“That thing they do, where they dance on their toes.” I nodded at H like he was a small child who’d just done something amazing for the first time. “Yeah,” he continued, “that’s weird.” His expression suggested he’d sucked a lemon. “Well,” I replied with a whisper, “if you’ve never been to a ballet before I suppose it must look a little strange.” “And the men are hilarious!” he interjected. “I mean, what are those pants about boy?” I turned and saw he was almost doubled over, cracking up at the very thought. I hoped none of the refined theatre-goers making their way to the Amphitheatre bar were paying us any attention. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy the next one a bit more,” I tried to hush. “The Rubies are less classical, have a bit more fire in their bellies… Oooo, ice cream…” Our conversation came to an end as H dragged me past the kids holding tubs of raspberry ripple towards the alcohol.
Steven McRae, Zenaida Yanowsky and Sarah Lamb in Rubies. Photo: ROH, Tristram Kenton
Like many little girls I fantasized about becoming a ballerina. For me this fantasy held strong from the ages of 5 to 10 and 26 ½ to 27. During the first period, I would often twirl and leap around the living room making up my own ballets to my parents’ classical music collection. Then I would go to class and get frustrated because my teachers stopped me from standing en pointe. In my 7-year-old eyes, the fact that I wasn’t wearing pointe shoes was no justification for this.
The second period was one of my famous infatuations: I woke up one morning and decided that my dream of becoming a prima ballerina was still realistically achievable even though I was in my mid-twenties, only just over five-foot and a wee bit bigger than an A cup (think C… OK, D). As per usual, I threw myself into the affair: I kitted myself out with all the gear and signed up for a term of beginners’ adult ballet at Dance Works. In class, lithe Japanese girls performed perfect pliés whilst I hid in the corner and did ungraceful squats better suited to an altogether less ladylike situation.
My dreams shattered for a second time, I have since kept a distance from the world of ballet; that is until now. This recent lapse has been triggered by a visit to the Royal Academy’s exhibition, Degas and the Ballet. All those pastels and paintings of tutu-clad women on the stage made me want to leap around the living room again, and it also made me long to see a real ballet.
Fortunately George Balanchine’s Jewels is on at the Royal Opera House at the moment and I duly set off last Friday morning to stand in line for an hour until the box office opened at 10am. “It’s one ticket per person if you’re buying on the day,” the attendant told me. “But my boyfriend is coming so I need two tickets.” I took care with my annunciation in case he hadn’t heard me the first time. “Yes, sorry, it’s just one of our little rules,” he bent over the desk to get closer, “we’ve had a few problems, other people in the queue can get quite angry.” I looked behind me: the three people waiting quietly didn’t look like they would notice if I was holding him up at gunpoint. “It’s alright though, if you join the back of the queue you can purchase another ticket in just a few moments.” “OK, but what if the seats next to mine have been sold by the time I’m back at the counter?” A romantic evening was going to require us to be at least within touching distance of each other. There was now only one person queuing. Sensing that this conversation could take a while, he agreed to sell me a second ticket.
This was H’s first ballet and he only wanted to come because it suited the research he’s been doing on Degas. “My money’s on Emeralds,” he predicted as we took our seats in the gods. On principle H is against all precious gems, he says they are dripping in blood (I know, it’s a big thing for a woman to come to terms with), however, as an artist he tends to think in colours and he really likes green. Alas, after half-an-hour of Emeralds I was slightly jaded and feared H was too: he kept saying “weird” over and over as the lights came up for the interval.
Fortunately, a G&T looking over the piazza followed by 21 minutes of Rubies lifted our spirits. With jazzy splashes and bendy limbs, the red gems were robust and had a sense of humour. I could tell H was more impressed because in the next interval he said: “That was good.”
For obvious reasons, I had high hopes for the last ballet, Diamonds. As the heavy red curtain came up a small group of women sparkled in the centre of the stage in white tutus and glittering bodices. They were fairytale ballerinas and I was 7 all over again.
Glittering Diamonds. Photo: ROH, Tristram Kenton
Dancing to Tchaikovsky, the male and female principles glided in each others’ arms, they were entwined then leaping then lifting. It was poignant, delicate, mesmerizing… and I was overcome (slightly hormonal). Looking down on the stage from the rafters, the view of the finale was particularly impressive. Three-dozen dancers created a swirl of formations and patterns; the reflection of the spotlights on the costumes was blinding.
They love to clap at the ballet, so on the 5th curtain call we sneaked out in the dark. “What did you think?” I asked after a moment of quiet contemplation (polite silence in the lift). “Yeah,” H replied slowly, “it was amazing. You know, at the end then, I counted 32 dancers on the stage plus the two soloists. That’s 34 dancing at once.” He widened his eyes at me. Being a man, size clearly mattered and, obviously, the bigger the better.
He took me to Belgo for supper and we feasted on mussels and beer. This was unlikely to be on any ballerina’s diet plan; perhaps best I didn’t make it into the Royal Ballet after all.
The last performance of Jewels by The Royal Ballet takes place tomorrow evening (Wednesday 5th October, 7.30pm). Tickets available from the Royal Opera House box office from 10am tomorrow, starting at £9 (standing)/£15 (seated) www.roh.org.uk
Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement is on at The Royal Academy of Arts until 11th December www.royalacademy.org.uk