Jeux / Hay-on-Wye / Creating random dance

June 2000

May supplied the highlight of my dancing year so far: the reconstruction of Nijinsky's Jeux, as part of The Royal Ballet's Diaghilev Legacy programme. The legend of Nijinsky, his phenomenal dancing and his untimely descent into madness, is well known. His influence on the development of contemporary choreography is often overlooked, perhaps because so little of his work survives. His first ballet, L'Apres-midi d'un Faune, was recorded using his own system of dance notation, developed during his internment in Budapest at the outbreak of World War I. Jeux, his second ballet, was never written down. All that remains from the 1913 premiere is a series of pastels by Valentine Gross, several photographs of the original cast, contemporary reviews and eye witness accounts from Tamara Karsavina and Nijinsky's sister, the dancer and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. From these, Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, dance's answer to TV's 'House Detectives', have brought Jeux back to life. The richly rewarding process of dance archaeology we went through together is something I will always treasure.

Overshadowed by the scandal of Le Sacre du Printemps just days later, Jeux was only ever performed a handful of times. But in many ways it was Jeux rather than Sacre that deserved to shock. Jeux was the first ever ballet to feature real people wearing real, contemporary clothes. It was also the first ballet to hint at anything other than wholesome, heterosexual relationships, with its triangle of ever changing attraction between one man and two women. Unappreciated at the time, Debussy's score has been described by Pierre Boulez as the greatest music of the twentieth century.

Of course, it was Diaghilev who brought together the elements that added up to genius, and his creative alchemy continues to fascinate (and often elude) the ballet world. In his entertaining new book, The Visitors, Rupert Christiansen describes the cultural wasteland of 1911 into which Diaghilev's Ballets Russes arrived. Commentators from Charles Dickens to George Bernard Shaw had long been prophesising (and sometimes celebrating) the demise of the ballet. As the Times critic of 1885 put it, 'the male dancer, with his pas and entrechats and stereotyped grin, has disappeared from the English boards, where, it must be fervently hoped, he will never again find permanent footing'. He couldn't have known that the Russians and, in particular, Nijinsky, would very soon prove him wrong.

I spent last weekend in Hay-on-Wye, the book-obsessed market town just inside the Welsh border. I was there for the annual Book Festival, an event that has become such a fixture on the calendar that Tony Benn declares 'it's replaced Christmas'. It is extraordinary, the Woodstock of the literary world, a green field site transformed into a mud bath with the rock and roll giants replaced by literary genius. Hay is famous for its myriad bookshops – one per thirty inhabitants – and the Festival, for ten days every year, adds three huge marquees dedicated to literary pursuits: talks, debates, readings and signings. Over 40,000 people will attend the festival this year and of Hay's 1300 residents, 950 will visit the Festival site. Arts festivals are becoming ever more commonplace these days and it sometimes seems as if every postcode has its particular speciality – Liverpool does visual arts, Leicester does early music, Glyndebourne does opera, Glastonbury does pop, and so on. Where Hay differs is that by its very nature, it cannot be dedicated to performance. The 'performance' part of literature is the bit where you and I settle down with a new book and a nice cup of tea, and inviting 40,000 people to come and read together in tents battered by driving rain wouldn't have much appeal. What Hay offers is a chance for the regular, book-devouring public to meet some of today's greatest writers and interrogate them about their work. All performing arts companies strive to provide the public with a 'way in' to our seemingly esoteric worlds, but an insight event on the scale of Hay is unimaginable. Ian McEwan gave the festival next year's strap line when he announced to a packed tent that he's given up doing research. 'I just ask the audience at Hay,' he said.

There were other good lines, too. Gore Vidal, quizzed about his cousin Al by Mark Lawson answered that Gore's presidency (should he make it) will be much less fun than Bill Clinton's. 'He lusts for no one, and no one lusts for him,' he explained. Martin Amis crushed a question from the audience about the so-called 'laddish authors' (and deterred the rest of us from asking any) with 'lads don't write books. Lads go round in groups, they go down the pub and drink beer. You can't walk around your kitchen or sit at home writing books and be a lad. Take Nick Hornby out of the question and I haven't got a clue what you're talking about'. But my personal favourite came from a white-haired old lady, in the audience for Simon Singh and Andrew Hodges' talk about code breaking. Singh told us that as late as the Second World War, the US army was able to use the Navajo Indians as 'code talkers' because their Athapascan language had yet to be deciphered by anyone outside the tribe. Someone with a local accent asked if it was true that the British had employed Welsh speakers in the same way. From her front row seat, Mrs Goldsworthy piped up. She could confirm it. Her father, you see, knew Lloyd George.

A couple of weeks ago, I led a field trip of ballet dancers across the cultural divide of the Thames to see Wayne McGregor's company, Random, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Both Wayne and Gill Clarke have been working with a group of Royal Ballet dancers over the last few months towards three performances in the Clore Studio Upstairs at the Royal Opera House. It's extremely odd - but equally rewarding - for ballet dancers to work with contemporary choreographers. It's not so much the different language as the different working methods that throw us. Ballet choreographers work in the same way as a 19th century novel. You start at the beginning, move on to the middle and work through to the end. In contrast, Wayne and Gill have something of the James Joyce about them. They build material at random, polishing individual nuggets of movement until they have constructed an entirely new vocabulary. Only then is this structured into a piece. The real shock for us is being asked to take part in the construction of that vocabulary. Over the last few months we've learnt how to 'o', 'u', blah, blah and make a nine point sphere. In classical ballet (in my experience) this just doesn't happen. I may, on occasion, have been asked to add an arm here or there but that's about as far as it goes. The choreographer makes the steps and I dance them. This disparity between the creativity of the choreographer and the facsimile reproductivity of the dancer has always bothered me, yet it's built into a ballet dancer's training from the start. A ballet student's success depends entirely on his or her ability to repeat steps in exactly the same way they've been done for several hundred years. Success is not commensurate with individuality. Creativity, on the other hand, is not commensurate with following the crowd. A wise young girl in the audience at Hay told me that this was precisely the reason she gave up ballet classes. 'It was always a case of doing things a set way and there was no chance to add anything of yourself. Contemporary dance seems much more creative.' She may no longer have her pointes, but I fear she has a point.