After dancing together for the first time, Rudolf Nureyev dropped to his knees and kissed Margot Fonteyn on the hand during the curtain call. The audience roared. From this moment, Nureyev and Fonteyn became a celebrity dance partnership. In a documentary about the couple, Nureyev said they danced with “one body, one soul”.
As part of her five point plan for The Australian Ballet, founding Artistic Director Peggy van Praagh was determined to present the world’s best dancers to Australian audiences. In 1964 she invited Nureyev and Fonteyn to dance the title roles in Giselle. Fonteyn had performed in Australia in 1957 with the Borovansky Ballet but, for Nureyev, dancing on the Australian stage was a new experience.
In an article tracing the history of international ballet dancers visiting Australia, published in The Age in 1964, Geoffrey Hutton described Nureyev and Fonteyn as: “… probably the most highly priced dancers in the world; Fonteyn the pride of the British ballet who has queened it for a generation; Nureyev the sensational young male dancer from the Leningrad Kirov who has brought a new sense of excitement into the Western ballet.”
These now ballet legends appealed to the Australian style of ballet. They were an electric couple, exuding character and precision. Fonteyn was adored for her classically English poise, grace and perfection (the kind of dancing Dame Peggy van Praagh encouraged in her Australian dancers) and Nureyev for his bawdy Russian enthusiasm and vigorous style (characteristics Australian dancers inherited from the Borovansky Ballet). Hutton writes, “At first critics noticed some differences in style … the partnership seemed oddly matched. Perhaps both dancers have benefited from it; we shall be able to form our own opinions.”
Fonteyn and Nureyev performed Giselle in Melbourne and Sydney alongside guest artists Lupe Serrano and Royes Fernandez, and members of The Australian Ballet including Kathleen Gorham, Garth Welch, Marilyn Jones and Colin Peasley. Fonteyn and Nureyev’s 1964 Australian tour went down in dance history as a milestone event. They danced their last full ballet together - Romeo and Juliet - in 1979.
Image: Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn with artists of The Australian Ballet in Giselle, 1964. Photography – David Mist