[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/92341?ns=guardian&pageName=Anne-Marie+Duff%3A+why+playing+Margot+Fonteyn+hurt+%7C+Luke+Jennings%3AArticle%3A1310125&ch=Stage&c3=Obs&c4=Ballet%2CCulture+section&c6=Luke+Jennings&c7=09-Nov-29&c8=1310125&c9=Article&c10=Feature&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FBallet[/img]No ballet virgin could star as Margot Fonteyn without going through the pain barrier. Just ask Anne-Marie Duff, writes Luke Jennings
For the 40-year-old ballerina, life can be cruel, as Margot Fonteyn discovered at the dawning of the 1960s. Challenged by younger rivals, physically exhausted and isolated from former friends by marriage to a sleazy and adulterous playboy, the Old Girl, as Fonteyn was known by her intimates, was thought to be on her last legs. Enter, in one of classical ballet's greatest ever coups de théatre, a blazing young Russian defector: Rudolf Nureyev.
The story of their partnership is a thrilling and poignant one. It's been told many times in literary and TV documentary form, and now, in Otto Bathurst's film Margot, it unfolds as drama. Historically, the problem with ballet films has been that, for the most part, dancers can't deliver lines convincingly and actors can't do pirouettes and pointe-work. Anne Bancroft's performance as a "prima ballerina" in Herbert Ross's The Turning Point (1977) is a case in point, with the middle-aged actress allowed to flutter an arm or two but basically shot in tight close-up, fooling nobody.
So how did Anne-Marie Duff, star of Channel 4's Shameless and the BBC's The Virgin Queen, approach the explicitly physical role of Fonteyn? "With great respect," says 39-year-old Duff. "I'd done a wee bit of dance at drama school, but I was very much a ballet virgin." So the BBC placed her in the seasoned hands of Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, aka the Ballet Boyz. "We nearly didn't accept the job," says Nunn, recalling the seeming impossibility of creating a ballerina from scratch in just a few weeks. "But in the end, we made her do a ballet class every day and sent her to watch classes with the Royal Ballet, to see how they walked and held themselves."
"I was like a magpie," says Duff. "I'd go to Covent Garden and steal things â€“ looks, movements, gestures â€“ from [principal dancers] Tamara Rojo and Leanne Benjamin." It turned out that, ballet virgin or no, the actress had a certain innate ability. "She's got nice arms," concedes Nunn. "A really nice port de bras. We didn't put her on pointe but we threw her around a bit and gradually she started turning into a dancer, disappearing for a quick weep when things got hard but then coming back for more. She was shocked, I think, at just how brutal it all was."
Brutal it might have been, but Trevitt and Nunn's tough love saw the magpie transformed into something like a swan. "My tootsies were sore but my body felt great," says Duff. "There's a kind of osmosis as the perfectionism of that world bleeds into you. You acquire a little of what dancers have, a confidence in the beauty you can create." In the end, she learned an entire mime scene from Giselle and the death scene from Romeo and Juliet, and in the film carries off both very creditably indeed.
Duff doesn't look particularly like Fonteyn, but her delicate, large-eyed beauty is suggestive of that fragrant English starriness to which Fonteyn, Audrey Hepburn and the young Princess Margaret subscribed.
On the unresolved question of whether Fonteyn and Nureyev slept together, Bathurst's film â€“ quelle surprise â€“ decides that they did. The Dutch actor Michiel Huisman, also coached by the Ballet Boyz, plays the Russian dancer. "He's certainly fucked the Old Girl into shape," remarks Derek Jacobi's Frederick Ashton, watching the pair rehearse Giselle, and while it would be neither accurate nor tasteful to say the same about Nunn and Trevitt and Anne-Marie Duff, it's fair to say that they've very comprehensively relieved her of that ballet virginity.
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Guardian: Anne-Marie Duff: why playing Margot Fonteyn hurt | Luke Jennings
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