TODAY is the centenary of the birth of Dame Margot Fonteyn, arguably the most famous ballerina of all time, and who for a time in the 1960s was one of the best-known women on the planet due to her relationship with the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev.


FONTEYN was born as plain Margaret Evelyn Hookham and was known to her family as Peggy.

Her father was an engineer with British American Tobacco and her mother Hilda was the illegitimate daughter of a Brazilian industrialist Antonio Goncalves Fontes. She would later adapt her mother’s maiden name and her own first name to become Margot Fonteyn.

Sometimes thought of as the quintessential Englishwoman with her impeccable manners and perfect diction, Fonteyn was a rather more exotic person. She also had links to Scotland as we shall see.


HER mother took her and her older brother Felix to a dance school in Ealing where Fonteyn’s talent was obvious from the start – she had her first rave review in a local paper at the age of five. The family moved to China because of her father’s work and in Shanghai she studied under Russian teachers George Goncharov and Vera Volkova. They gave her a lifelong love of Russian ballet. On her return to the UK she was spotted by Dame Ninette de Valois and invited to join the Vic-Wells Ballet School. By the age of 16 she was the principal ballerina of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet company, and she formed memorable partnerships with Robert Helpmann, among others. During the war, the ballet company famously performed long seasons around the country to entertain the troops and the public. After the war she continued to create many roles and the likes of Frederick Ashton devised ballets for her.

She became a huge star in the US after appearing on television there. After her marriage in 1955 to the Panamanian diplomat Roberto Arias she considered retirement but was persuaded instead to become President of the Royal Academy of Dancing. The Queen made her a dame in 1956. Retirement of a sort was very nearly forced upon her when Arias tried to organise a coup d’etat in his home in country in 1959. Fonteyn acted as a decoy for Arias and the couple were both arrested, though both were released.


AS the prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet, Fonteyn could have her pick of roles and dancing partners, but their famous partnership was forced upon her as she didn’t fancy the young Russian at first.

When Nureyev defected from the USSR in 1961, he was already famed for his dynamism and athleticism. Ninette de Valois personally selected Nureyev for the Royal Ballet and decreed that they would dance together. He went on to be Fonteyn’s partner in several classic ballets such as Giselle, Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet.

She was 19 years older than him, but her youthful looks were said to blossom in his presence – and he adored her, as he proved one night when she gave him a red rose from her bouquet at curtain call, and he went down on one knee to cover her hand with kisses, to the ecstatic roars of the crowd.

Their chemistry on stage won them millions of fans worldwide especially after films of their performances were released.

Think [Elizabeth] Taylor and [Richard] Burton in ballet shoes.

It was long rumoured that their professional relationship, sometimes tempestuous, was accompanied by a love affair. Fonteyn always denied this but the bisexual Nureyev, who died of AIDS in 1993, hinted that the two had been intimate.

Complicating matters was the fact that in 1964, Fonteyn’s husband was the victim of an assassination attempt which left him a quadriplegic. She would look after him personally for the rest of his life, and danced herself almost to destruction to earn the money for his care.


FONTEYN’S first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival was in Sleeping Beauty in the very first festival in 1947. She had also performed in the capital as early as 1937. In 1954 she was the star of the revival of The Firebird alongside regular partner Michael Somes. There are people in the capital who recall it as one of the greatest highlights in the entire history of the Festival.

In 1957, Peter Darrell founded his own ballet company in Bristol and 12 years later the brilliant young choreographer was persuaded to move to Glasgow where his company became Scottish Theatre Ballet, later dropping the Theatre.

Fonteyn was known for her encouragement of talent and she had a good relationship with Darrell so it was no surprise when she agreed to play a role in a charity gala he choreographed in 1971 – decor by Andy Warhol no less.

It was the start of a fruitful relationship between the company and the star. This included a tour of Australia and New Zealand which Fonteyn undertook at the age of 55.

Fonteyn showed her love for Scottish Ballet by dancing in every one of the 46 performances by the company on that tour in 1974 and in 1975, Darrell showed his appreciation of the prima ballerina by choreographing The Scarlet Pastorale for Fonteyn.

She would later say: “I have danced many times with Scottish Ballet and have always admired the dedication and enthusiasm of its dancers and management.”


SHE retired to a ranch in Panama with Arias at 60, and became an accomplished author and presenter of television series on dance.

She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and fought it bravely before dying in a hospital in Panama City on February 21, 1991, aged 71.