Today is the birthday (1919) of Margot Fonteyn de Arias, DBE, prima ballerina assoluta of the Royal Ballet, for whom she danced her entire career. Fonteyn was born Margaret Evelyn Hookham in Reigate, Surrey. Her father was a British engineer, and her mother was the daughter of Brazilian industrialist Antonio Fontes. Very early in her career Margaret took the name by which she was known all her life, Margot Fonteyn, with the surname derived from “Fontes,” also adopted by her brother—Portuguese “fonte” is “fountain” in modern English, “fonteyn” in Middle English. Her later formal married name was Margot Fonteyn de Arias in the Spanish-language tradition.
At 4 years of age her mother signed her and her elder brother up for ballet classes. At age 8, Margot travelled to China with her mother and father, who had taken employment with a tobacco company there while her brother Felix remained at his school. For six years Margot lived in TianJin, then in Shanghai, where she studied ballet with Russian émigré teacher George Goncharov. Her mother took her back to London when she was 14, to pursue a ballet career. Her father continued on in Shanghai and was interned during World War II by the invading Japanese.
In 1933 Fonteyn joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, the predecessor of today’s Royal Ballet School, training under the direction of Ninette de Valois and such teachers as Olga Preobrajenska and Mathilde Kschessinska [Krzesinska]. After starting with the Vic-Wells Ballet, she rose quickly through the ranks of the company. By 1939 Fonteyn had performed principal roles in Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty and was appointed prima ballerina. She was most noted in the ballets of Frederick Ashton, including Ondine, Daphnis and Chloe, and Sylvia. She was especially renowned for her portrayal of Aurora in Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Fonteyn also worked with choreographer Roland Petit and, later in life, Martha Graham. When the Royal Ballet toured the United States in 1949, Fonteyn instantly became a celebrity for her performances.
In the 1940s she and Robert Helpmann formed a very successful dance partnership, and they toured together for several years. In the 1950s she danced regularly with Michael Somes. In 1955, the year in which Fonteyn married a Panamanian diplomat, they danced together in the first color telecast of a ballet, NBC’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. In 1958 they appeared together in the first British televised version of The Nutcracker.
Fonteyn began her greatest artistic partnership at a time when many people, including the head of the Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois, thought she was about to retire. In 1961 Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West, and on 21 February 1962 he and Fonteyn first performed together in Giselle. She was 42 and he was 24. Their performance was a great success; during the curtain calls Nureyev dropped to his knees and kissed Fonteyn’s hand. They created an on-and-offstage partnership that lasted until her retirement in 1979 at age 61, and were lifelong friends. Fonteyn and Nureyev became known for inspiring repeated frenzied curtain calls and bouquet tosses. Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed Marguerite and Armand for them, which no other couple danced until the 21st century. They debuted Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, although MacMillan had conceived the ballet for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable. Fonteyn and Nureyev appeared together in the filmed versions of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, and the pas de deux from Le Corsaire.
Despite differences in background and temperament, and a 19-year gap in ages, Nureyev and Fonteyn became close lifelong friends and were famously loyal to each other. Fonteyn would not approve an unflattering photograph of Nureyev. He said about her:
“At the end of ‘Lac des Cygnes’ when she left the stage in her great white tutu I would have followed her to the end of the world.”
The extent of their physical relationship remains unclear. Nureyev said that they had one, while Fonteyn denied it. Her biographer Meredith Daneman agreed with Nureyev. The pair remained close even after she retired to a Panama cattle farm with her husband. She talked with Nureyev by phone several times a week, although her farmhouse did not have a telephone. When she had to be treated for cancer, he paid many of her medical bills and visited her often, despite his busy schedule as a performer and choreographer. In a documentary about Fonteyn, Nureyev said that they danced with “one body, one soul” and that Margot was “all he had, only her.”
In 1955 Fonteyn married Dr Roberto Arias, a Panamanian diplomat to London. Their marriage was initially rocky because of his infidelities. She was arrested in Panama when helping Arias to attempt a coup d’état against the government in 1959. Confidential British government files released in 2010 showed that Fonteyn knew of and had some involvement in the coup attempt. In 1964 a rival Panamanian politician shot Arias, leaving him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.
After her retirement she spent all her time in Panama, and was close to her husband and his children from an earlier marriage. She had no pension, and had spent all her savings looking after her husband. Shortly before her husband’s death, in 1989, Fonteyn was diagnosed with cancer, and she died on 21 February 1991 in a hospital in Panama City, Panama, aged 71.
Reigate in particular, where Fonteyn was born, and Surrey in general, is pretty much a wasteland when it comes to old traditional recipes. This may be due to the fact that Surrey is little more than a suburb of London – Reigate certainly, these days. Yet all is not lost. Surrey tea rooms are noted now, and have been for over a century, for the classic English afternoon tea “cake” (or tart), maids of honour. Tradition has it that they were first baked by a maid of honour at Henry VIII’s court, some versions even suggesting the maid in question was Anne Boleyn. Legend also has it that Henry prized them so much that he kept the recipe locked away. Who knows? What we do know is that you will find them served in Kew, Richmond, and other landmark towns in Surrey. There are something like a custard cheesecake inside a pastry shell.Sometimes you will find recipes for them that are cake and jam inside a pastry shell. These are not traditional. A tea room in Kew in Surrey, “The Original Maids of Honour,” dates back to the 18th Century and was set up specifically to sell these tarts. Dainty and royal morsels for a world renowned ballerina.
Surrey Maids of Honour
2 cups all-purpose flour
6 tbsp cold unsalted butter
⅓ cup vegetable shortening
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tsp lemon juice
⅛ tsp rose water or orange flower water (optional)
1 pinch salt
1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
½ cup heavy cream, plus 2 tbsp
¼ cup unsalted butter
2 tbsp granulated sugar
¼ cup ground almonds
1 large egg, beaten
2 tsp finely minced fresh lemon zest
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp rose water or orange flower water (optional)
fresh ground nutmeg
powdered sugar (for dusting)
butter (for greasing)
Dice the butter. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl. Add in the diced butter, plus very small scoops (teaspoon sized) of shortening. Mix together, cover, and place the bowl in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes.
In another bowl, place the eggs, lemon juice, rosewater (or orange-flower water), and a pinch of salt and put in the refrigerator.
Using a food processor pulse the chilled fats and flour until the mix is coarse and crumbly (8 to 10 pulses). Do not over process. Slowly add the liquids (while pulsing more) until the pastry has almost come together. Scoop out the pastry on to a floured surface and knead until it is completely combined. Only a few times should be needed. Cut into two discs, wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
To make the filling, cut lengthwise down the vanilla bean with the tip of a sharp knife. Put the vanilla bean and cream into a saucepan, and heat to just below boiling over medium heat. DO NOT BOIL. Remove from the heat. Take out the bean and scrape the seeds into the cream (or simply use vanilla extract). Add the butter, sugar, ground almonds, egg, lemon zest and juice, and the rosewater (or orange-flower water), stirring well to combine. Let stand for about 10 minutes.
Pre-heat the oven to 425˚F
Grease very well 2 12-hole tart or muffin pans. If you have only one (as I do now), you’ll have to make two batches, each as follows. Roll out half the pastry, cut out 12 rounds with a 3” round cutter, and carefully press them into the tart pan. Spoon half the filling into the pastry cases. Leave about 1 inch below the rim because the custard rises as it bakes. Dust lightly with fresh nutmeg and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the custard is golden and puffy.
Let the tarts sit in the pan for a few minutes before unmolding on to a wire rack to cool. Dust the tops with powdered sugar.
You can leave the tarts to cool a little before serving, but they are best eaten still slightly warm.