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.