As Marguerite – a Parisian courtesan – lies on her deathbed, she recalls her tragic love affair with Armand in a feverish series of flashbacks.
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Frederick Ashton created Marguerite and Armand for Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in 1963 as a vehicle for their unique dance partnership. The narrative was drawn from the play La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, which also inspired Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata. Ashton concentrates the play’s tragic essence in choreography of great intensity – Fonteyn recalled that rehearsals for the work contained ‘a passion more real than life itself’.
The ballet is set to Franz Liszt’s romantic Piano Sonata in B Minor and depicts the burgeoning love between Marguerite and Armand, which is movingly expressed through passionate lifts and increasingly free movements. However, the lovers’ happiness is threatened by social convention and the ‘gilded cage’ in which Marguerite lives – evoked by Cecil Beaton in his elegant stage designs. The moment at which Marguerite realizes that she must renounce Armand is one of devastating stillness. The final pas de deux, as Marguerite lies dying in Armand’s arms, is one of the most moving in all of ballet.