WRITING

Martha@ Brick Lane / Lena Zavaroni / Leaving Baron's Court

October 1999

October is the month when all the commitments to which I happily agree in the heat of the summer come home to roost. I do try to remember Nancy Reagan's advice and 'just say no', but an invitation to perform at the Brick Lane Music Hall was too good to refuse. So last week, not so fresh from rehearsals, I sped across London to dance as the guest of Richard Move in Martha @ Dance Umbrella, his award winning homage to modern dance diva, Martha Graham. A disclaimer on the flyer announced that 'this event is in no way connected to the Martha Graham Entities'. Move has even been the subject of a 'seize and desist' order from Graham's estate, a legal warning to lay off the legend which sounds more like an element of her famous technique: 'Now, dancers, on a count of four, contract and release, seize and desist'. I admit it sounds unlikely, a six foot four New Yorker taking on (and taking off) the grande dame of contemporary dance, but Move has come up with an evening which shows what theatre, at its best, can do. It is entertaining, original, thought provoking and educational. And by juxtaposing genuine Martha wisdom alongside today's creative talents – Mark Morris, Wayne McGregor, Matthew Hawkins and Tom Sapsford – he provides context both for Graham's innovation and the developments she indirectly inspired.

The really appealing thing about Move is his passion for his subject. He would continue to do Martha if it meant performing to the walls of his sitting room. To label him as a female impersonator doesn't do him justice. When is a drag queen not a drag queen? Hard to say, but when Move rushed offstage for yet another quick change, I pinned myself against the wall in an effort to make myself invisible. Perhaps it was just ingrained, old school theatrical etiquette which made me defer to the star of the show, but I sensed that here was an artist in full flow. It didn't feel like he was simply camping around.

When I was young, I wanted to be Lena Zavaroni, although not quite as much as I wanted to be Davina Smart. Davina seemed to have it all, her own family circus, a trapeze to swing on and a costume made of white feathers. My family didn't have a circus, so I thought I'd like to be Lena Zavaroni instead. I could sing, a bit - although I'm not sure I could have mustered the decibel power she achieved - and performing was what I liked best. Life seemed very unfair when Lena got there first.

Life seemed even less fair when she died, aged thirty-five, so desperate to beat anorexia that she put herself through what was described as the modern day equivalent of a lobotomy. In retrospect, I saw her childhood stardom for what it really was: desperately cruel and exploitative of a young child with a rather freakish talent.

Of course, children love attention and I'm sure no youngster is ever forced to record albums, appear on television or undertake international tours. But what of the future? What happens when a young child grows up and no longer looks like a doll, or sings like an angel? Novelty value, by definition, has no enduring appeal yet the taste of adoration lingers forever. Lena Zavoroni died in a life-long struggle to get back to the time she was loved best. Let's make sure it doesn't happen again.

The question I have been asked most frequently over the two years of The Royal Ballet's peripatetic existence is 'how does it feel to be homeless?' What most people don't realise is that for the dancers of The Royal Ballet, home is where it has always been: on the approach road to the M4 motorway, in West London's Barons Court.

The Royal Ballet School in Talgarth Road is an unprepossessing collection of buildings which has housed the company since the fifties. In those days, the school sat quietly on a little crescent shaped road called Colet Gardens, but it wasn't long before the bulldozers moved in to drive the M4 through to the centre of town. Suddenly, the school was wedged in between a major road at the front and the underground trains to the rear. Dancers these days have a choice: They can either gasp for breath in a hermetically sealed environment or open the windows and enjoy some of the most polluted air in Europe.

My first encounter with Barons Court was in 1974, when I auditioned for the junior school of The Royal Ballet. In 1979 I graduated to the Upper School and since then, my every working day has begun with a 400-meter walk along Talgarth Road. For twenty years I have taken daily class there, rehearsed new roles, enjoyed success and suffered disappointment. My life has been mapped out according to the green baize notice board outside the company office. By the time this column appears, I will have walked the Talgarth Road for the last time. My corner space in the tiny dressing room where Fonteyn used to change will be empty. The corridors will no longer be a place where first year students bump into ballerinas checking the rehearsal schedule. The canteen, where I once queued behind Rudolf Nureyev, will revert to being, well, just another place to buy coffee.

The transfer to Covent Garden represents a major step for The Royal Ballet, as we finally set up a permanent home in the theatre where we perform. The facilities, designed to our own specifications should, fingers crossed, be perfect. Somehow though, I'll miss Barons Court. Its innumerable nooks and crannies, each with a story to tell, add up to a private museum of my dancing life. On Monday morning, for the first time, I'll point my car eastwards, towards our new home in Covent Garden. That way lies the future - but a part of me will always go west.