For those cut off from its gestural language, ballet holds more mystery than any other art form. To a dance-blind thug like me, it’s far from obvious why one ballerina is better than another. We all know that Margot Fontaine is the most famous dancer this country has ever seen. but why?
It turns out that it’s hard to explain, even for those who have experienced it. Darcey Bussell was a natural presence on a hot, prime-time Saturday. Thanks to her, a nation now knows what a top line is. But Darcy Bussell: The Search for Margot (BBC One) is more of a light biographical introduction than an in-depth exploration of Fontaine’s techniques.
Best of all is her collaboration with Rudolf Nureyev, a curmudgeonly genius who insists on studying alone at her feet. Given her Strictly fanbase, Bussell is mum on whether their connection is horizontal or vertical. Nor does she delve into the Priapia adventures of Fontaine’s Panamanian husband, Tito Arias.
The travel budget for transatlantic sailings to New York and Panama was adequate, but since Bussel was no historian, it was never fully explained what role Fontaine played in the failed coup and the depth of her ensuing disgrace. Basel’s greatest strengths lie in the interviews with the great old queens and dames of the ballet world and in the careful study of old literature. Most telling are the ledgers kept by the penniless Fontaine in his retirement. “Wheelchair Repair for $1,” read one heartbreaking article.
Much has been said about Fonteyn’s eyes, teeth, and perfect proportions. My ears perk up every time Bussel suggests a demonstration. “I want to show you some techniques for dancing ‘Swan Lake,'” she said. Or her promise to show us “how Margot shines in the opening scene of Sleeping Beauty.” We quickly headed elsewhere, but not much the wiser. Maybe these things are just so hard to explain.
The most beautiful vignette shows pupils of the Royal Ballet School touching the base of Madame Margot’s statue as they enter. One dancer remembered seeing real feet. It looks like a rough oak stick. This delightful homage doesn’t quite measure the gap between fantasy and reality.