This Week in History: Margot Fonteyn, the Great British Ballerina, was born in 1919.

Photo: © Zoe Dominic, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Margot Fonteyn, the greatest British ballerina of the 1900’s, was born on May 18, 1919. For more than two decades, she was probably the most famous and successful ballerina in the world, celebrated for her technique, her poise, and the radiance of her character portrayals.

Fonteyn starred in the great classical repertoire, triumphing in such ballets as Giselle, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty. Perhaps her signature role was Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Fonteyn also danced in major ballets by such modern choreographers as Roland Pettit, Ninette De Valois, and especially Frederick Ashton. She and Ashton established a refined form of dancing that became known as the British style. In 1962, Fonteyn joined Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev to form a celebrated partnership that extended her fame beyond the world of ballet.

Fonteyn was born in Reigate, England, as Margaret Evelyn Hookam. She began taking dancing lessons at the age of 4. Early in her career she changed her name, adapting Margaret to Margot and her grandfather’s last name of Fontes into Fonteyn. In 1928, she moved with her family to China and continued her dance training in Shanghai. Fonteyn returned to England in 1933 and joined the Sadler’s Wells School in London in 1934. The school eventually became the Vic-Wells Ballet, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and eventually, the Royal Ballet. Fonteyn was a guest artist with ballet companies throughout the world, but the Royal Ballet remained her artistic home until her death.

Fonteyn made her performing debut in 1934 as a snowflake in the ballet The Nutcracker. By the age of 16, she was dancing featured roles. While she was well known in the English dance world, Fonteyn did not gain international stardom until 1949, when she made a triumphant American debut in The Sleeping Beauty at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. She was extremely popular in the United States for the rest of her career. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, Fonteyn was frequently partnered with Robert Helpmann, a dancer with a powerful personality who perfectly complemented her grace and lyricism.

Fonteyn was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire (D.B.E.) in 1956. She was president of the Royal Academy of Dancing from 1954 until her death. Her memoir, Margot Fonteyn: Autobiography, was published in 1977. In 1979, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Fonteyn the title of Prima ballerina assoluta, an honor reserved for only the most exceptional prima ballerinas. Fonteyn died on Feb. 21, 1991.

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