Re-opening the Royal Opera House

November 1999

Readers who were nervous that a monthly column from a ballet dancer would be nothing more than a chronicle of glamorous first nights, exclusive previews and celebrity gossip can breathe a sigh of relief. Three months in, and not a party in sight. I can't remember the last time I rubbed shoulders with anyone even remotely famous. It's been all work and no play, although I have to concede that planning a domestic move to coincide with the reopening of the Royal Opera House was not exactly smart. A change of home and a change of work place: all I need now is a divorce and I'll be checking into The Priory.

Not that there haven't been celebrations going on around me. Last month, I wrote with wistful nostalgia about The Royal Ballet's move from Barons Court to our new premises in Covent Garden. Four weeks later, I can report that swapping homes is a bit like swapping lovers. It's all very sad at the time but before long, the obvious charms of the new make even the fondest memories recede at the double. The move was not without its hiccups, but John Seekings, the Opera House's Development Director, had worked overtime to make sure that the ballet quarters were ready for the Monday morning influx of dancers, all of us desperate to secure the best corner of the dressing room. In fact, there are very few bad corners and plenty of space to go round. No more huddling five or six together in a space designed for two and, more importantly, no more standing ankle deep in other people's used bath water. We have proper showers which, unlike their predecessors, meet with the Health Inspectorate's approval. The studios on the fifth floor are jaw-droppingly beautiful, white, bright and flooded with natural light. From a roof terrace which I have unofficially named for Carole King (am I the only dancer in the company old enough to remember 'Up on the roof'?) we can enjoy a panoramic view of the London skyline with the London Eye, erect, fully podded and ready to roll.

Without wishing to look too deep into the gift horse's mouth, the overall absence of colour in the rehearsal rooms – very Conran, very nineties - has presented its own problems. Without any darker spots on which to focus, it becomes rather difficult to stay upright. My solo in Siobhan Davies' new work, A Stranger's Taste, is one long sequence of movement that swirls around the space without ever coming to rest. The first time I tried it in the new Ashton Studio I had to stop, due to a severe case of white-out. I felt as if I was dancing in a snow shaker. It was anyone's guess as to which way was up.

Unfortunately, the teething problems of the new stage have been a little harder to deal with and the decision had to be taken to cancel The Royal Opera's revival of Le Grand Macabre. Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties behind the scenes, the curtain rose as planned, with a performance for local residents and the 'hard hats', the men and women who built the new theatre. I danced William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and having complained in the first of these columns about the impossibility of getting my legs around the choreography when the music is played at concert tempo, the first night's performance went to the other extreme. At the risk of sounding like someone who is never, ever satisfied, it's just as difficult when the music is too slow. Every jump has to be higher, every balance held longer, every turn smoother and more sustained. It made the ballet even more exhausting than usual and, to cap it all, I couldn't find a way out of the theatre. Our temporary stage door, squeezed in between a chocolate kiosk and a toy store, was firmly padlocked and I eventually exited the building by the rubbish bins.

But the builders had a great time. One of the numbers early on in the programme left them flummoxed, but then, to be honest, it left me flummoxed, too. Otherwise it was wolf whistles and cheers all round, and the two men who were drafted in to be photographed alongside the dancers for the next day's papers told me they had already booked tickets for The Nutcracker. I was delighted to see that the builders didn't allow the Culture Secretary's directive on dress to spoil their evening. Anyone who has ever been to a hip-hop club (and as you know, I have) understands how humiliating it is to turn up in the wrong gear. Get the wrong trainers and you stand every chance of being blackballed. But the new Opera House's first ever audience was not going to let the people's dress code stand in the way of a good night out. Many of them opted for the full monty, tuxedos for the gentlemen and glamorous gowns for the ladies. Lined up outside to take them home were stretch limos hired specially for the occasion. A banner draped above one of the cars bore the legend 'Joe the plumber's opening night at the Royal Opera House'. Quite right, Joe. We couldn't have done it without you.