WRITING

Norway / Bruce Sansom / Lubeck

August 2000

Deborah Bull is on holiday. That's not the sort of 'Deborah Bull is on holiday' that appears in italics below unfamiliar by-lines around this time of year. It's the sort of 'Deborah Bull is on holiday' that means no class, no rehearsals and no performances for the next five weeks. Like schools, ballet companies enjoy extended summer vacations, to make up for the fact that unlike schools, we work through just about every national holiday during the year. And as we all have to holiday together – you can cover for the occasional absence of a secretary, but a missing swan is hard to disguise – there's no other option than to shut up shop for the whole of August. The problem, of course, is that for a dancer, five weeks without exercise is a practical impossibility. The first week back to work never involves anything more demanding than class, a ruling from the dancers' union, Equity, to protect against injury. But The Royal Ballet season opens on October 20th with Swan Lake, so it won't be long before assorted Swan Queens – me included – are rehearsing at full throttle the party bag of tricks that makes up the infamous Act Three. I wasn't planning five weeks of inactivity – the Norwegian and I will be kayaking through the fjords – but even so, I guess I'd better pack a leotard or two alongside the lifejacket.

If you were to meet me at a party or around a dinner table, I can guarantee there are two questions you would ask. How many pairs of pointe shoes do I use, and how long is a dancer's career. The answer to both is the same. It varies. A dancer's relationship with dancing is like a love affair. It grips with a vice-like intensity for years and years, and then suddenly, for no apparent reason, the ties that bind just fall away. We talk about dancers 'giving up', but as the years beyond are often double the length of a dancing career, it's more realistically a case of moving on. But to what? After a life in the spotlight, a nine to five existence can seem a bit dull – hence the well-trodden escape route via the West End, with at least three ex-Royal Ballet dancers over the years donning catsuit and whiskers to play the part of Mr. Mistoffelees in Cats. At the grand old age of 36, Bruce Sansom, a well-loved principal with The Royal Ballet, has chosen a very different exit. He is heading off to the States to undertake a training programme in arts management with San Francisco Ballet, his departure from the stage showing the same clear thinking he demonstrated every time he stepped on it. It's going to be very strange not having him around. Along with Jonathan Cope and Nicola Tranah, we are the sole survivors of the class of 18 young hopefuls who met up for the first time in September 1974 at White Lodge, junior school of The Royal Ballet. Bruce was 10 and I was 11, and over 26 years, he's been everything to me: classmate, partner, colleague and loyal friend. He has always been absurdly fresh-faced and although the pudding basin haircut has gone, photos of him back then could easily be mistaken for him now. His golden-boy looks have usually seen him cast as the goodie (often to my baddie), but in his last performance he was dancing against type as the heroine's wheeler-dealer brother, Lescaut, in Kenneth MacMillan's Manon. At the closing curtain, the Covent Garden regulars showered him with flowers, giving him a memorable and well-deserved send-off. All of this proved rather confusing to one lady in the audience, who asked her neighbour what so much fuss was about. The explanation left her even more perplexed. 'But why would such a young boy be leaving the company?' she asked.

It was all budget travel during July. Along with Adam Cooper and a group of Royal Ballet friends, I started the month with two performances at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, opening the city's annual Festival. I treated myself to a train ticket for the outward journey, but getting back in time for Monday morning's rehearsals involved a mini bus trip overnight. The next weekend I was off to Hamburg with the company to dance Jeux in a Nijinsky gala. Determined not to miss Friday evening's First Night of the Proms, I arranged to travel independently and meet the others in Hamburg for the Saturday morning rehearsal. The only way to get there in time was out of Stansted on a cut-price 6.40am flight, the aviation equivalent of a Ford Cortina on which they actually charged for the tea. We landed 50 miles away from Hamburg in Lubeck, an airport the size of a bicycle shed where the journey time from plane to taxi was a record 1 minute 30 seconds. The plane touched down at 9am local time, safely on schedule for the 11am stage call. There was a dodgy moment when the taxi driver told me he had never heard of the Staatsoper, but a radio call to his controller put him on the right route. 'It's outside the city centre', he assured me, adding 'that will be an extra ten marks'. Forty minutes later, he pulled over in a Hamburg suburb and gestured proudly to his left. Alongside McDonalds, the Operettenhaus was showing Cats. Nein, mein lieber Herr, not just yet.