looks back on the great romance of her short life. The entire work contains no ensemble numbers and is effectively (with the exception of the scene between Marguerite and Armand’s father) one extended pas de deux between the two principals. Marguerite and Armand was thus a very special vehicle for Nureyev and Fonteyn. Richard Buckle Buckle, Richard described it later as “less a ballet than a series of psychological closeups.” The leonine stage presence of Nureyev together with the delicate elegance of Fonteyn brought a tremendous chemistry to the stage.

The Observer in London recalled its former ballet critic Peter Brooks Brooks, Peter to cover the gala premiere. He wrote: “The work is simple, beautiful and satisfying. . . . Ashton can even permit himself the audacity of stillness—the breath is caught, the gestures suspended in pauses which . . . are as lyrical as any steps.” Of Nureyev and Fonteyn’s performance, he wrote: “In this ballet Nureyev and Fonteyn play as actors; extraordinary actors who bring to each moment and each movement that quality of death which makes the most artificial of forms seem human and simple. All great art eventually is realistic; the art of these two dancers leads them continually to moments of truth.”

Despite Brooks’s enthusiasm, the ballet achieved only mixed critical success. The Daily Mail critic said that it “revealed no new aspects of the dancers.” The Guardian called the whole work “a glaring example of trespass on other media, literary and operatic.” The Daily Telegraph thought the ballet worked only because of “a prodigious outburst of mutually inspired and totally extrovert dancing.” The Scotsman conceded that it involved virtuosity of a high order but reported that it brought in return “no emotional response.” Nevertheless, the public loved Marguerite and Armand and came in droves to see the fabled chemistry between Nureyev and Fonteyn at work.

Fonteyn had danced for Ashton many times before she premiered as Marguerite, one of her triumphs being in his masterpiece Symphonic Variations
Symphonic Variations (Ashton) (1946), in which the ballerina must deliberately play down her personality—not an easy task for a prima ballerina assoluta—and become one of a group. “I can think of no other dancer of such stature who could accomplish this,” critic Arnold Haskell has noted. This humility and pliability of her character would stand her in good stead when she came to dance with Nureyev.

Fonteyn was almost twenty years older than Nureyev and until his defection had been on the point of retiring after a long and illustrious career. Fonteyn had recently suffered a bout of hepatitis that she thought had weakened her system, but Nureyev personally requested the opportunity to dance with her on his arrival in the West. She accepted with reservations. Their first joint performance was in Giselle in February, 1962, followed by Swan Lake in July and Le Corsaire in November.

Over the course of their first years together, Nureyev showed Fonteyn a different way to work, strengthening her technical gifts and thus allowing her to bring a raw passion to her dancing that had not been seen before. Fonteyn went into a second flowering, this time as an even stronger and finer ballerina in her forties than she had been in the glorious days of her youth. It was an unprecedented “second wind,” as most ballerinas retire in their forties. Fonteyn continued dancing with Nureyev for more than fifteen years.

In October of 1964 at the Vienna State Opera, Fonteyn and Nureyev received an unprecedented eighty-nine curtain calls after a performance of Swan Lake. Theirs was an inspired and inspiring partnership, of which Nureyev once said, “It’s not her, it’s not me, it is the sameness of the goal. She convinces me.” It was the dramatic quality of her work, her emotional expressiveness rather than mere technique, that made their collaborations so powerful.

Fonteyn retired at last in her sixties. She lived on her husband’s cattle ranch in Panama until her death in 1991. Nureyev, plagued in his later years by complications of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) that he bore with great fortitude, continued to work as director and choreographer with the Paris Opera Ballet until shortly before his death in 1993.

Marguerite and Armand was choreographed as, and frankly intended to be, a star vehicle—a vehicle for the unique partnership of Nureyev and Fonteyn. It closed after a single season and has seldom been revived. This is no doubt because, as Richard Buckle suggests, “its choreography is not important enough to make it worthwhile giving without these two powerful personalities.” One 1968 revival, at about the time that critic Kenneth Tynan declared ballet a dying art, brought forth this apt riposte from Richard Buckle: “I don’t know whether an art can be dying and excessively popular, but I can only say that if all the applause in all the London theatres where drama is being performed was played end to end it would not add up to half of what greets Fonteyn and Nureyev [as Marguerite and Armand] after one of their evenings at the Garden.”


Marguerite and Armand as a work of choreography had little impact: It was the performances of Nureyev and Fonteyn that captured the imagination of audiences. Fonteyn and Nureyev were at the pinnacles of their respective careers, and this ballet was their showcase. Together they would set the standard by which all future leading partnerships in ballet would be measured.

Their partnership was exemplary in several ways. Physically, they were well matched—both small, her slender femininity contrasting with his muscular frame, her delicate oval face with his wild Slavic features. Their partnership had a chemistry that was undeniable. It combined two very different styles of dance: the calm and ordered simplicity of Fonteyn with the fiery, impulsive passion of Nureyev, his pyrotechnics with her cool restraint.

Their partnership brought something more, something dynamic, to the stage. As Alexander Bland noted, their conception of partnering “in which—as in opera—a duet involves equal contributions from both, was something new.” It was largely a question, then, of Nureyev’s ability to transform the male role from that of an accomplice to that of an equal. “Sometimes,” Bland continued, “part of the man’s role is to show off the ballerina; but Nureyev never became a passive ’porter’ in the old manner, just as Fonteyn never lost touch with him to make an effect with the audience. They seemed aware of each other even when their backs were turned. When their eyes met, a message passed.”

Fonteyn wrote later: “It was paradoxical, that the young boy everyone thought so wild and spontaneous in his dancing, cared desperately about technique, whereas I, the cool English ballerina, was so much more interested in the emotional aspect of the performance.” This mutual spontaneity meant that they could vary their interpretations of a role from night to night. If the mood struck, they were so much in harmony with each other as characters on the stage that she might initiate a new emphasis in a role, and he would respond instantly. It gave their performances a constant freshness, and their audiences experienced a unique blend of confidence and expectation, coming to the theater with the sense that any night might be like no other.

These qualities were the ones against which the partnership of Gelsey Kirkland Kirkland, Gelsey and Mikhail Baryshnikov would be judged after his 1974 defection. They too were physically well matched, and they had undoubted chemistry. They brought two very different styles to their partnership, his classical Russian training, hers in the neoclassical tradition of George Balanchine. The young Baryshnikov, like Nureyev, was concerned with learning a new technique, while Kirkland, like Fonteyn, was looking for greater emotional depth.

By this time, there were a number of male dancers, such as Ivan Nagy, Anthony Dowell, Christopher Gable, Edward Villella, and Valery Panov, who had taken Nureyev’s lead. The male principal’s role was no longer that of support, even in Balanchine’s own New York City Ballet company and despite Balanchine’s oft-repeated remark, “ballet is woman.” The astonishing transformation in the austere and tradition-bound world of the ballet would not have been possible without Nureyev’s extraordinary technical facility, supported by the willingness of choreographers such as Ashton to shape it and give it direction. The ballet had changed from a ballerina vehicle to a vehicle for dancers in partnership.

A resetting of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev) with Nureyev and Fonteyn themselves (later danced by Dowell and Kirkland), Twyla Tharp’s eccentric and brilliant Push Comes to Shove
Push Comes to Shove (Tharp) (with Baryshnikov), and Ashton’s own A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Midsummer Night’s Dream, A (Ashton)[Midsummer Nights Dream, A (Ashton)] (Dowell) were among the many ballets that followed, choreographed to give the new brand of male principals an equal role with their ballerinas. Nureyev had shown what was possible. The world had followed.

It is not Nureyev alone who deserves the credit, but rather the marvelous partnership of Nureyev and Fonteyn. After watching that gala first performance of Marguerite and Armand, Peter Brook wrote, “When Fonteyn curtseyed before the curtain . . . when she and Nureyev stood together, tired and tender, a truly moving quality was experienced; they manifested to that audience a relationship graver, paler and less flesh-bound than those of everyday life.” In the words of Alexander Bland, theirs was a partnership “that would change the course of ballet history.” Marguerite and Armand (Ashton)

Further Reading

  • Barnes, Clive. Nureyev. New York: Helene Obolensky, 1982. The New York Times’s dance and drama critic’s comprehensive account of Nureyev’s career in the West; insightful and well illustrated.
  • Bland, Alexander. Fonteyn and Nureyev: The Story of a Partnership. New York: Times Books, 1979. Lavishly illustrated account of twenty-six roles danced together by Nureyev and Fonteyn, including a commentary by Bland citing the responses of a wide variety of critics. The standard work on their collaboration. Illustrated in black and white, no index.
  • _______. The Nureyev Image. New York: Quadrangle, 1976. Photographic study of Nureyev, including a section on Marguerite and Armand. Brief biography; sections on Nureyev the man, the dancer, the choreographer, and the interpreter; appendix of roles, companies, productions, and films.
  • Fonteyn, Margot. Autobiography. London: W. H. Allen, 1975. Fonteyn’s lively and heartfelt account of her training and life as a ballerina, including her long partnership with Nureyev. With photo section. Amusing and anecdotal reading.
  • Franchi, Cristina, ed. Margot Fonteyn: Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Royal House. London: Oberon, 2004. Illustrated portrait of the ballerina and of the theater in which she danced many of her most famous roles.
  • Robertson, Allen, and Donald Hutera. The Dance Handbook. Essex, England: Longman, 1988. A practical guide with entries on influential works, choreographers, dancers, and companies. Includes critiques. Glossary, index, and sources.
  • Tracy, Robert. Goddess: Martha Graham’s Dancers Remember. New York: Limelight Editions, 1997. This tribute to an American choreographer by famous dancers includes essays by both Fonteyn and Nureyev, illuminating their attitudes toward dance and choreography and providing insight into their artistry, as well as that of Graham. Bibliographic references and index.

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