July 2000 - New Statesman
The final week of The Royal Ballet's season, and it comes not a moment too soon. Everyone looks exhausted. We do seem to have squeezed a lot into the past fortnight: five different ballets and sixteen shows in two action packed weeks. There's more to the tense atmosphere than tired limbs, though. Late July is always a time of raised emotions, as dancers wait for their annual interview with the company's artistic director, Sir Anthony Dowell. The interview is the arena where promotions are awarded or denied, and as a principal with the company, I'm spared the annual nail biting by virtue of the fact that I've been promoted as far as it's possible to go. Journalists might seek every opportunity to reinstate them, but the words 'ballerina', 'prima' and 'assoluta' passed out of general usage years ago, along with florin, guinea and all measures Imperial. Nevertheless, the list pinned to the board, surnames alongside a fifteen-minute time slot, still sets my stomach churning and I watch the process with vicarious trepidation. There have been some pretty sensational promotions this year. Two young corps de ballet ladies have leapfrogged the intervening levels and gone directly to First Soloist rank - in the snakes and ladders game of the ballet world, that's pretty much a double six and straight off the top of the board. I've seen something similar happen only once before, when Darcey Bussell left the corps de ballet of Birmingham Royal Ballet to become a soloist here at Covent Garden. The names to watch (but not necessarily pronounce) this time are Marianela Nunez and Alina Cojocaru. You saw them here first.
The season's end also marks career's end for some members of the company. I'm often asked how long dancers can go on treading the boards, but it's hard to give a straightforward answer. For every individual, it's different. This year we're saying goodbye to two dancers at opposite ends of their dancing lives. Josephine Russell is leaving the corps de ballet to retrain as a physiotherapist while Bruce Sansom, a leading principal, is hanging up his ballet shoes after eighteen years. He's heading off to the States to undertake a training programme in arts management with San Francisco Ballet. I've just returned home from his last show where he was bombarded with flowers, teddy bears and buckets full of love from the auditorium. They're obviously going to miss him – but not as much as I will.
Over to Finsbury Park last Sunday for the Feet First Dance Festival. The cab driver dropped me off at the park gates with a warning: 'Careful love, it's rough round here'. Perhaps he had misunderstood the event, interpreting 'dance festival' as some kind of all night rave. After all, Finsbury Park plays host to a lot of festivals, and I'm told they're not all as family orientated as this one. Miffed that my street cred hadn't registered on him, I hugged the pashmina tighter and strode purposefully on my snakeskin heels towards the marquees, positioned defensively inside the park gates like a wagon circle in the Wild West. Friday's blazing sun had been replaced by a traditional British Sunday - overcast, cold and grey – so the pashmina was doing double duty. I expected to see a forlorn group of officials inside, outnumbering the paying public and huddling together for warmth. Instead I found a crowd of around two thousand people, half of them absorbed in Zimbabwean Gum Boot dancing while the other half tried their feet at Lindy Hop. I spend much of my life trying to convince the cynics that dancing isn't a minority activity, that it's not all about theatres and tickets, God-given talent and hard training. It's something that everyone can – and does – do, the most instinctive of all the arts and a lot of fun, besides. In Finsbury Park, they knew that without being told. The cab driver was wrong. I found the place rather sophisticated.
While my colleagues in the ballet company are waltzing away to Adolphe Adam on Thursday evening, I will be dancing on a barge on the Thames. No, not one of those drunken end of season parties, but the first performance of The Fleeting Opera, a collaborative venture between the sculptor Max Couper, composer Trevor Wishart, choreographer Tom Sapsford and textile artist Sasha Kingston. Dame Judi Dench will also be on board, as narrator, and we will perform along the stretch of the Thames adjacent to the Houses of Commons. Dame Judi will then alight from the barge and become the first person to use the river steps leading to Parliament in over a hundred years. Neither is this the most astonishing fact: The Fleeting Opera is the first piece of music commissioned for the River Thames since 1717, when Handel wrote his Water Music for King George 1st.
Wearing my Arts Council hat, it seems very apt that I should be writing in the New Statesman this week. It was in the annual New Statesman Lecture last month that the Arts Council Chairman, Gerry Robinson, called for Government to commit an additional £100 million to the arts, the balance due on what he called the 'down payment' of the previous spending review. His near namesake, New Statesman Chairman, Geoffrey Robinson, gave wholehearted and welcome backing to what was either a brave or an audacious request. A few weeks later, the Mirror newspaper proved an unlikely ally, devoting a front-page editorial to the arts and backing the call for increased funding. Today, Culture Secretary Chris Smith confirmed that over the next three years, of the additional £240 million allocated to his department in the Annual Spending Review, £100 million will go to the arts. In football, they'd call that a result.