The Fonteyn Follies of ’62

With the men in miniscule swimming costumes, and the women dressed modestly in summer shirts and cotton trousers, Margot Fonteyn and her colleagues posed for a press photographer by the pool of a small private hotel in Sydney.

The men’s briefs – daring, yet daggy – the cheap-as-chips deck chair, the circular cane chair in the background, and the giant, decorative wooden salad servers all indicate just how long ago the photo shoot took place.

Jack Hickson of the Australian Photographic Agency snapped the photos 50 years ago this month, during a tour of Australia, New Zealand, Manila and Hong Kong by Fonteyn, David Blair, Bryan Ashbridge, Maryon Lane, Annette Page, Brian Shaw, Ronald Emblen and Robin Haig.

All the dancers, except Haig, who is not in the photos, were members of the Royal Ballet whose director, Ninette de Valois, released them from the company for the tour managed by James Laurie of Concerts Management (London) Ltd. The tour began in Perth on April 5, 1962.

The photos at the pool were taken during the seven-day Sydney season (April 21 to April 28).

Thanks to some forensic work by Robert Woodley of the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales, the poolside setting is now known to be the Beauregarde Private Hotel, at 16 Billyard Avenue, Elizabeth Bay, where the dancers paid for their own accommodation from their per diem supplied by Laurie’s company. Haig and Page stayed at a cheaper hotel in nearby Potts Point.

Of the eight dancers on the tour, only two are still alive – Page and Haig. The Australian-born conductor for the tour, Dudley Simpson, lives in Sydney. He conducted for many ballet performances although as a composer, he is best known for the Doctor Who music in the 1970s.

Robin Haig, an Australian, has lived in the United States from the early 1980s. I spoke to her recently by phone in her home city, Boulder, Colorado, where she has retired as a lecturer in the dance faculty at the University of Colorado. Haig still lectures, on a freelance basis, on the history of dance and gives solo performances in her show, Backstage with Margot Fonteyn, in which she recalls the 1962 tour.

Coincidentally, Haig is soon to give lectures in Queensland, Australia, as well as a performance of Backstage with Margot Fonteyn, and she is thinking of moving back to Australia after many years overseas.

The 1962 tour was Fonteyn’s second visit to Australia. It followed her guest appearances with the Borovansky Ballet in 1957 and preceded her appearances in Australia with Rudolf Nureyev as guests of the Australian Ballet in 1964.

Known as “the Fonteyn Follies”, the 1962 tour was one of Fonteyn’s happiest, Robin Haig recalls.

Fonteyn’s biography by Meredith Daneman touches on the tour (she writes incorrectly that it began in February 1962). Daneman interviewed Annette Page who told her that “on the Australian tour, Margot was just wonderful to me. She would order supper for us in her suite after the show. Buy us endless drinks. Take us out. And the end she gave us all the most lovely presents”.

The suite must have been in another city as the Beauregarde was not a suite kind of hotel.

For Fonteyn, the tour must have been a pleasant respite from the self-imposed pressure of the 1961 Royal Ballet’s tour of Russia where she felt she had not given her best performances.

At home in London, her major troubles had not yet begun – it was to be two more years before Fonteyn’s life changed dramatically when her husband, Roberto “Tito” Arias, was shot in Panama.

(Haig recalls that Fonteyn and Nureyev were dancing in Bath, in the UK, when the shooting took place.

“Nobody could find Margot to tell her”, Haig recalled. She had gone with Nureyev and others to a restaurant.)

Throughout the Fonteyn Follies’ tour, the ballerina danced pas de deux with David Blair “who was dashing and thrilled to be her new partner”, said Haig. “When Rudolf [Nureyev] turned up it was extremely hard on David”.

Haig was invited on the tour as a substitute for the Royal Ballet’s Merle Park. The company’s director, Ninette de Valois, decided she would not allow Park to travel.

By 1962, the Western Australian-born Haig had been in London for seven years. As a young teenager, she had danced with Walter Gore’s National Theatre Ballet in Melbourne, then moved to London in 1955 on a Royal Academy of Dancing scholarship to study at the Royal Ballet School.

After 18 months training, Haig joined the Royal Ballet but her time there was brief. She left to join Walter Gore’s newly formed English troupe, London Ballet, as “I wanted to do different roles. I thought I’d have a greater variety”, she said.

During a break in that company’s touring season in December 1961, Haig dancing in a Christmas pantomime but continued to visit old friends at the Royal Opera House. At the stage door one day, Fonteyn asked Haig what she was doing. Within days, Fonteyn phoned Haig to ask her to join the tour.

James Laurie, no doubt advised by Arthur Tait, the tour consultant in Australia, was busy planning advance publicity.

The Australian Women’s Weekly correspondent in London, the delightfully named Betty Best, visited Fonteyn’s home for an interview that appeared in the magazine on 28 February 1962 under the headline The Magic of Dame Margot.

The ballerina wore a black silk dress and poured tea for Betty as she chatted about the tour and her memories of Australia in 1957.

She told her interviewer: “This is really the very first time in my life that I have toured without a large ballet company. It is a tremendous challenge. We all feel it in this group and only hope we can fulfil our own hopes”.

Asked why she was returning to Australia, Fonteyn gave a surprising answer: “Certainly not to sign autographs! Oh, those autographs last time! We had never known anything like it in our lives.

“As we arrived at the theatre, they were lined up their hundreds. We used to get there 20 minutes early to clear a vast pile of them. We went on, and by the time we came off at interval there were twice as many waiting again.

“We could have spent the whole time just signing autographs and never danced once. It was really the worst aspect of the tour. One doesn’t like to disappoint – oh dear, I hope the craze is over now”.

The autograph horror did not dampen her apparent enthusiasm for Australia.

“I suppose everyone tells you this”, she told Best, “but I really did like the Australian people. No, I can’t tell you why. I just did. And Australia itself. In spite of the fact that last time I didn’t see any of it.

“I liked the atmosphere of all that I didn’t see. I could feel the effect of all those wide-open spaces – the outback, don’t you call it?

“For instance, all the time I was there I would have liked nothing better than to go to see Alice Springs. Although I didn’t have a chance, I knew I would have loved it. And for that matter I won’t have a chance this time, either. It will be even harder work.

“You see, there are only eight of us, so no one will have a single performance off. We are all needed every single time the curtain goes up. The programme is designed that way so that every audience will have a chance to see everyone.

“And with four performances in a separate city each week and everything to be packed up and ourselves to be got from place to place, there will not be time for sightseeing”.

Fonteyn told Best that she would not do any “spectacular technical pieces” as these would be saved for Maryon Lane and Annette Page “because they do it much better than I do. I have never really been the spectacular kind of dancer that some are.

“You see, I am better at telling a story and doing the purely expressive pieces. It’s another thing altogether. I have always been much more interested in the subject than the steps. The steps always bored me, but the story fascinated me”.

Asked for her fondest recollection of the 1957 visit to Australia, Fonteyn answered “the shows we gave for the handicapped children. They were the most thrilling audiences I can ever remember. You see, some of them were out of their hospitals for the first time in years. They squealed with delight.

“I loved it. I’ve never been one of those dancers who hate to be interrupted by an audience. I love to hear if they are enjoying it. They can applaud bang in the middle of something if they feel like it.

“Well, these children did. Right from the start of their matinees. We had never done this sort of thing anywhere else and I found it the most exciting experience.

“The more excited they got, the more excited we got. It was unforgettable”.

Fonteyn added something that no one could, or would, ever say now: “Especially when you realise that many of them were blind”.

The pre-publicity did not end with this article. On 4 April, 1962, just before the tour began in Perth, The Australian Women’s Weekly published an article headlined A Ballerina’s Life is Hard Work, with the byline Margot Fonteyn, and in the next issue, on 11 April, the magazine ran a feature on Robin Haig, also by Betty Best, headlined “Girl from Perth returns home”.

In an interview in London, Haig had told Best that she had only seven days’ rehearsal in London and five in Perth before the tour began in Perth’s Capitol Theatre.

When we spoke by phone, Haig recalled that a news cameraman filmed the troupe as they arrived at Perth airport and again during a class and rehearsal on the stage.

She recalled that the balletmaster for the tour was Bryan Ashbridge; he took class and oversaw rehearsals.

The dancers reached Sydney by the third week of April, with their season opening at the Tivoli Theatre in Castlereagh Street on 21 April.

The Tivoli was home to musicals, vaudeville, opera and dance, with the Fonteyn Follies’printed program flagging forthcoming events such as Paris by Night with Sophie Tucker, the Sadlers Wells Opera Company’s production of Orpheus in the Underworld, the Black and White Minstrel Show and The Sound of Music, starring June Bronhill.

Fonteyn was right in forecasting how busy the dancers would be on this tour. In Sydney, they gave more than the predicted four performances in one week.

She danced at least three times and usually four times every evening in the run of seven performances. The repertoire in Sydney included 21 pieces of which 11 were pas de deux.

Of the 21 ballets, Frederick Ashton’s name was given as choreographer for 10, including his pas de deux from Raymonda, the girl’s first variation from the peasant pas de deux in Giselle, and the Tarantella pas de deux from Swan Lake.

On April 21, 23, 24 and 25, the evening closed with Frederick Ashton’s Birthday Offering, adapted by Ashton, for the tour, for only four couples instead of the original seven.

Fonteyn danced her original Birthday Offering variation, partnered by Blair. According to Haig, Lane and Page chose their own variations (I’m not sure which they were), while Haig was given no choice in being given Nadia Nerina’s variation, one full of jumps.

On April 26, 27 and 28, the program included Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, danced by Fonteyn, Page, Lane, Blair, Shaw and Emblen.

The 19th century pas de deux, some with Ashton’s additions or alterations were: Fille mal gardee, Giselle (peasant pas de deux), the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, Nutcracker, Raymonda and The Sleeping Beauty, Bluebirds from The Sleeping Beauty, and from Swan Lake, the Act 11 and Act III pas de deux and the Tarantella.

From the 20th century, the company presented Spectre de la Rose, and excerpts from Carnaval, (both Michel Fokine), Ashton’s Deux Pigeons, and two pieces by Kenneth MacMillan, the pas de trois, Valse eccentrique and an extract from Solitaire.

John Cranko was represented by a pas de deux from Beauty and the Beast and a pas de trois from The Lady and the Fool.

Fonteyn also danced the Madame Butterfly solo created for her by Ashton in 1954 (as a precursor to his longer, Madame Chrysantheme, choreographed the following year, with Elaine Fifield as the tragic heroine).

Oddly enough, the composer for this solo was given in the Sydney program as John Lanchbery who had been married to Fifield. Yet Lanchbery did not compose the music for either the original Fonteyn solo or Madame Chrysantheme but many years later, in 1995, he did adapt Puccini’s score for Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly choreographed for the Australian Ballet.

The Fonteyn Follies’ repertoire is indicative of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire of the time, and its emphasis on British works. There had been plans to include Ballabile, a work by Roland Petit, but Haig cannot remember it being in the repertoire.

At this stage, I have only checked the Sydney program but I don’t imagine the ballets changed for each city. (The Australian tour included Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane.)

Fonteyn was to return to Australia three more times, with Nureyev in 1964 and twice in the 1970s but it’s unlikely that any of these tours was as carefree for the dancer as the time of the Follies.