Royal Ballet prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn and celebrated Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev created one of the most magnetic and beloved partnerships in ballet history. Appearing together throughout the 1960s and ’70s, they brought a special chemistry and artistry to their roles, propelling them to superstar status at The Royal Ballet and worldwide.
Fonteyn, born Margaret Hookham in England in 1919, showed talent early on as a student at the Vic-Wells Ballet School (precursor to The Royal Ballet School). She joined Vic-Wells Ballet as a teenager with the stage name Margot Fonteyn.
While Fonteyn was enjoying a burgeoning career in London as a muse for the company’s principal choreographer and director Frederick Ashton, Nureyev was born in the USSR in 1938. At 17, he began attending the Kirov Ballet School. By 20, he had joined the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet) as a soloist, soon dancing lead roles in all the major classics and amassing a substantial fan following.
In 1961, while on tour with the Kirov in Paris, the 23-year-old Nureyev defected. Frustrated with the close watch KGB agents were keeping on him and concerned that once he returned home he wouldn’t be allowed to tour again, he requested political asylum in France. After later traveling to Copenhagen to study Bournonville technique with Danish dancer Erik Bruhn (who became his romantic partner), Nureyev joined The Royal Ballet in 1962 as a guest artist.
When he arrived, Fonteyn was 42 and considering retirement. But when they were paired together for a production of Marius Petipa’s Giselle—despite their 19-year age difference—a breathtaking partnership was formed, reinvigorating Fonteyn’s career and The Royal Ballet’s reputation. They complemented one another’s talents. While Nureyev was known for his charismatic stage presence and reckless abandon, Fonteyn was regal, sylph-like and technically refined. Both were passionate performers, particularly in dramatic story ballets like Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake.
Fonteyn and Nureyev toured internationally throughout the ’60s and ’70s to an ecstatic reception. Choreographers created new ballets for them, like Marguerite and Armand (Ashton, 1963) and Lucifer (Martha Graham, 1975).
Fonteyn enjoyed one of the longest performing careers of any Royal Ballet dancer, starring in ballets until her 50s before taking on character roles. In her later years, she coached dancers at The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Houston Ballet and published an autobiography. She died at 71 due to cancer.
Nureyev expanded his range as an international artist and icon, performing with The Royal Ballet and other companies through 1991 and adding works by modern choreographers like Graham and José Limón to his classical repertoire. He directed Paris Opéra Ballet, 1983–89, choreographed several classical ballets and conducted orchestral performances. After more than a decade of living with HIV/AIDS, Nureyev died of AIDS-related complications in 1993 at 54.
Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Mira, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
Giselle (1962): For their first ballet together, Fonteyn shone in the title role, the delicate flourishes of the arms and lighter-than-air footwork playing to her strengths. Nureyev, as the tragic Prince Albrecht, performed larger-than-life cabrioles, double tours and attitude turns with equal parts strength and vulnerability.
Marguerite and Armand (1963): Frederick Ashton created this ballet on Fonteyn and Nureyev. Based on Alexandre Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias, it illustrates a tragic love affair between a French courtesan and a man below her station. Their increasingly passionate pas de deux showcased the pair’s exquisite partnering.
Romeo and Juliet (1965): Sir Kenneth MacMillan created his most memorable work for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, but Royal Ballet management switched the opening night cast to Fonteyn and Nureyev. The resulting 43 curtain calls are a testament to the magic of Fonteyn and Nureyev’s partnership.
Did You Know?
• Fonteyn was knighted in 1956 at age 35.
• Nureyev was born aboard a Trans-Siberian express train in Russia.
The Legacy Lives On
Fonteyn and Nureyev’s partnership brought them worldwide fame at a level unseen since Anna Pavlova and cultivated renewed interest in The Royal Ballet and classical works. While Fonteyn’s technical refinement and expressivity became equated with the English style of ballet, Nureyev strengthened the male presence—revamping men’s variations to highlight their strength and virtuosity and adjusting female-centric plots to better reflect a male perspective. His departure from the Soviet Union in 1961 set the stage for more defections by Russian ballet dancers, including Natalia Makarova (1970), Mikhail Baryshnikov (1974) and Alexander Godunov (1979).
“Margot Fonteyn Dead at 71; Ballerina Redefined Her Art,” by Jack Anderson, The New York Times, February 1991
No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press, 2003
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org
Royal Opera House: roh.org.uk
The Rudolf Nureyev Foundation: nureyev.or