A conversation with Ken Ludden Artistic Director of the Margot Fonteyn Academy of Ballet

Ken Ludden drama class

Can you imagine what it would be like to be the only person given permission by the Dame herself to use the name Margot Fonteyn on a ballet school? Ken Ludden knows: he is the Artistic Director of the Margot Fonteyn Academy of Ballet.

I met Ken through my LinkedIn group Teachers of Classical Ballet where I first learned about his new book My Margot. Prior to our phone conversation last weekend, I read his book and found it fascinating. (If you’re interested, you can read my review of My Margot.) Ken was one of Fonteyn’s closest friends, yet their relationship had to be guarded during her lifetime to keep the press at bay. In his book, Ken tells us the story of that friendship, beginning at 15, when he first met one of the world’s most beloved ballerinas. Now, on to the interview!

How and why did you go about writing this book?

I originally started writing it for my children so it could get passed down in the family. I began by writing down phrases to help jog my memory and kept adding to the list as I remembered things for the next several years. By the time I had around 175 phrases it was 2003, and for health reasons began to feel pressure to start the book. Along with my own diaries and letters I’d received from Margot and BQ (her mother), I pulled together friends and had them read one of my 175 phrases aloud while I proceeded to relate the story that went with it. These sessions were recorded.

Ken Ludden with "The Wind's Bride"

Ken Ludden with “The Wind’s Bride” at Bassler Kuntsmuseum, Switzerland 2007

In the book you tell of Margot apologizing to you and you had no idea why. Do you think it was because she had orchestrated so much of your life?

Margot told me that no one has the right to do to another person’s life what she’d done to mine. I think she was referring to the future…to the time when I would begin running our school.

Margot held to the belief that at every turn of the century ballet dies. She specifically told me to let ballet die, and said no single person could save it. She said that after it had died, and when, then, I found even one person who wanted to really learn the truth about dancing, to teach them. The hope was that from my students, or their eventual students, would come one who would awaken the art form again. Her legacy is to give yourself, as an artist, completely to the art form holding nothing back, yet not using it for ego in any way.

Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet studios

Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet studios
(c)Royal Ballet Archive

From the academy’s website:
Dame Margot Fonteyn d’Arias envisioned an international fine arts institution in which all of the arts would be studied under one roof.
Her belief was that young artists of divergent fields of expression would enter into conversations about the core issues of art (expression, interpretation, focus, et cetera), and would consequently develop a deeper understanding of the artistic purpose of their endeavors.

“She believed in ballet, the importance of it as an art form and the vitality of it in the formation of the cultural aspect of civilization.” – Ken Ludden

How many students do you have, and how do people go about taking ballet there?

We have 40 professional dancers who come to my class for retraining, and prospective students must all go through a rigorous audition process which includes:

1. Dancing
2. A written exam
3. A psychological exam
4. A physical exam
5. Submission of an original piece of art they have created

Since it is a nonprofit organization, we can be very selective. Our first audition brought 70 hopefuls, only 12 of whom got in.

Ken Ludden teaching ballet

Ken Ludden teaching Olivia Picard (L); and Rauri Wilcox (Rear)

How do you feel about the concept of an ideal body type for ballet?

Ballet tells a story, and stories require many kinds of people. I feel that ballet accommodates every body type there is. Not everyone can be the prince; there’s also the need for soloists, demi soloists, and demi character dancers. I have a passion for bringing a story to life with authenticity.

Do you think ballet companies resort to doing more contemporary choreography to interest the public?

Instead of asking ‘what does the audience want’, we should be considering what we say to the audience and ask ourselves ‘what does the audience need to hear’? It is the responsibility of the Artistic Director to fulfill these needs; the Director would be remiss in his duties by offering his audience an altered artistic tradition in the hopes of sustaining their interest.

Ballet at its most basic, within an arabesque for instance, has so much meaning. In an arabesque you’re grounded, yet reaching up, and the leg behind you represents the past or where you’re coming from. In its truest form, classical ballet can convey life: tension, struggle, the promise of the future. It can be entertaining, but also shocking, or dazzling. Sure, we can do impossible things with our bodies, but where is the meaning in the end? You have to know who you are and not compare yourself to who you aren’t.

The Nutcracker

(c)2009 MFAB;
Photographer: Hank Ganz
Clara: Kieko Nakamura
Drossylmeyer: Dariusz Lewandowski
Children: MFAB Students

You mention in the book that Rudolf Nureyev had a “fiery temperament” and often stormed off after rehearsal. Why do you think he was like that?

My Margot concludes with a chapter called My Rudolph. Rudolf’s talent became his legacy to the world, and he didn’t take that lightly. While he appeared rude and self-centered, I believe Rudolf was actually so focused that he couldn’t be distracted by being nice to other people; that to let down his guard at any time would derail his success as a dancer. Yet, a woman, innocent but conscientiously determined, and a man, driven yet blind with denial, chose to accept each other’s shortcomings and became the greatest artistic duo of their time.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

The thing that is difficult is that I must always be aware that I in some vague way represent her, and that kind of grace, finesse and diplomacy are things I must always be aware of. It isn’t what is said, but realizing the significance of it and being true to the responsibility of that honor.

Ken Ludden and Joy Williams Brown

Ken Ludden and Joy Williams Brown

Many thanks to Ken Ludden for spending part of his Sunday afternoon with me so that I could share the treasure that is his life with others!

Order My Margot in hardcover. His book is now available in paperback too! Order My Margot in paperback.

Featured Image: Ludden monitoring drama class with Briana Rivera


My Margot Ballet Book Review

My Margot book cover

From the LinkedIn group “Teachers of Classical Ballet” I learned that Ken Ludden had published a personal memoir and biography of Margot Fonteyn. I emailed Ken to ask if he would consider allowing me to interview him about his book, and he kindly accepted! (The interview will be posted next week.) I bought the book and it took about three or four weeks for me to read it, but that’s only because I didn’t have the luxury of foregoing all my daily duties (but I would have liked that!). I didn’t realize what a close relationship Ken had with Margot as one of her most trusted friends. If you want to get a close up look at this remarkable woman, this is the book to read.

I’ve posted a review of this book on Amazon. His book is available on Amazon using this link: http://amazon.com/My-Margot-Ken-Ludden/dp/1312075228/. It is also available in paperback!

Ken Ludden’s beautifully written memoir and biography of Margot Fonteyn offers the reader a glimpse into the life of one who was under the sheltering wing of one of the world’s most renowned and loved ballerinas. A touching tribute. No closer look into her life and character can be found. This book is not only fascinating but superbly written. Ken’s recollection of events and conversations is uncanny, and he writes in such a way that I could visualize the scenes as his stories unfolded.

Not only does he offer a peek into Margot Fonteyn’s world; he also shares a lot about Rudolph Nureyev—his childhood, defection, and his demeanor (which I was sad to hear was often quite rude). Throughout the book he mentions his interactions with many other famous dancers and teachers and schools, and I found every bit of it very interesting. His own life’s work would be enough to fill a book, but he expertly weaves the story so it always relates back to Margot.

Ken’s intrinsic goodness and humility are endearing. He shares a conversation with Tito, (Margot’s husband) where he reflects, “My basic view of my life is that it should be of service to others, and the idea that it was to make an impact on the world was very foreign to me. I still believe that being of service to the needs of others is the highest esteem, but I also see that carrying forward the legacy of Fonteyn is a higher service than nearly anything else I could do, and it does impact the world.”

I highly recommend this book, and I know that Margot herself would be quite pleased with it!

An Interview with Nancy Lorenz Author of "The Strength of Ballerinas"


Nancy Lorenz’ new book, The Strength of Ballerinas was released this month, and I’m excited to share an interview I had with her about her book and writing about dance!

Your book, “The Strength of Ballerinas” was just released Sept. 9th. Is this your first book?

Yes. It is my first book, and, like The Nutcracker, I am still envisioning sugarplums dancing in my head! It’s almost like seeing a baby grow from birth to that important first birthday. You go through the different stages, and it is all new to you. All of the years and hours spent in imagining and shaping the story comes to fruition when you hold it in your hand in finished form, or see it on the bookshelf at Barnes and Noble. It is a dream come true about my favorite subject.

What inspired you to write about a ballet dancer?

Well, much of it was born out of my own experience – attending ballet classes, dreaming, aspiring, but some of it really taps into the idea of art itself, and the passion for it. I published an academic paper in June, 2013, called The Philosophy of the Red Shoes, in which I wrote about artistic passion, and how it drives people. Ballet, as well as music, art, opera, acting and painting is an extension of one’s identity, personality, and ability, and is expressed through a person’s individual perspective. No two people will express a dance the same way. [Read more...]

Rond de Jambe a terre 3/4

Begin 5th position R foot front

1               Tendu R to side
2-3           Temp lié onto R (stay in fondu) and tendu L, port de bras away from barre
4               Temp lié to point tendu R, arms 2nd
5-8           Rond de Jambe en dehors 4 times finishing point tendu front on count 8
1               Close 5th position plié
2-3           Releve passé to developpé derrière
4               Close sous-sus back
5               Plie 5th position
6-7           Relevé passé inside leg to developpé derrière
8               Close sous-sus back
1               Tendu front in fondu on supporting leg
2-4           Straighten and rond de jambe en dehors 3 times
5               Finish lifting leg to 90° front (arm to 5th en haut)
6-7           Grand rond de jambe en dehors to arabesque
8               Close 5th position back
1-4            Grand port de bras forward with inside leg front in 5th position
5-8           Grand port de bras back with inverted arm
1-24         Repeat all en dedans
25-32      Grand circular port de bras in sous-sus and balance arms 5th en haut

Teaching Creative Movement

Teaching Creative Movement

Ballet class with children ages 3-5 is often called “creative movement” rather than ballet class. Then at age 6 it is sometimes referred to as “pre-ballet”, which is when they are usually ready to stand at the barre and learn the mechanics of alignment and ballet positions. Creative movement can be taught many different ways—none better or more effective than another—so I will just share some of the things I did with this age group (and felt were effective) when I was teaching them dance.

First of all, kids this age don’t have a very long attention span! Two minutes is about as long as you can stretch one activity before moving on to something else. I always felt that a 45 minute class was the absolute longest these kids could handle, unless you are combining it with some tap, too. I’d also say that if you have more than eight children in the class then you should probably have an assistant there to help you out.

I structured my creative movement classes more or less the same way each week. Kids do like repetition and it helps them feel more comfortable if they have a good idea what to expect. We would begin sitting on the floor in a circle, wide enough that when they put their arms out to the sides they wouldn’t touch their neighbor. At the beginning you can have them sit cross legged or with the soles of their feet together or their legs stretched out straight in front of them. Sitting cross legged is easiest for them, and when you want them to focus attention on sitting up straight and using good posture through their backs, necks long, and shoulders down, this is helpful. [Read more...]

Fast Tendu 4/4

Begin 5th position, preparation 1st port de bras and arm stays in 2nd

&1&2     Tendu front, close 5th front, tendu side, close 5th front
&3&4     Repeat first 2 counts
&5          Lift front foot to cou de pied stretched position front, close 5th plié front
&6          Degagé front, close 5th position front
&7&8     Repeat &5&6 with degagé side and close 5th position back

1-8         Repeat first phrase from the back

1-2         Tendu front , close 5th position front
&3          Tendu front, close 5th position front
&4          Tendu front, close 5th position front plié
5-8         Tendu inside leg back same pattern (1 slow 2 back quick finishing in plié)

1-2         Tendu side, close 5th position back
&3          Tendu side, close 5th position front
&4          Tendu side, close 5th position back in plié
5             Relevé passé working leg from 5th back to foot at front of the knee
6             Close working leg to sous-sus front
7-8         Turning towards the barre to the second side, close 5th plié