Chat with a legendary performer -- now a TV host; Seeing the magic of dance through Dame Margot Fonteyn's eyes

Dame Margot Fonteyn, the most honored classical dancer in the world today, attributes the current explosion in the popularity of dance to three things - Anna Pavlova, the movie ''The Red Shoes,'' and television.

Although retired from active participation on stage, Dame Margot is hosting a six-part BBC series, ''The Magic of Dance'' (PBS, Mondays, 9-10 p.m., through Nov. 29, check local listings - previewed in the Monitor's Oct. 22 issue). She is chatting with me in her suite at New York's still-unfinished Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central Park South.

''I feel as if they are building the hotel around me,'' she laughs, straightening her sleeveless red dress, excusing herself to answer the phone and arrange for the delivery of her husband's suit from the tailor. She is as lithesome as she walks across the room as she was when she danced across the stage. A dancer's grace, once acquired, seems to become an inextricable part of a dancer's persona.

''The idea of ballet was carried round the world by Anna Pavlova in the early part of this century,'' she explains. ''Dance was her raison d'etre. There was no place she would not go to bring beauty and art to people.

''Then the film 'The Red Shoes' in 1948 did a great deal to make young people aware of ballet. That came out when there was no television, remember.

''And now, of course, there is television. Ballet performances are being seen by millions of people who have never ever seen a dance program before. It has made millions of people aware that they, too, can enjoy dance, either as a spectator or as a performer. Yes, it has been a real explosion.''

Dame Margot, born in Surrey, England, moved with her parents to Shanghai, where she studied dance under Russian emigre teachers. She returned to England, joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet, and became its principal dancer at the age of 17 in 1935. When Sadler's Wells became the Royal Ballet, she starred as the company's prima ballerina in just about every ballet in the classical repertoire , as well as ''Ondine'' and ''Daphnis and Chloe,'' created especially for her by Sir Frederick Ashton.

About 28 years ago, Dame Margot married Dr. Roberto Arias, Panamanian Ambassador to England, who was disabled in 1964 in an assassination attempt. They now maintain full-time residence in Panama.

''We have a farm,'' Dame Margot explains, but the farm doesn't yet have a house, so we live nearby until our house is built. We are busy clearing the land. Our farm is on the Pacific Coast, with one kilometer of open beach. I'm learning about cows and crops and caring for a farm.

Does Dame Margot dance anymore at all?

''Not at all. I'm totally retired. I loved the dancing when I did it. But now I don't miss it at all. I don't miss the lack of great cultural activities at home either. I love the country - it's something I've never experienced before, whereas culture is something I've experienced all my life.''

What does Dame Margot look back upon as the highlight of a career that included dancing with the world's greatest ballet companies, the world's greatest dancers?

She utters a girlish giggle, rubs both bare arms with her hands as she thinks carefully. ''That's so hard for me. There have been so many marvelous things. But I suppose it would be the first time I performed in New York with the Sadlers Wells in 1949. It was that great moment. It was as if, with Sadlers Wells, British ballet came of age. Before that the company was growing, progressing, but this was its first real international success.''

As a dancer, how would Dame Margot rate dance groups of today?

''I don't see enough of them to be able to say which of them is the best. But I have been very impressed by the Dance Theater of Harlem. [Executive director] Arthur Mitchell is a marvelous person who has a clear idea of what he wants to do. And I think dance companies depend so much on the direction.''

Having danced with both Nureyev and Baryshnikov, will she compare them?

She shakes her head firmly, hesitating to rebuff the interviewer. ''I don't think that's a useful thing to do. I admire good things about both of them.''

Are there great dancers today who have not been given the recognition they deserve?

''That's a difficult question. If there were others in the same class as those two, we'd have recognized them, wouldn't we? There are undoubtedly other fine dancers, but they don't have that special something.''

When should a dancer stop dancing?

''What can I say,'' she smiles just a bit embarrassed. I always intended very firmly to stop dancing when I was 35. And soon I found I was 60 and still dancing. I think one must do what one has to do in life.''

Will Dame Margot teach dance?

She shakes her head somewhat sadly. ''Not really, no. I was just recently in Japan, where I taught some seminars for six weeks. I was able to assess myself, and I found out what exactly I can and cannot do as a teacher. There is just a limited amount I can do. So, if at any time in the future I were to teach, it would only be for short seminars, not where I was teaching permanently.''

Is dance playing a more important role in the lives of people today than ever before?

''I think dance has always been a natural part of people's lives. It has always been a part of any society. But dance in the theater is something different. It is comparatively recently that theatrical dance has become an important part of cultural entertainment.

''I hope it is very important in people's lives today, because it is essential to form links between people, links that are not political. Dance and music have a universal quality that transcends verbal language. Dance and music and painting are the kind of non-political links between people which the world needs.''

Where does Dame Margot believe ballet is going today?

''Back to the traditional, the classic.

''Ballet has always kept itself in shape by absorbing current trends. It absorbed the polka and the waltz last century. And now it has absorbed jazz.

''But it seems to me it is going so fast and so hard that it cannot all last. They are going back to all kinds of old ballets which were considered terrible in their time, like 'Giselle.'

''There's just so much going on at such a fast pace that I can't see how it's not all going to fall over a precipice one day. Dance cannot grow at this pace. I think that one day soon they will be going back to using a lot of the old vocabulary of the classical ballet. It's not the style now, though it is still our greatest resource.''

If she were to dance a farewell program what would Dame Margot choose to do?

She puts one finger to her lips like a little girl thinking about a difficult question in class. ''If I were at my prime? It would depend upon the public I was playing to. Oh, I suppose Frederick Ashton's 'A Month In The Country' and 'The Father' are things I would like to do again.''

So, the dancing has really stopped for Dame Margot?

She smiles a calm and contented smile. ''Yes. I'm glad I did all that dancing. But I'm very glad I stopped. I plan to spend the rest of my life on the farm, doing nothing.''

Are there any regrets? If she could do it all over again, how would her career be different?

''I've had a full life, a full career. I only regret that I've had to be away from my husband so much. But I think to be a dancer is one of the most marvelous things one could possibly be. I hope that audiences who see the television series and read the book based upon it will come to feel that way, too.

''If I could do it all over, I would do exactly the same things. I would just try to do everything better.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.