Millennium / Pantomime / Where is dance?

December 1999

I made just one resolution this year: to consign the 'M' word to the recycle bin of history. It's not going to be easy. I'm supposed to be writing about the last month in the arts but the momentous stroke of midnight on Friday last seems to have rendered irrelevant everything that happened beforehand. December had its highlights: the major event on my calendar was the official re-opening of the Royal Opera House, with its two star-studded gala performances on the 1st and 4th of the month. It's not that long ago, but it feels as if it all took place last century – which, of course, it did. Even Christmas was swallowed up in the great rush towards the New Year. I did all the things you're supposed to do – turkey, mince pies, Norwegian Spruce – but even so, it never quite took off.

In an effort to stir up some genuine seasonal good will, I headed off to Sadler's Wells in north London for the opening of the theatre's Christmas pantomime, a brand new version of the classic tale, Dick Whittington. As Christmas offerings go, it was rather good. Far, far better than the standard three pack of M and S underwear, but not really up there with the keys to a new Ferrari. Sadler's Wells has made a brave attempt to lift the genre that is pantomime out of the quagmire to which it has descended of late. There was just enough 'look behind you' to satisfy the statutory requirements, but beyond that, the cultural references were surprisingly elevated. In the pit, a live orchestra matched the action on the stage with an eclectic selection of music, from the Cornish Floral Dance to Walton's Battle of Britain Suite. You don't get that on Skegness pier. The production was directed and choreographed by the doyenne of the musical, Gillian Lynne, who, at the age of seventy-two, is a better advert for the health-giving benefits of dance than anyone else I know. No one handles a chorus line quite like Lynne, and she even managed to slip in proper ballet dancing, pointe shoes and all, without so much as a dip in the audience's concentration levels. If there was anything lacking, it was consistency amongst the cast. The 'old hands' – Nickolas Grace as Grimaldi (I warned you about the cultural references), or Royce Mills as the bumbling Bumfrey (and the 'look behind you') – were able to provide enough theatricality to carry the show across the footlights. Unfortunately, they couldn't carry the younger artists with them. The biographies at the back of the programme reveal why. Grace and Mills each have at least thirty years of experience in live theatre. We might recognise them from their work on television – Grace will always be best known as Anthony Blanche from the TV series, Brideshead Revisited – but they learnt their craft treading the boards. Some of the cast seemed to act as if they were performing for a proscenium twenty-four inches wide.

My invitation to the Dome failed to arrive – or at least that's what I'm going to assume – so I saw in the New Year along with the rest of London, on the banks of the Thames. As always, the view from the BBC was far better than the one I enjoyed. Particularly fascinating were the scenes earlier on in the day as the new century rolled towards us across the surface of the globe. The larger the city, the more stage-managed the celebrations. Here in London, the synthetic ceremony reached its apogee as thousands sat inside the Dome and millions more sat at home watching them on television. Notwithstanding the fact that our calendar is, by all accounts, a pretty arbitrary affair, the twitch of the clock's hand from the fifty-ninth second mark to the perfect perpendicular of midnight last Friday represented a moment in history which very few of the earth's inhabitants are privileged to witness. A batch of our ancestors saw it one thousand years ago, and we saw it last week. And how did we greet it? On our bottoms. Surely we should have been up on our feet and leaping for joy? As the first of twenty-four midnights struck in Kiribati, they danced a welcome; in Argentina, they danced their national tango. I spotted ballet dancers amongst the tableaux from Vienna. Closer to home, a ceilidh in Scotland had homemade music and home spun reels. In the official celebrations at the Dome, though, the dancing was left to the professionals: a Rio-style carnival and a hybrid of balletic gymnastics overhead.

Where has dance gone in our society? The instinct to move is the most basic of them all, an instinct which breaks through barriers and crosses cultures, but dance seems to have been reduced to a spectator sport. Dancing shouldn't be the preserve of the experts. Join in. Don't let us have all the fun.