Fonteyn Remembered

Playhouse, QPAC (Queensland Ballet)


The Queensland Ballet’s tribute to Dame Margot Fonteyn takes us on a nostalgic journey through twentieth century ballet.

Beauty, high art, stardom that is the stuff of this remarkable story.

We are introduced to little Peggy Hookham (danced finely by Jessica Brown) as a girl growing up in Shanghai in the late 1920s amidst an exotic street scene of fan dancers, acrobats and a lion. Who could guess that this young girl would later become the international superstar that was Dame Margot Fonteyn? We join the young ballerina in China taking ballet lessons from the Russian George Goncharov (Keian Langdon).

The audience is then whisked across the world with the precocious fourteen year old to London in 1933 where she starts taking lessons with Princess Serafina Astafieva (Tamara Zurvas) and later with Vera Volkova of Sadler’s Wells Ballet School.

Dame Margot’s story is told by celebrated Queensland actors Bille Brown, Carol Burns and Eugene Gilfedder. The Queensland Ballet earlier this year combined acting and ballet in Vis a Vis: Moving Stories?. The drama-dance chemistry works well and brings the narrative to life.

These actors display a mastery of a number of characters throughout the production particularly the artistic trio of choreographer Frederick Ashton (Eugene Gilfedder), Saddler’s Wells’ ballet director Ninette de Valois (Carol Burns) and composer Constant Lambert (Bille Brown). We are indeed fortunate to have these three greats of Queensland theatre bring dramatic zest to this story. There can be few more daunting roles in ballet that of Dame Margot Fonteyn, named by the Royal Ballet in England upon her retirement in 1979 as “prima ballerina assoluta”. Rachael Walsh rises to the occasion with a sublime performance. She dances exquisitely the role of Giselle, protecting her beloved betrayer, Albrecht (Alex Wagner) against the vengeful power of the Queen of the Willis (danced with strength by Clare Morehen).

Rachael Walsh shows her versatility throughout, not least in the beautiful pas de deux from Lady of the Camellias with Rudoph Nureyev (Christian Tatchev). Fonteyn, the mature English belle, and Nureyev, the young Russian defector, stunned the ballet world in the 1960s and ’70s the celebrity duo of the age.

This story of Fonteyn’s life does not gloss over the dark phase of her life, including gun-running and arrest as part of her then husband Tito’s involvement in fomenting revolt against the President of Panama in 1959. Indeed, the production engages in some black comedy by treating the scene as a farcical interlude between pirates and ballerinas, led by Teri Crilly who displays a genuine comedic talent.

It is good to see the traditions of ballet being honoured. One hopes that in due course we can see a similar celebration of the work of great Queensland ballerinas such as Michelle Giamichele and Rosetta Cook.

This production is entertaining and rewarding on a number of levels. The initial idea came from Des Power. His background in film and television has undoubtedly encouraged experimentation with the use of projected scenery. As Francois Klaus has noted this can sometimes overpower performers, making them appear minuscule in front of a large screen, but on this occasion the actors and dancers are larger than life and revel in the grand scale of the backdrop images.

Margot Fonteyn once observed: “Life forms illogical patterns. It is haphazard and full of beauties which I try to catch as they fly by, for who knows whether any of them will ever return.”

This story told by the Queensland Ballet, particularly through the exquisite performance of Rachael Walsh, returns us fleetingly into Fonteyn’s world a life “haphazard and full of beauties”.

Choreography and direction by Francois Klaus based on an idea originated by Des Power
Music director and arranger: Craig Allister Young
Synopsis development: David Walters, Francois Klaus and Robyn White
Writers: Sue Rider (Dialogue), Des Power, Francois Klaus
Set and imagery Design: Grahame Maclean
Costume design: Noelene Hill
Lighting and projection design: David Waters
Digital images: Phil Donahue
Projection programming: Dan Cook
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with a 20 minute interval

Performances from 2 to 16 October 2010

— Matt Foley
(Performance seen: Fri 1st October 2010)