When Sonia met Margot

It’s hard to know where this story began. Maybe in 1954, when Beverley Humphrey took her daughter, Sonia, to the ballet in London.

Maybe in the 1990s, when Sonia and I used to chat after dance performances in Sydney.

Maybe when, at Fairfax Media, I found this photo among many other dance photos in the library.

Or when I learned of Sonia Humphrey’s death in an obituary, published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 8 February 2011, written by one of her two sons, Daniel Creech.

Daniel led me to his grandmother, Beverley Humphrey, who explained how Sonia appeared in this photo with Fonteyn in May 1957.

“We had all fallen under the Fonteyn spell in London in 1954”, she told me.

The performance was Firebird. Sonia had felt unwell, but when Fonteyn appeared, every other distraction vanished.

Sonia, then 7, was mesmerised.

She was born in Cambridge, in 1947, but a decade later, Sonia had moved to Sydney with her parents, Beverley and George, both scientists.

When Beverley read that Fonteyn was arriving at Mascot airport, at the start of her tour with the Borovansky Ballet, she drove Sonia, and her friend, Helen Thibou, to the airport.

They waited outside, hoping for a glimpse of the prima ballerina.

A gaggle of reporters and photographers stood nearby.

Beverley recalls that “the press were looking for a story and invited us inside” along with another girl they didn’t know, identified in the Fairfax photo files as Helen Brecknell.

“Sonia immediately took over the interview and discussed Margot’s London performances, and the other kids looked on bemused and the photographers went away happy.

“Sonia was wearing an angora cardigan which left hairs on Margot’s suit”.

The photo appeared on page one of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Five years later, when Fonteyn returned for a tour with Royal Ballet dancers, she met Sonia again. By then, Sonia was a senior student at the studio of Lorraine Norton. Fonteyn found her way to the Norton studio, possibly due to their mutual friendship with the artistic director of the Australian Ballet, Peggy van Praagh.

This chance meeting led to another front page Herald story, showing Sonia and Fonteyn looking at the previous photo together.

The following year, Sonia, accompanied by her mother, flew to London where Sonia began training at the Royal Ballet School.

Beverley remained in London with her daughter until March 1964. The wrench between mother and child was hard to bear.

Two months later, Sonia severely injured her knee and flew home, to Australia with her leg in plaster.

Doctors told her that was the end of her dancing career, but a physiotherapist helped her recover sufficiently to allow her to audition successfully for a place at the newly established Australian Ballet School.

After two years at the school – in her final exam – she fell and injured her other knee.

As a student, Sonia had danced with the Australian Ballet but there would be no ongoing career on stage.

Instead, Sonia made her mark as a television journalist and presenter of simulcasts of opera and ballet.

Last Christmas, at the age of 63, she died in Tasmania where she had lived with her third husband, the former Vice Admiral Ian MacDougall, who she had married in 1996.

Like Anna Pavlova before her, Fonteyn touched many lives. For Sonia, and myself, her impact was profound, and I think this photo sums up much of that impact – childlike, yet deeply felt, and with unforseen consequences to ourselves and those we loved or who loved us.

6 Comments

  1. Adrian Ryan
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this lovely reminder. I well remember Sonia bravely fronting the perils of our first simulcasts. Not only the nerves associated with the newness and unpredictability of it all but also the perils of live interviews with “monstres sacres”. I seem to remember a “Swan Lake” from Adelaide required Sonia to deal with a very tetchy Robert Helpmann and Bob Hawke during interval chats. Sir Robert was commenting on the fact that dancers then knew noting of hard work : why in his day he had to dance Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle all in the one day ! Sonia handled it all beautifully with just the slightest twinkle in her eye.

  2. valerie
    Posted July 1, 2011 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    Adrian, wrangling Helpmann and Hawke in one interval – now that’s something I would love to have seen! Sonia was so serene in those telecasts.

  3. Ian MacDougall
    Posted July 2, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Valerie
    Thank you for your moving tribute to Sonia.
    As you know many learned from her beautiful mind. Certainly I did
    every day for nearly 20 years.

  4. valerie
    Posted July 2, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I am so glad you found the article, Ian. Those photos, and being able to write about Sonia have been meant a lot to me. Thanks so much for your words.

  5. Paul Fuller
    Posted December 14, 2012 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    In the early 1970’s I worked as a news cameraman at Sydney’s Channel Ten, then in West Ryde. I remember working with Sonia and recall her as a charming, delightful and thoroughly professional young reporter. I moved back to Melbourne ( to GTV 9 ) in 1977 for the remainder of my career and I was saddened to only hear of her passing during last years Logies. Both she and the late Eric Walters were very much part of my early time in tv, I offer my admittedly late condolences to her family. I also just happened on this web-site.

  6. valerie
    Posted December 14, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    It’s great to hear from you Paul, and thanks so much for your memories of Sonia.

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Sonia Humphrey, Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes, May 1957

l to r: Helen Brecknell, Helen Thibou, Sonia Humphrey, Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes, Edouard Borovanksy: Mascot Airport, Sydney, May 1957, courtesy State Library of NSW, Australian Photographic Agency – 03330

Sonia Humphrey with Margot Fonteyn, April 1962

Sonia Humphrey and Margot Fonteyn, photographed on 20 April 1962.
Photo by Alan Kemp