Invitation to the Dance

David Stratton really did pee on Federico Fellini. I heard him say so.

Cover of

It had nothing to do with his critical opinion of La Dolce Vita or nor the excesses of Satyricon. It was about Stratton’s first visit as a guest of the Venice Film Festival. At a reception for festival guests, his bewilderment at the milieu of so many of leading lights of cinema combined with unlimited free champagne was exceeded only by his astonishment at finding his hero, Federico Fellini beside him at a urinal. Stratton turned to greet the great Italian film director and … well, you can finish that scene for yourself.

To those whom he later recounted this anecdote, Stratton let it be known that if he ever wrote his autobiography he would have it titled I Peed on Fellini[i]not expecting he would ever feel honour-bound to keep to his word.

The venerable critic David Stratton was addressing a lunch crowd at a launch of his book. As he autographed my copy, I reminded him that I had sometimes been mistaken for him at film festivals from Cannes to Honolulu. Similar age, height, Panama hat, beard; easy mistake to make, despite the fact we actually don’t look very much alike at all. Not wanting to hold up the book-signing queue, I resisted launching into a chat and he graciously appeared to remember as least two occasions on which our paths had crossed.

It got me thinking, though. If I ever found the energy, memory and courage to perpetrate an annotation of my life, I might well title it I Danced With Fonteyn — with perhaps a sequel called I Dueled With Nureyev.

Two autobiographies? Why not? Alexander King wrote four[ii]— Incubated being basted in a kitchen oven and, after being told, at age 58, that the still functioning six cubic inches of his one remaining kidney would keep him alive for no more than six months. He defied medical science as he had always defied convention until he died in 1965 aged 66.

As with Stratton’s, my titles are not quite the literary truth they may appear. At about the same time as this launch lunch, my son discovered and sent to me an old scrapbook of mine in which was a cringeworthy poem I had written in my 20s about the then binary stars of the ballet universe, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev.

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Margot Fonteyn

Dame Margot Fonteyn

It was a time when the brightest binary stars of the ballet universe were Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev.

I had somehow become responsible for the organizing sponsorship, advertising and publicity for the Melbourne headquarters of the Australian Theatre Trust which then included in its charge The Australian Ballet Company.

I was in my in my mid-twenties and had already fallen in everlasting love many times, sometimes for weeks or even months at a stretch.

But this was different.

Not that I had loved any less the dancer from the corps-de-ballet, the opera singer, the actress, the archer, the Baltic activist, the equestrian, the designer or the tall, fey blonde beauty; but this was une grande dame.

This was Fonteyn!

Fonteyn with Nureyev in rehearsal

She and Nureyev were headlining one of several seasons they danced in Australia, either with a detachment from The Royal Ballet or with soloists and the corps-de-balletfrom The Australian Ballet Company. Through organizing her publicity, press conferences, interviews and photo calls, Fonteyn and I were together from time to time, casually and professionally.

Now don’t get this wrong! As young and silly as I was, I knew the difference between hopeless infatuation and true love. I had already learned this painful lesson while a school holiday chain store shop assistant groaning many unrequited nights over a perky-nosed cashier called Susan who, at all of 26, was about twice my age.

As for Fonteyn’s much-gossipped off-stage pas de deuxwith Nureyev, company rumour was adamant they were privately adding to the five basic ballet positions. I never did establish this for a fact, but they smiled a lot. It really didn’t matter. Their artistic congress in performance was an exaltation of mind and body and that was what really mattered.

I had now progressed from gauche to jejune, which fact I proceeded to demonstrate by attempting a verse about an audience watching a performance at the 3.000-seat Palais Theatre in St Kilda, Melbourne,

I had not forgotten writing the piece but, after so many years and miles and countries, I had not considered that it still existed. Most of my goods and memories had decayed in rained-on cardboard boxes. In those times off-line storage meant leaving it with your mother and hoping she would not tidy up.

But turn up it did, in an old scrapbook my son had retrieved from some box still surviving somewhere.

While I physically winced at reading my words again, I smiled at the memory of offering Fonteyn the page of typescript at her dressing room door. She read it and told me how delightful it was, lying with all the grace and style that could make a scullery-maid’s apron look like a ball gown. She accepted the page and autographed a copy for me — as later did Nureyev.

All seasons or productions end with a wrap party of one kind or another. One of the other kind would had me in a duel with Rudolph Nureyev, but that is another story. This one was a more cosy affair involving taking over a small but classy nightclub for a night.

The party was warming nicely by the time Fonteyn and Nureyev arrived together and exchanged their coats for champagne (actually champagne-equivalent I had railed in by freight car load from Western Australia to lubricate the many sponsorship parties). Their dance together would be the signal for some spontaneous choreography from the boys and girls of the corps-de-ballet.

Those kids could party at least as well as they danced — and they danced like angels and partied like things you had to hose down with cold water.

Then I saw Fonteyn gliding across the floor toward me. Exhilaration and terror fought together as I heard her, almost as though from a distance, invite me to dance.

I must explain that my ability to dance rates alongside my skill at tennis, chess and classical guitar. I know how, but can’t actually do it.

In what now seems like another life in another universe, I was on my feet. She moved me around the room as if I was doing the leading. She made me forget that each of her toes were probably insured for more than I could earn in a million lifetimes, and she made the next five minutes a treasure beyond price for the rest of this life.


[i] † Stratton, David. I Peed on Fellini. Sydney: Random House / William Heinemann, 2008.

[ii] His autobiographies include the introspective Mine Enemy Grows Older, the beneficent May This House Be Safe From Tigers, and the whimsical I Should Have Kissed Her More.

  1. Cathy Netherwood

    Russell, this is a beautiful rite of passage story – I see it in film – the gauche young YOU, the excitement of the ballet – Fonteyn — the final dance floor pas de deux – this is a wonderful half hour film – but who would play you? Noah Taylor?

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