WRITING

Back to work / British Achievers / A one off film / Funkin' Pussy

September 1999

Back to work after the summer break. The Royal Ballet's season at Sadler's Wells finished at the end of July, and I hung up my pointe shoes for five long weeks. Glowing with holiday health, the company met up again in September, at our Barons Court rehearsal studios, to start work on the first programme we will present in the refurbished Royal Opera House. I will be dancing two ballets, William Forsythe's wonderfully titled The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude as well as Siobhan Davies' A Stranger's Taste. Forsythe's tricky, demanding and above all speedy choreography is not the easiest way to begin a season. It's only been five weeks, but responses are a bit sluggish and I'd really like to take things slowly for a while. Unfortunately, Forsythe insists that we rehearse to Schubert's Ninth Symphony played at concert tempo, as performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It's all very well for the musicians: they have only ten fingers to deal with. We poor dancers have ten fingers, ten toes, two arms, two legs and a fresh-back-from-holiday torso to shift.

Norman Lebrecht's recent deliberations on the paucity of Great British achievers in the musical world struck a chord. He suggests it is our national character, with its hallmarks of reticence, self-deprecation and, well, general nice-ness which prevents undoubtedly talented British artists from triumphing on anything more than a local stage. He suspects that we suffer from a cosy, slippers-and-pipe attitude which doesn't stand a chance against the life-depends-on-it hunger of our foreign counterparts.

Lebrecht may have a point, but he misses one or two as well. It's not ambition we lack. It's self-confidence. I don't know about musicians, but ballet training has a tendency to produce dancers who are woefully insecure about their own abilities. Young students spend their lives trying (and often failing) to fit their bodies into preordained shapes, and their efforts are more likely to attract reproach than praise. Many professional dancers suffer from such a chronic lack of self-belief that frankly, it's a wonder we dare set our satin slippered feet on the stage.

Of course, public perception of artists in this country is largely based on what's written about them, and the British media are inclined to underplay the achievements of homegrown talent. If it's hard to be a prophet in your own country, it's even harder to be a star. There is still a widely held belief that the more unpronounceable the name, the better the product. (Arts journalists, who know the difference between a great name and a great artist, rarely get to write the headlines.) Dame Ninette de Valois, The Royal Ballet's founder, always understood this, and insisted that plain Peggy Hookham would have to become Margot Fonteyn before she would be taken seriously. The practice of spicing up dull British names has only recently been abandoned: only last year, on her 100th birthday, Dame Ninette was still complaining about my unfortunate heritage. 'I always meant to write to her father about that dreadful name'.

Perhaps Dame Ninette was right. Even years after her death, Margot Fonteyn is still the best-known ballerina of all time. Her hold on the public imagination was examined last weekend in a three-day conference, The Fonteyn Phenomenon. I enjoyed an animated report of the proceedings from The Royal Ballet's assistant director, Monica Mason, in the dressing room at Barons Court. Most intriguing was her account of a unique film of The Sadler's Wells Ballet dancing Sleeping Beauty at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Unbeknown to the dancers, their triumphant 1949 American debut was filmed, from his seat in the auditorium, by a ballet-lover named Victor Jessen. His hand-held cine-camera could only record one minute at a time, so he returned night after night, stop watch presumably in hand, to capture the sections he had missed. Throughout the fifties, during the company's annual visits to the Met, Jessen painstakingly built up three complete acts, stitched together like a patchwork quilt. On his death, the film was bequeathed to New York's Public Library. A single showing was permitted at the conference, and many of the distinguished audience were amazed to look back over half a century and see themselves up there on the screen. They were even more surprised when halfway through their variation they metamorphosed into someone else. Fonteyn danced Aurora throughout, but as the process of filming had spanned at least a decade, the subsidiary characters didn't display the same degree of consistency. Beryl Grey danced the first step of the Lilac Fairy's solo and then transmogrified into Svetlana Beriosova, who danced the next. The Queen was June Brae until she reappeared, when it was Julia Farron. Fonteyn danced the entire third act with Michael Somes, yet took her curtain calls with Robert Helpmann. Described this way, the film sounds like a comic turn, but it had an important point to make. Fifty years ago, footwork was less precise, backs less flexible and legs less finely toned. But the dancers nevertheless displayed a brio and a sense of style which had the American public on the edge of their seats. In our relentless quest for perfection, it's easy to forget that technique is nothing more than a means to an end. We may jump higher and spin faster these days, but I sometimes wonder: Where is the dance we've lost in dancing?

While Fonteyn was under discussion, I was otherwise engaged, making my debut on a dance floor where pointed feet cut no ice at all. I have spent the summer learning to dance, for a television series to be broadcast next spring. You would think that after treading the boards for thirty years I would know all there is to know about dancing, but breakdancing is to ballet what Australia is to Europe: Antipodal. The ballet dancer's environment is ground level and upwards; breakdancers operate at ground level and below. I spin on my toes, they spin on their heads. After weeks of practice I was ready for my virgin 'throwdown' at The Funkin' Pussy in Covent Garden, in front of some of the world's best breakdancers, over here for the UK Championships the following day. I may have danced for kings, queens and presidents, but the applause of the crowd has never before meant quite so much.