Lot 1 - Margot Fonteyn Swan Lake Bodice
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“She was always among the immortals as soon as she stepped on stage.”
Dame Margot Fonteyn de Arias, DBE (18 May 1919 – 21 February 1991) was the greatest ballerina of her generation – or perhaps any generation.
Born in Surrey, England and trained from an early age in China, Fonteyn spent her entire professional career with The Royal Ballet based at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London.
She made her name performing principal roles in notable productions such as Giselle, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and The Sleeping Beauty, before becoming an international star in 1949 during a tour of the United States. She brought ballet to the masses, achieving a level of fame and acclaim unlike any performer before her.
Fonteyn was regarded as the perfect physical shape and size for ballet. Described as an “intensely musical dancer”, she combined a flawless line with a superlative acting ability – often enthralling the audience with a single glance or expression as much as a graceful pirouette.
In 1961, at the age of 42, many expected Fonteyn to retire. Instead she embarked on the most remarkable period of her career, forming a legendary partnership with the young dancer Rudolph Nureyev.
Nureyev had recently defected from the Soviet Union, and was just 24 years old when the pair performed together for the first time.
Thus began a famous on-and-off stage relationship which would last the rest of their lives. Rumours of a secret affair were rife, with Nureyev stating “when she left the stage in her great white tutu I would have followed her to the end of the world."
Upon Fonteyn’s retirement in 1979, Queen Elizabeth II appointed her ‘Prima Ballerina Assoluta’ of The Royal Ballet for her services – making her one of just 12 women in history to have received the title.
She is remembered today as one of the most famous performers of the 20th century, an international star whose passion and grace captivated audiences for generations. For many, she remains the dancer against whom all others are measured.
The Swan Lake bodice
This bodice was made by costume designer Carl Toms for Robert Helpmann’s production of Swan Lake, which premiered in 1963. It is made of pale soft net, bejewelled with costume jewellery and bears a handwritten label marked ‘FONTETYN Prologue’.
The bodice is understood to have been worn on stage by Fonteyn during her legendary performances in the production – a role which she inhabited like no other performer before or since.
“Even today, Fonteyn's performance haunts every production of that ballet. That is the price an audience must pay for having seen perfection - and for a privileged generation Fonteyn was exactly that, over and over again. She never gave a bad performance: her every appearance was unique and the magic never failed.” (The Telegraph obituary, Feb 22, 1991)
Fonteyn appeared in this production of Swan Lake from 1963 until its final performance in 1970. In November 1963 she first performed the ballet alongside Nureyev at the Champs Elysées Theatre in Paris, and the following year the couple performed the first original choreography of ‘Swan Lake’ at the Vienna Opera, created by Nureyev himself and designed by Nicholas Georgiadis.
‘Swan Lake’ is one of the defining roles of Fonteyn’s career, and her performances are amongst the most iconic in the history of ballet.
The prologue bodice is a rare and important piece of 20th century cultural history which could sit as easily in the case of a major museum as it could in a private collection.
The bodice comes with an exceptional provenance, having been part of the personal collection of Hetty Baynes-Russell - former ballet dancer, actress and wife of the late British film director Ken Russell.
As a child Baynes-Russell won a prestigious place at the Royal Ballet School, and later went on to perform in productions of The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty in 1968-9. In these productions she shared a stage with both Fonteyn and Nureyev, playing the roles of a ‘Rat’ in the Nutcracker and ‘The Rainbow Fairy Page’ in The Sleeping Beauty.
Her family were also close friends with Michael Somes, Fonteyn’s first dance partner with whom she appeared in the world’s first colour ballet telecast of The Sleeping Beauty in 1955. Somes found Baynes-Russell’s mother a job in the costume department of the Royal Opera House, and later gifted the family Fonteyn’s costume in the late 1960s.
A letter by Baynes-Russell detailing her life in the Royal Ballet, her career as an actress and marriage to Ken Russell is included with the bodice. Also included is further correspondence from the Royal Opera House, confirming the bodice is consistent with known costumes made by the Royal Opera House costume department in the 1960s.
Rarely do personal items relating to Dame Margot Fonteyn appear on the market, and stage-worn costumes from her famous performances are by far the most sought-after.
The last notable auction of her memorabilia came 14 years ago in 2000, when a small collection of items sold at Christie’s for £640,000 – more than six times the estimate. The sale included another Fonteyn-worn costume from Swan Lake, dating from the same period, which sold for £64,250 ($93,500) against an estimate of just £3,000-£5,000 ($4,300-$7,200).
See also Lot 2: Margot Fonteyn's Romeo and Juliet skirt
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