Sleeping Beauty

The year was 1934 and 15-year-old Margaret Hookham of London was making her debut with the company that would become Britain's Royal Ballet. She was a snowflake in "The Nutcracker." Two years later she had become the company's reigning ballerina, and her name, too, had metamorphosed: she was Margot Fonteyn. For millions of people around the world, her name came to symbolize classical ballet as we most often imagine it - though not the way we very often see it. Last week Fonteyn died of cancer in Panama, where she had lived on a cattle ranch with her late husband, Roberto Arias. She insisted on keeping her illness, that sign of mortal imperfection, a secret from the public.

Fonteyn's long career was spurred by a touch of good fortune at two crucial moments. The first came early on, when she was 17. The fledgling ballet company lost its principal ballerina, Alicia Markova, who went off to perform with her own troupe, and Fonteyn was given the great star's place. It was a risky move on the part of Ninette de Valois, the visionary founder of the Royal, for Fonteyn was utterly unknown. She didn't even have a chic Russian name to her credit. But the gamble paid off. As the Royal Ballet developed into one of the most important institutions of the ballet world, Fonteyn's reputation grew with it; for more than half a century, she was recognized as the Royal's Crown jewel.

Fonteyn made all the major classical roles her own, and she became the favorite muse of British choreographer Frederick Ashton, who created "Apparitions," "Daphnis and Chloe" and "Ondine" for her. His ballets - witty, literary, technically demanding and enormously sophisticated - brought out Fonteyn's emotional depths as well as her classical refinement. She once said they were the ballets in which she was happiest. But the second stroke of good luck that moved her career to new heights was not a new role, it was a new partner. In 1961 Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union; the next year he joined Fonteyn at Covent Garden in "Giselle." Fonteyn was 42, the epitome of British style at its most genteel and gently ravishing. Nureyev was 23, a bold, unpredictable Russian romantic given to extravagant displays of gorgeous, sometimes ungainly, virtuosity. The audience went mad, and one of the dance world's legendary partnerships was born.

Fonteyn and Nureyev danced together for the next 17 years, creating for a generation of audience an indelible theatrical experience. A 40-minute ovation greeted their debute in Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet," and the brief, explosive "Le Corsaire" pas de deux, with Nureyev a dashing, smoldering slave and Fonteyn his glittery love object, became a recurring popular triumph.

Fonteyn used to say she would never retire, she would just slip away, and in a sense she did just that; well into her 60s she appeared onstage and on television. She was onstage for the last time in 1986, when the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet - a sister company to the Royal - performed in Miami. Fonteyn agreed to play the non-dancing role of the Queen Mother in "The Sleeping Beauty" - a poignant coda to the many times she danced Princess Aurora in the same ballet. Even in her 50s, Fonteyn would step onstage as Aurora, glance around the palace scene with joy and begin to dance. She was 16. It was her birthday. Always.