February Letter 2007

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& Faith

Photograph property of the Theatre Museum (Victoria & Albert Museum) See www.peopleplayuk.org.uk.

Margot Fonteyn appearing in the Swan Lake ballet may seem an odd choice for this web page. Margot, apart from the time in Shanghai when she was confirmed, was not 'religious' at all during her life. But she danced until she was sixty to become the most famous ballerina England had ever produced and a sought after global star. Her recent biographer, Meredith Daneman, said that Margot lived as naturally in the mythological world as in the natural world. It was her ability and gift to live the stories and music of the classical ballets as she danced, and to show this living image to the audience.

'What Margot possessed', wrote Norman Lebrecht, in his web pages of La Scene Musicale, 'more than the gift for dance, was a presence that transcends charisma or any of the usual qualities of attraction.... she could enter a crowded room and everyone present knew she was there. Those who worked with her speak of an aura, an impermeable state of being. Her conversation was mundane and her interests narrow ... but at Covent Garden, 16 years after her death in distant Panama, she is never far from the lips and toes of dancers who were not yet born when she retired and of teachers who cannot erase her from performing memory.'
(See: http://www.scena.org/columns/lebrecht/050407-NL-Margot.html)

Is then the mythical world of ballet a retreat into the looking glass world of illusion and an escape from reality? While the stories that have been choreographed for dancers have a strong element of fancy about them, myth is in itself an expression of some experience remembered and transmuted into, yes, a fairy tale. We often use the word 'myth' to represent something that has no substance, a non entity and a product of the imagination. But there is a sense that myths which arise out of experiences in the past do represent the expression of the human striving for the meaning of life today. The human experience of real life reaches the heights of elation and the depths of tragedy and despair. Musicians, poets, novelists, painters, actors and ballerinas seek to interpret these human crises and to enrich our lives.

Now we come to the point of this letter - obviously there was a reason for writing about ballet!

The main thrust of both the Old Testament and the New Testament is to seek to express the meaning of reality - of the relationship between the human and the divine. Very often this is done by means of the 'story' or 'myth'. From the 'creation', the 'fall', the 'flood' to the apocalyptic visions of the seer John at the end of the New Testament, we are most often only given pointers to an understanding of the reality of the human condition under God. How else can relationship with the divine be expressed?

The divine story of reality is a 'dance' into which we are finally drawn through the person of Jesus. The drama and tragedy of his life, death and vindication by the Father is the intimate reflection of the reality we all seek in our lives. Interacting with him in daily life we come to experience the goal of our humanness - the divine. It is this experience which leads us to faith, rather than an adherence to the words of the 'book' or to ecclesiastical dogmas in the first instance. The dance of ballet, as in all the arts of music and drama and writing, is the harbinger of that dance we must all share with the divine who has come to find us.

Tragedy did not pass by Margot Fonteyn. Rejoicing in her ability to portray the experiences of people and music in dance, she says that for a long time she often did not know the real person who was Margot. But to the end she epitomised the dance of faith in supporting her helpless, paralysed husband in Panama for 25 years who had been shot by a political opponent, until she was drained of all her resources, both financial and physical in her own final illness.

As her last dance partner in ballet, the great Russian dancer, Rudolph Nureyev said, 'She wants to be a saint!' But, like most of us, she was most aware of her inadequacies and the pain of the sadnesses she had experienced. Born in Reigate in 1919 she died in Panama in 1991.

© Aelred Arnesen

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