WRITING

Spectator Diary

July 1998

5.30pm. It's twilight time at the Coliseum, the changeover period between the matinee and the evening show. Weighed down by a shoulder bag full of pointe shoes, I make my way down the stairs to dressing room one. The corridors backstage are eerily silent for a house which lives and breathes music, but the majority of the dancers, involved in both performances, have escaped for a brief hour of sunshine in the West End.

I switch on the bright, bare bulbs around the silvered mirror and swap my street clothes for a tattered collection of comforting garments; leotard, T shirt and feather filled trousers which transform me into a balletic Michelin man. Six pairs of pointe shoes are laid out on the space next to mine and I spend the next half hour trying to find a left and a right which can be trusted to get me through the dancing which lies ahead. It's all part of the pre-performance ritual, a rosary of common sense and total nonsense which I superstitiously run through in the hours before a show. Shoes finally selected and put to one side, I sit down to make up.

It's week four of the Royal Ballet's season at the Coliseum, and the corps de ballet is ready for the holiday which dangles like a carrot at the end of Saturday's double show. Most of them are dancing a twelve hour day, every day, with twelve hours overnight to recover, re-fuel, rest, relax and return. It doesn't allow for much in the way of a social life. We principals fare slightly better. I have at least had a day between performances to tease my body back into a recognisably human shape. But although we don't suffer the steam-rollered sensation which comes with performing night after night, a life in the limelight is subject to the very different pressures of carrying the show and withstanding the critical flak which follows.

Backstage at the Coli, it all feels very much like home to a company which has lived in cramped and threadbare conditions for the last fifty years. We settled into these crowded dressing rooms and shared facilities with the uncritical eyes and uncomplaining demeanour of artists used to 'making do'. It is, after all, what we do best. Throughout this summer season, as government commissioned reports and media attention have focussed yet again on some indistinct, amorphous entity described as the 'Opera House', I'm struck once more by the blitz spirit of what I would call the Opera House; the dedicated body of artists who dance, sing and play there. The technicians who design, build and paint there. The wardrobe staff who wash, iron and mend there. Normal people who take the tube to work, raise children, pay mortgages and worry about their job security just like the rest of the population do.

In the midst of a mammoth month of eight shows a week, I've been finishing my diary of this extraordinary year, Dancing Away, for publication in October. When I agreed to chronicle the first of the Royal Ballet's wilderness years, I had no idea that the book would evolve into a hybrid of current affairs and political thriller. It set out to be an insight into the life of a dancer uprooted from normality and thrown into a peripatetic existence. Reading through the final draft, I realise just how much we've danced through: several very public changes at the top, a double teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, homelessness, a brace of reports on our future from both Gerald Kaufman and Sir Richard Eyre, and front page coverage of every sneeze in the House's most private corners. It isn't the book I was intending to write, but it makes for interesting reading.

The arts seem to be the only area of government where the headline 'Cash For Access' doesn't indicate skullduggery among the back benches. In fact, cash for access signals the best news the arts world has had in a long time. As a result of the government's annual spending review, Chris Smith has bagged an extra £290 million for his department. Now perhaps, with money available to stabilise a situation rendered vertiginous by years of financial freeze, the arts can look forward to matching on the stage the intrigue and excitement we've come to expect from the headlines. But there's no such thing as a free lunch, and all this largesse comes with a price tag attached. In return, Chris Smith wants improved access and increased educational activities. Joy of joys! This is like handing me a brown envelope stuffed with used notes and saying 'you'll have to spend it in Harvey Nichols, though'. Nothing would make me happier and, Mr Smith, nothing will make us happier.

Smith also announced the creation of an independent body to oversee the goings-on in the arts. Suggestions, please, for a word to replace the over-tired and over-used 'watchdog'. Ofart obviously won't do.

No vacation for me this year. With a television project swallowing up my time off from the Royal Ballet, I spent Saturday night and Sunday in Oslo, enjoying a thirty-six hour summer holiday before I start work again on Monday morning. I went up to Holmenkollen, the world famous home of ski jumping, to have a look around the museum. There's a display dedicated to King Olav V, the 'people's King', as he has been popularly known since the Fifties. It seems neither Julie Burchill nor Tony Blair came up with the idea of a people's royal personage. Four million Norwegians got there first.

The ballet world lost another of its giants this week, another of those individuals who was always there and should have gone on forever. I'm finding it hard to accept that it's now up to my generation to provide the greats of the future. American choreographer Jerome Robbins was already well established when I was at school, and years later he gave a welcome boost to my morale by picking me out of a corps de ballet line up in 1982. Robbins was one of the few artists to commute happily between the penury of classical ballet and the commercial clover of Broadway and Hollywood, and by creating the dances for the films West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, he choreographed himself a place in movie as well as dance history. The Guardian's obituary concluded with the words 'Jerome Robbins is survived by 15 musicals and 66 ballets'; a touching reminder that the art we make will be around a lot longer than we are.