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Fonteyn and Nureyev: The supreme fulfilment of suppressed desires (credit: Donald Southern) 

On the bottom shelves of antiquarian bookstores that I have frequented all my adult life sits a row of exquisite photograph books in immaculate condition, pencil-marked on the cover at an affordable price of £5, sometimes less.

From one visit to the next, the books lie unmoved. None is ever sold, stolen or smudged by a browser's thumbprint. The books are the last witnesses to a lost history, relics of a bygone fusion of music, movement and mind.

They contain some of the most famous names of their day: Karsavina and Lopokova; Markova and De Valois; Lifar and Massine; Fonteyn and Nureyev; Balanchine and Martha Graham. For half of the 20th century, roughly between the Bolshevik and the sexual revolutions, theirs was the art form that appealed to the broadest public.

Ballet was the all-in-one art. It offered the glory of a skin-tight body in motion, the ear-pricking appeal of new music by great composers, the exquisite refinements of stage design and, often as not, a monumental underlying idea. When Frederick Ashton choreographed the Symphonic Variations of César Franck at Covent Garden in 1948, he seemed to address many of the major postwar confusions — from the role of the individual in a collectivised society, to the loss of pastoral England, to the lures of faith and forbidden sex.

Ballet was, in its heyday, the focus of an intense intellectual preoccupation. Its chief cheerleader was the cleverest man in England — the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose love for Lydia Lopokova initiated state funding of the arts. But Keynes was not a lone mind. The Royal Opera House bristled with Oxbridge brains on its board: the historians Isaiah Berlin and Noel Annan, the economic pessimist Wynne Godley. And similar cerebral power would be seen at the ballet in Paris, Berlin and New York. It was, at the time, socially and intellectually unacceptable not to be familiar with dance. More than the tainted Ring of Richard Wagner, ballet in the mid-20th century exemplified the Gesamtkunstwerk, the union of all arts in a single form.

And that's without accounting for its  sexual allure. Ballet was an art that satisfied diverse proclivities and exalted those who were felt to be, in certain inexpressible ways, champions of sexual performance. Margot Fonteyn may have looked demure but, behind her genteel pliés, men and women of the most humdrum respectability sensed and empathised with an explosive temperament that they could never hope to emulate. When Rudolf the wild Tartar snatched Margot in his arms and waved her aloft, the world witnessed a consummation beyond fantasy. For half a century, ballet was the supreme fulfilment of suppressed desires.

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