Discovery of Margot Fonteyn film footage excites ballet lovers

Dalya Alberge
·4-min read

She was one of the greatest ballerinas who ever graced the stage, revered for her musicality, artistry and technical perfection. Now previously unseen footage of Dame Margot Fonteyn instilling the joy of dance in young children has been discovered, to the excitement of historians and ballet enthusiasts.

Footage of Fonteyn with young girls taking their first steps in ballet was found in the archives of the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and will receive its first public screening at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London from Wednesday.

Reels of 16mm film – overlooked as they had been stored in canisters labelled only “Children’s Syllabus” – were found to contain never-before-seen footage directed and filmed in 1972 by the prima ballerina’s photographer brother Felix Fonteyn.

Eleanor Fitzpatrick, the RAD’s archives and records manager, described the discovery as “hugely exciting”. “Although we are lucky enough to be able to see recordings of Fonteyn’s performances on stage online, this is such a rare glimpse into her work behind the scenes, helping RAD to inspire the world to dance.”

Fonteyn was an international star, whose pairing with Rudolf Nureyev remains one of the greatest ballet partnerships in history. But her passion for the RAD resulted in her becoming its longest-serving president – from 1954 until her death in 1991.

The film is presented by Fonteyn. She provides a commentary while watching girls aged between six and eight being instructed in a series of exercises.

“Are you all going to dance nicely this afternoon?” Fonteyn asks them. When they exclaim “yes!” in unison, she adds: “Oh good, I hope so.”

Related: Prime mover: Margot Fonteyn centenary – in pictures

Turning to the camera, Fonteyn says: “All over the world, children are going to dancing class, many of them with the hope of one day becoming ballerinas. The children’s syllabus provides teachers with a training programme for young beginners.”

The children demonstrate exercises at the barre to the accompaniment of a piano and Fonteyn’s voice instructing that “the foot must be firmly pointed and the knee straight, the correct head movements are learned right from the start”.

She adds: “Once the arm positions are learnt, then they are used with a soft flowing movement for dancing.”

Elsewhere, she says: “The important points are the emphasis on correct basic ballet technique, and the enjoyment of dancing, both of which are maintained throughout the rest of the syllabus.”

Fitzpatrick searched the canisters after a RAD member asked whether they were aware that such a film had been shot.

She said: “It was fantastic to see, not having known that this existed in the first place. It’s wonderful that we’re able to make this publicly available. She’s a household name in terms of ballet and dance. This is a slightly different aspect to what people expect from her. Most people think of her in the performing role. This is her really getting involved with the heart of the academy’s work.”

She added: “She created the syllabus in 1968 to streamline the previous syllabus and make it less technical, to create more freedom. She wanted to bring the children back to concentrating on the joy of dancing, rather than getting bogged down with technical details. It’s about encouraging them, trying to make them enjoy it and not to fear failing.”

The RAD is one of the world’s most influential dance education and training organisations. The film was intended to be a training tool for RAD teachers across the world but, for financial reasons at the time, it was never released. Today, the RAD’s examination syllabus is taught to thousands of young people in 92 countries, with more than 250,000 worldwide taking an RAD ballet exam each year, using syllabi similar to this one.

Although the total Fonteyn footage lasts about 20 minutes, the V&A will show an edited version as part of its new, free display, On Point: Royal Academy of Dance at 100”, which opens on Wednesday and runs until 19 September 2021.

The academy boasts one of Europe’s largest dance collections and this is the first time that it has given such access to its archives. The display tells the story of how the RAD shaped the future of dance training and its continued links with the professional world.

Jane Pritchard, the V&A’s curator of dance, said of the newly-discovered film: “It gives a greater sense of her depth. Within the display, we’ve got footage of her as a dancer, so people can be reminded of her great performances. This says there was a great deal more to this woman. That’s what the RAD is about.”