Sydney, 1957: How Fonteyn stopped the city

Margot Fonteyn, newly created a Dame of the British Empire, arrived at Mascot Airport, Sydney, in May 1957 in a Bristol Britannia aircraft.

The prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet was greeted with as much warmth and respect as Queen Elizabeth II who had toured Australia three years earlier.

In her first appearances in Sydney, Fonteyn appeared at the Empire Theatre where she danced in two regal roles, the swan queen, Odette, in Swan Lake Act II and Princess Aurora in Aurora’s Wedding.

Draped, as she was, with the royal mantle, it was hardly surprising that when women were introduced to her at receptions, they tended to curtsey, as if Fonteyn was a vestige of the real queen of England.

Her public appearances, all meticulously staged, were captured in photo spreads and rapturous copy in both daily newspapers and the leading magazine of the day, The Australian Women’s Weekly.

In both newspaper and magazine headlines, Fonteyn was described as “radiant”, an adjective frequently used in praise of the Queen.

The Australian Women’s Weekly’s headline of 5 June, 1957, was “Radiant Ballerina”, with the reporter noting that “Dame Margot wore diamonds and pearls with her Dior dress and stole of black faille-the skirt ankle length in front, then dipping to the floor in a bow-tied bustle”.

The opening night of Fonteyn’s season with the Borovansky Ballet was described by a Sun Herald reporter as “the most glamorous, glittering diamond studded evening Sydney has seen since the Royal Tour”.

Fonteyn was one of four Royal Ballet guest artists, joining Michael Somes, (her dance partner), Rowena Jackson and Bryan Ashbridge for the season.

She brought to Australia a wardrobe of suits and dresses by Dior, the designer who had created her wedding dress in 1955.

The negotiations for the Borovansky Ballet performances of 1957 were handled by James Laurie whose firm Concerts Management International Ltd was based in Sloane Street in London.

Details of the financial arrangements between Laurie and J C Williamson Theatres, which presented the Borovansky Ballet in Australia, were outlined in a letter from Laurie to Peggy van Praagh, dated 9 July 1963.

At this time, van Praagh was artistic director of the Australian Ballet and Laurie was offering Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev as guest artists for a tour in 1964.

Laurie wrote: “In 1957, Margot and Michael Somes performed for the last 2 weeks of the Sydney season with Borovansky and the first 2 weeks of his Melbourne season.

“The financial arrangements I made with J C Williamson were that for supplying stars, costumes, transport and paying their salaries, we would get a percentage of gross receipts up to a certain figure, and then split the receipts 50/50 over that figure.

“The estimates of Borovansky’s and J.C.W’s costs as opposed to our costs provided the basis for working out the basic percentage.

“One very important thing to bear in mind…is that contrary to the original opinion, Borovansky’s Melbourne season had a tremendous boost, as did the rest of that year’s tour, by Fonteyn and her associates appearing for just a limited season in that city…”

Fonteyn and Nureyev went on to guest with the Australian Ballet in a very successful tour of 1964, one that led to a long association between the two stars and the company.

The 1957 season proved to be a major turning point for ballet in Australia.

Fonteyn was dismissive of Borovansky (as she confirms in her autobiography), and she let Ninette de Valois, (artistic director of the Royal Ballet), know how she felt.

In 1958, de Valois told J C Williamson representatives that van Praagh would be a good choice to take over from Borovansky in leading the company he founded.

The following year, Borovansky died. Van Praagh became the Borovansky Ballet’s artistic director but the company folded early in 1961 to be replaced as a national company by the Australian Ballet.

5 Comments

  1. Posted July 1, 2011 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks for identifying some more people in the dressing room photograph, Valerie!

  2. isla baring
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Lovely to see these photographs of our father Sir Frank Tait with Dame Margot.
    I know he was the first chairman of the Australian Ballet and we were trying to find details of the true history and here it is !! I have a foundation in London called The Tait Memorial Trust in memory of the Tait brothers who did so much for the performing arts in Australia. Frank was the youngest of the brothers and died in 1965.
    Dame Margot was a truly lovely person as well as one of best ballet dancers to come to Australia. She became a great friend of our parents.

  3. valerie
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    What memories you must have of those years! The Taits were so important in Australian dance history and so few now have personal memories of them.

  4. Penelope Kearney
    Posted October 29, 2017 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    I was 10 years of age when I saw them dance at a matinee at the Empire. My mother took my sister and I out of boarding school for the event which she and our grandmother took us to from Wollongong. We had special outfits of matching broderie anglaise dresses under black velvet coats with lace collars, worn with black patent shoes. I felt very awkward in the fantastic coat, but loved the ballet and have always remembered the occasion that ended with us lining up at the stage door with my grandmother shouting ‘bravo’ when Fonteyn emerged – further embarrassment for a 10 year old but grandmother insisted it was the done thing. Thank you for the memories.

  5. valerie
    Posted October 30, 2017 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Penelope, what a wonderful memory. The black velvet coats and broderie anglaise dresses must have been gorgeous! I hope you have photos from the big day but if not, I think every aspect of that day will stay in your mind forever.

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Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes, backstage, May 1957

Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes, backstage, May 1957

Margot Fonteyn at Royal Randwick racecourse

Margot Fonteyn at Royal Randwick racecourse, Australian Women’s Weekly, published 5 June, 1957

Somes, Borovansky,Tait, Fonteyn, Jackson, Australian Women's Weekly, June 5, 1957

(top photo, l to r) Somes, Borovansky,Tait, Fonteyn, Jackson, Australian Women’s Weekly, published 5 June, 1957

Bryan Ashbridge, Rosina Raisbeck, Rowena Jackson, James Laurie

Top photo: Bryan Ashbridge, Rosina Raisbeck, Rowena Jackson, James Laurie, published Australian Women’s Weekly, June 1957

Frank Tait with Margot Fonteyn, curtain call

Frank Tait with Margot Fonteyn, curtain call
Empire Theatre, Sydney, 25 May 1957
Photo: Ken Redshaw, State Library of NSW, call no. APA 03359

Fonteyn backstage in Sydney, 25 May 1957

Front row: Edouard Borovansky, Margot Fonteyn, Rowena Jackson, Frank Tait of JCW.
Second row: (between Fonteyn and Jackson), Rosina Raisbeck (James Laurie’s wife), Bryan Ashbridge, James Laurie, 25 May 1957, State Library of NSW, call no: APA 03361

Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes at Mascot Airport, May 1957

l to r: Helen Brecknell, Helen Thibou, Sonia Humphrey, Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes; Mascot Airport, May 1957, courtesy
State Library of NSW, call no: APA 03333

Margot Fonteyn, with Dr John Fulton, in Sydney after opening night, 5 June 1957

top photo, Margot Fonteyn, with Dr John Fulton, medical superintendent, Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Sydney after opening night, published Australian Women’s Weekly, 5 June 1957
Below, among those attending opening night, the Byrne family with Leslie Walford at right