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The Buzz, 5-18: Pivots
Remembering Fonteyn; Feting Forsythe; Honoring Homer

By Paul Ben-Itzak (Paris)
and Robin Hoffman (New York)

Photography by Dominik Mentzos
Drawing by Robin Hoffman

"No one will contest that the month of January was Pavlova's. A spirit hovered over Paris like a swan's wing opening, like Giselle's veil emerging from the tomb. The portrait of the Departed was everywhere; for once newspapers were unanimous in their piety; and the public, that great and blase assemblage, stealthily wiped away a tear in memory of she who was so little, so much.... Sylphide, dragon-fly, chrysanthemum, Danseuse, vestal, Muse. Anna Pavlova was the spiritual force, piu grande che noi, that permits the art of the Dance to stylize convention. In a realm that evades, and should evade, resemblance, she was that which all have imagined but none have seen. This gift of metamorphosis, this power of suggestion exalted her genius and minimized her defects to such a point that, in the light of searching criticism, she appeared incomparable. Was she the greatest? The question is superfluous. She was unique."

So wrote L. Franc Scheuer in the March, 1934 edition of The Dancing Times. But if the month of January was Pavlova's, the month of December, 1934, ushered in another era, when, at the Sadler's Wells Theatre, the character of a young boy trepidatiously entered the ancient ballroom of a Scottish castle. The Ninette de Valois ballet of the evening, "The Haunted Ballroom," has, like many of the treasures of our history, been forgotten; not forgotten has been the interpreter who portrayed Young Tregennis, son of the master of the house, in her first appearance as a soloist: Margot Fonteyn.*

It would be a long 15 years before the United States would get to revel in Fonteyn, when she performed the role of Aurora in Petipa's "Sleeping Beauty" with Sadler's Wells on October 9, 1949 at the Metropolitan Opera House, in a production staged by Nicholas Sergeyev with additional choreography by Frederick Ashton and de Valois. It was the beginning of a love affair which would last into the 1980s, in a career extended by Fonteyn's partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.

With the help of Nureyev's foundation and after the tireless transatlantic treasure-hunting of Fonteyn's friend and colleague Joy Williams Brown and Robert Gottlieb, that love affair will be remembered in Margot Fonteyn in America: a Celebration, which opens today at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Brown, a former Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo dancer, performed with Fonteyn in Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris, most notably in Petit's 1948 "Les Demoiselles de la Nuit," with designs by Leonor Fini. (The ballet required Fonteyn to wear a cat mask. At first she refused, Xavier Gauthier recalled in "Leonor Fini." "Never could I imagine myself doing such a thing at Covent Garden!" Fonteyn explained in her autobiography. But Fini threatened to set the Theatre Marigny on fire, and Petit implored Fonteyn, "Wear the mask! She is capable of anything.")

Over the past year, collecting Fonteyn memorabilia for the Lincoln Center exhibition has taken Brown to Paris, where the Fondation Pierre Berge Yves Saint Laurent loaned her dresses worn by the ballerina, and to London, where the Royal Opera House Archives contributed costumes. The resulting exhibition, writes our Robin Hoffman, "is extensive without being overwhelming, and put together with style and a great deal of love. The collection of rare photographs manage to capture the ballerina's superstar quality on and offstage, her graceful chic and humor. Among the photographs is a series of 12 of Fonteyn in costume for Sergeyev's staging of Ivanov/Petipa's 'Swan Lake,' demonstrating classical mime gestures. The gestures are performed with her entire being, their meaning echoed on her face. It is exemplary, and all young ballet dancers should see these photos. There is also a kiosk with a selection of film clips, including one series of Fonteyn working at the barre in which the ballerina provides the narration. I was so taken with her clean, beautiful movement that I can not remember what she was saying in the voice-over.

"The costumes, displayed on dress forms, recall Fonteyn in some of her most famous roles. Here is a real imprint of a great artist in this ephemeral art of ours. My favorite is the Act I Aurora costume from her American debut. Fonteyn would have been about 30 years old. This is the iconic pink Aurora tutu I've seen over and again in the photos, and there is some vibrating magic left in it by the one who wore it. Unlike the couture gowns also on display, stage costumes are not meant to be looked at up close, and seem very personal here, from the way they form a ghostly cast of her torso to the practical beige elastic straps and extra row of hooks on the bodice. They are marked by her hard work. Displayed with the tutu are the autographed pointe shoes she wore in that historical debut performance, which catapulted her to celebrity in America.

Margot Fonteyn's Act I costume from "The Sleeping Beauty," as displayed in Margot Fonteyn in America: A Celebration. Sketch by Robin Hoffman.

"I was born too late to have seen Fonteyn dance live. I knew from the ballet books I grew up reading that she was an important ballerina. I knew she was a fashion icon and a big star. After seeing this exhibit, I understand and am impressed on a much deeper level." Margot Fonteyn in America continues through September 3.


Reversing our Buzz expedition: Americans have been known to dazzle the public on this side of the Ocean. But if the Yank choreographer William Forsythe had to come to Europe to find a company and a city, Frankfurt, that would financially back his explorations, on the Ballett Frankfurt, he hasn't gone unappreciated in his homeland -- and not just by ballet audiences. As the Frankfurt experiment winds down -- the company gives its final performance next month in Paris, before Forsythe shifts to a scaled-down, private version, with financing from Frankfurt and Dresden -- it's fitting that Forsythe's native land should mark his contribution, as Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church will do next Tuesday, honoring Forsythe in its annual gala.

William Forsythe in rehearsal with the Ballett Frankfurt. Dominik Mentzos photo courtesy Danspace Project.

Feting Forsythe with performances will be the John Jasperse Company, in an excerpt from "Just Two Dancers"; Frankfurt stalwart Antony Rizzi, presenting a selection from Forsythe's "Approximate Sonata"; Ron Thornhill, and the Donna Uchizono Company. The gala audience will also catch a film on Forsythe and Sang Jijia, produced for the evening by the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative.

What's a putatively modern dance theater doing feting a putatively ballet choreographer in the first place? Forsythe, says Danspace Project executive director Laurie Uprichard, "is recognized for his pioneering choreography that has expanded the boundaries of classical dance both physically and philosophically. As Danspace Project's 2004 Gala honoree, William Forsythe represents the core values that Danspace actively seeks to embody, including creativity, risk-taking, integrity, dedication, excellence, and partnership and collaboration." For more information on the Danspace Project Gala tribute to William Forsythe, please visit the Danspace Project web site, or e-mail Peggy H. Cheng


Frankfurt ballerina and Forsythe muse Dana Caspersen was one of the last collaborators of the late Homer Avila, on whom Caspersen choreographed a piece in Germany. Homer felt blessed to be able to work with a number of outstanding choreographers, and his will, we've just learned, asks that the scholarship he began for Alonzo King's Lines Ballet Dance Intensive be continued, and that a scholarship be established for dancers to study with Zvi Gotheiner. (Homer was bi-coastal. Is.) For the former, contributions, made out to Lines Ballet, can be sent to Missy Globerman, Development, Alonzo King's Lines Ballet, 26 Seventh Street, San Francisco, CA 94103. Forthe latter, contributions, payable to ZGD, Inc. can be sent to Zvi Gotheiner, artistic director, ZGD, Inc., 246 W. 38th Street, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018.

*Research on "The Haunted Ballroom": "Balanchine's Stories of the Great Ballets," by George Balanchine, edited by Francis Mason.

 

 

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