on 24 June 2008
Paul Czinner was a visionary film maker who courageously preserved a number of outstanding historic performances. Among them are Furtwangler's Don Giovanni at Salzburg with Cesare Siepi and Elisabeth Grummer, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, a Bolshoi Giselle with Galina Ulanova, and in this worthy company, Margot Fonteyn in The Royal Ballet.
Czinner invented an effective method for filming stage performances. Here he captures the pre-Rudi Fonteyn, lovely, creamy and with enough moist, bloom of youth for close and intimate shots. While the film is called The Royal Ballet, it's really a Fonteyn extravaganza.
There are three balletic excerpts that all feature Margot Fonteyn. In the Daneman biography "Margot", we learn that Fonteyn was closely identified with Ondine, but The Firebird should have gone to Nerina, whose "spectacular attack and ballon cast her as an obvious Firebird." Beriosova was an acclaimed and legendary Odette, but was overlooked in favor of Fonteyn. Sadly, there are almost no commercial films available of Beriosova's dancing.
Fonteyn is stunning, though, in Swan Lake. Her acting abilities and velvety puissance are mesmerizing in a gorgeous Act II, where she is partnered by the blandly handsome Michael Somes. Her occasional ornaments, subtle but sexy, reveal the power, control and art that drove her audiences mad with appreciation.
However, she's not quite Firebird material. A bit too proper and ladylike to be believable as the mythological beast, even her costume seems to overpower her refined daintiness. But I love it anyway, although Nina Ananiashvilli has much more of the wild and sexual animal in her than Fonteyn could ever hope to muster on stage.
Ondine, written for Fonteyn by Sir Frederick Ashton, is a perfect vehicle for her gifts. She's at her best as the vulnerable nymph who emerges from the waterfall. The story is pretty dumb, and the ballet is too long, but it is a masterpiece nonetheless thanks to Fonteyn's silky eroticism and the spectacular dancing of the great Alexander Grant, considered the finest male dancer to emerge from The Royal Ballet. As brilliant a dancer as he was, it's tragic how few documents one can find of his dancing. He is featured, though, in the marvelous Sleeping Beauty telecast for NBC. In that performance he dances one of the Three Ivans. There, his power, grace and charisma are the high point in a ballet filled with high points. Here, in Ondine he dances the Sea King with such drama and intensity that he steals every scene.
This is a museum-quality document of an historic period of dance that will never be duplicated. Margot Fonteyn was the jewel around which de Valois built the Royal Ballet. Here in her prime, before Nureyev, we can see why she was worshipped as an immortal icon of dance. Later on, Czinner would make another film with her, a Romeo and Juliet with Nureyev. By this time the bloom is off the rose and in spite of critical praise for what was seen as her instant transformation into a teenager, I find her Juliet just too painful to watch. In this film, we have to thank Czinner in whatever world he's in now, for preserving a youthful, sensuous and unforgettable Margot. I hope this film will one day get transferred to an NTSC format and released in North America. It's a masterpiece.