At the ballet…

This week marked four years since I made my first ever venture into the world of ballet watchingCinderella at Sadler’s Wells. It was an experience that had been on my list of ‘first’ things I wanted to achieve in 2010, and I managed it with 10 days to spare. However, it was subsequently pointed out to me that while the work of Matthew Bourne is certainly excellent, it falls more into the ‘modern dance’ category rather than ‘ballet’. (I’d never seen a Bourne production live either, so it was still a first!)

Days before the anniversary of this auspicious event, I finally realised my First properly. Surely no one could argue that the Royal Ballet performing at the Royal Opera House doesn’t count as ballet??

As with my Bourne experience, the initiator was my balletomane friend Jules. In the heady days of summer, shocked that I’d never entered the hallowed ROH, she bagged some bargain tickets for a Christmas performance of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. [Top ROH tip: our tickets were £10 and in the heights of the Upper Amphitheatre slips, where the seats are actually cushioned benches. Being row CC and numbers 15 & 16 meant that we actually got a pretty good view. Any higher a number or row DD and things would’ve been tricky. Only one small part of the stage was obscured, and for £10, I’m willing to make that sacrifice!!]

alice & White Rabbit

Premiered in 2011, Alice is the Royal Ballet’s first full length ballet for two decades, choreographed by the rather fabulous Christopher Wheeldon. My biggest fear with watching dance is that I won’t understand what’s going on without words, but this made Alice a safe choice, given my familiarity with the source material.

Actually, even without the book and film versions, I think I would have understood the plot in this production. The beginning deviated from the source in that it featured a Lewis Carroll-esque photographer; and a handsome gardener chased away by Alice’s mother after discovering the pair kissing – but I picked up on this without the aid of the programme notes. The characters in the prologue went on to ‘play’ the Wonderland characters, Alice’s mother being the Queen of Hearts chasing the gardener’s Knave.


The production was just as bonkers and colourful as any version of Alice deserves to be. The Mad Hatter, resplendent in green and pink, tap-danced through his scenes; the caterpillar was a reincarnation of an Indian maharajah, whose Bollywood style moves perfectly captured the larvae’s undulating movement; and the Queen coasted in a giant acrylic heart for all of act 1! The set was reminiscent of Tori Amos’ The Light Princess, with animated shadow puppet style backdrops at points where extra narration was needed. Once released from her heart on wheels, the queen was the campest and most demanding prima ballerina the ROH’s stage can ever have hosted!

Caterpillar Alice

The ballet was magical and I highly recommend catching it at some point. (I’m pretty sure the entire run is now sold out, but it’ll be back…) But, almost more impressive was the sheer act of watching something in the Opera House. Fortunately, the 3 act ballet provided us with two intervals in which t take it all in – one spent admiring the auditorium space, and the other the sparkle and charm of the bars and corridors. Man, I love a good chandelier!

Looking up at the amphitheatre barObserving the observers in the amphitheatre bar.

It was an epic night out, one that might only have been improved had I still been living at my previous address, a mere 20 minutes walk from the ROH’s steps. Emerging to discover freezing rain would have been much easier to deal with knowing I’d be warm and dry in half an hour, instead of at the end of a 1 hour bus journey! [Three years in WC1 has spoiled me.]

Thinking back to that visit to Sadler’s Wells four years ago [incidentally, gosh what a lot has happened in those four years!], I’m pretty confident that a trip to the Royal Ballet would have been too much for a ‘first’. I simply didn’t know enough about the ballet world to have appreciated it.

What’s changed? Well, inadvertently, I’ve been on a crash course in ballet history, courtesy of a couple of BBC documentaries and a YouTube black hole. I knew a certain amount already, thanks to assiduous re-reading of the Drina books (last re-read in August!) and a certain fondness for stage/ballet school tv shows. The discovery of Dance Academy on Netflix early this year would partly explain my descent into ballet exploration. Set in a fictional Australian ballet school adjacent to the Sydney Opera House, it’s three seasons were a brilliant mix of ballet and Neighbours! Then there was the not fictional at all First Position – an award winning documentary about the Prix de Lausanne ballet competition. Mesmerising!

The above would probably be what I’d call an introduction to the world of ballet – they’re easy watches and in the case of Dance Academy, positively addictive. If you want to take things a little further, here are some links to gems that offered me some solace while finishing off my degree earlier in the year:

Royal Ballet School documentary (From the 90’s, featuring some famous names when they were young, and epic 90’s hair.)
Strictly Bolshoi (Christopher Wheeldon choreographs at the Bolshoi)
Ballet in Birmingham (Welsh pupils at Elmhurst School)
‘Agony & Ecstasy – a year with the English National Ballet’


Next year, I may have to set my sights higher – a classic ballet. Swan Lake perhaps, or Giselle? At least my childhood love of dancing books means I have an idea of their plots too! Jules, what do you reckon? Same place next year?

Eliza dances in Putney

After I wrote about the effect Black Swan had on me, my dancing friend Jules (provider of tickets for my first trip to the ballet, sorry, contemporary dance) helpfully e-mailed me with the details of a ballet class she went to and encouraged me to join her, so my first ever ballet class was firmly on the cards…

While I waited for a free Saturday to show up, I shared my plans with a few people – friends, my mother, colleagues etc, and was rather amused by their various reactions. One colleague thought she’d like to return to ballet too – I had to point out that this was no ‘return’ for me, this was the beginning. My mother asked if, in addition to the leg-warmers, I was going to acquire a pink bolero cardigan? [As an aside, anyone know the correct pronunciation of that word in that context? She pronounced it with an emphasis on the ‘bol’, whereas I’d pronounce it with an emphasis on the ‘er’.] She also said that it was a good job I’d not shown any interest in ballet lessons as a child, because I’d lacked grace and poise and probably would’ve ended up being the unhappy fat child at the back of the class. On reflection, she wondered whether sending me along to lessons regardless of this would have improved my grace and poise (and made me less fat, presumably). Not to worry, as a child I was far happier living out my balletic fantasies vicariously through Drina’s adventures.

Anyway, with a class in Putney (visiting that suburb was also a First, weirdly) lined up for Saturday,  all I needed to do last week was to acquire the necessary footwear and do a little bit of homework…

Step 1 – The Shoes
I have huge feet. Feet so large I think it would prohibit me actually ever becoming Prima Ballerina for the Royal Ballet. Certainly you can’t order above an 8 online (and those shoes ‘come up small’) so a trip to a dance store was necessary. Such places intimidate me, being as they’re generally full of stick-thin dancer types talking in a language I don’t speak. However, similar creatures would also inhabit a ballet class, so I needed to face my fear and do it anyway. Jules recommended Freed’s and handily the shop also happened to be the nearest shop to the tube station, making a swift visit during Friday’s lunch break possible.

If you’re going to do something a little mad, like buying your first ballet shoes at the age of 29, you may as well do it somewhere that will treat you well and give you a nice experience. Freed’s are approved by the Royal Academy of Dance, so they’re pretty good as dance shops go! For the first time since I was about 12 I had shoes fitted to my feet (sadly no foot measuring devices were required) and I got to prance about a bit while choosing between canvas split-soles and leather full-soles (I went for leather – as they looked like ‘real’ ballet shoes).

Step 2 – The Preparation
Arriving back at the office with my shoes, I found a package on my desk containing a couple of books Jules thought would be useful pre-class reading. I was hugely amused to discover these:

Ah, Usborne books! Taught me almost everything I know in life – from my first 100 words in French & Latin to the very informative volume on ‘Growing Up’ – all in beautifully illustrated form. Glancing through, I noticed a few pages were bookmarked. Unsure if these were meant for me, or leftover from Jules’ childhood (it turned out to be the latter) I turned to the pages and found them most informative. First up was a page instructing me on hairstyles and how to sew the elastics into my shoes (extremely useful several hours later), then page after page of positions and terms…

Step 3 – The Lesson
Jules’ lesson suggestion was most welcome – as with many things, turning up with a friend in tow can make a First a lot more bearable. Even better was the fact that she brought another friend along who was also a beginner (well, hadn’t done it since childhood) which meant that I wasn’t alone in my ineptitude. It wasn’t a beginners’ class, more an open class to which beginners were welcome. Jules had mentioned old ladies in jogging bottoms, so I felt confident that all would be well. However, as the class began I saw no such ladies – just svelte beings in leotards, tights and other attractive dance gear (can you believe I actually forgot my amazing post Black Swan leg warmers?? Tragedy!)  and began to worry. I worried even more when we began, not at the barre as I’d anticipated, but by running round the room – then skipping, then running backwards, then more skipping – at this point I felt I’d be lucky not to end up on my backside at some point in the class.
But lucky I was. [A true miracle given as I’ve grazed my knee twice within a week recently.] The barre work was fun and similar to pilates, though I had to spend a lot of time looking at my feet (and Jules’ feet!) to keep up. It was when the barre was removed that things got interesting, I was lost in a world of terms I vaguely knew but couldn’t translate into arm/leg/foot movements – frappes, fondues and pas de bourres? The first two I thought were a drink in Starbucks and a Swiss cheese dish… It was a relief when centre practice was over and the senior members of the class got on with their pointe work – something I will never try. 
Before anyone comments on the insteps, I know they don’t fit properly – I need to buy more elastic and sew it in crossways so that it supports properly. I have stupidly high arches… 
It was more of a workout than I’d expected and I was grateful that Jules’ plan for after the class was to sit in a cafe, eat lunch, eat cake and drink copious amounts of Earl Grey. In fact, I was so knackered that plans to head out clubbing and dance the night away were quickly shelved. There’s only so much dancing my stupidly big feet can handle in one day… 
Will I return? Probably. Though what I really want is a proper beginners’ class that will teach me the positions and terms so that I can eventually hold my own in the kind of class I went to on Saturday. Ultimately, it’s a fantastically fun way to keep fit and it feels like you’re learning something along the way. It’s not a weird thing to be doing – last night a friend asked when I would “give up on this extrovert Eliza thing and go back to normal?” – it’s not a crazy fad, it’s about getting out there and trying stuff I’m interested in, end of story.

Black Swan Effects

Last night I finally saw Black Swan (I say ‘finally’, to be honest given my inability to see films quickly, watching it within 3 weeks of its release is pretty speedy) and after writing about the sensibilities surrounding it a week ago, I felt it was only fair to provide my own opinion.

Although one good friend found the film deeply traumatising, I was confident that several years of being subjected to horror films would mean that I’d cope fairly well. However, those years never took away my hatred of masks or scary faces, so an opening dream sequence involving a particularly scary evil sorcerer with flashing green eyes had me on edge whenever weird faces appeared – but it wasn’t so bad, apart from some moving paintings.

Traumatised friend’s big issue with it was that it ought to have been an 18, not a 15. Honestly, I’d have to disagree – the sex scenes aren’t graphic (and, importantly for the BBFC, don’t include any male nudity or any nudity below the waist actually), there’s little swearing and what blood there is would pale in comparison to a typical episode of ER. The darkness of the film is psychological, with Portman’s character spiralling out of control making for fascinating viewing, while the relationship with her mother had me gasping. (And giggling – during one particularly intimate scene, but I’d hate to spoil it…) All in all not un-typical of a post-watershed TV drama.

The bottom line is that despite (or perhaps because of) the tension, the film is utterly captivating. The dancing got me from the outset and is fabulous. The cinematography is something else, with some scenes filmed so that you felt you were literally stood right behind Portman’s head, walking behind her. Obviously, the acting’s pretty hot too, I always think it must be an actor’s dream to play a character that’s completely mad – though it’s a challenge to pull it off well and this cast does.

Not the most exciting photo from the film, but it has relevance later…
Oh, and can someone explain why she’s only got one leg-warmer on? 

That’s the serious bit out of the way – what really amused me about the whole evening was what happened afterwards, which can (and has) be identified via the Twitter hashtag #effectsofblackswan. [Ok, so only two of us have used it, but it could take off…]

The predictable aftermath was that I had an almost uncontrollable urge to dance. Walking round Tesco I found myself at odd moments standing with my feet in 4th position, plie-ing gently or randomly standing on my toes. Also predictable was that my Orange Wednesday companion was whistling Tchaikovsky incessantly (actually, this happened before the film too) but the combination of this and their low blood sugar levels led to ridiculous giggling and (probably deservedly) ended with my being hit on the head…

I’m not going to lie, when I got home I re-did my hair in the balletic style it had been in all day (that’s a bun with headband and was unintentional that morning, more of a happy marriage of non-washed hair and the headband that will be a fixture till I get my hair cut) and stood in front of the bathroom mirror stretching, standing on my toes and raising my arms up in the air. Quite ridiculous.

Worse was to come [though not full psychosis and murder, thankfully], having debated the film with traumatised friend via a Facebook status, I concluded a comment with: “Oh, and I want to know where to get leg warmers like hers!” Another friend weighed in with a useful link and within half an hour I’d purchased not one, but three pairs of dancers’ leg warmers. [They will be useful, especially with boots, or when I want to pretend to be a ballerina…] Curse the internet!

It sounds like a cliché and I’m probably having this phase about 20 years late, but I’d left the film possessed with the desire to be a ballet dancer – it’s been in the background for a while thanks to pilates, but the film’s made it a lot worse. Not even the dancing so much – more the exercises and the ability to be so, well, stretchy. I loved clothes the dancers wore while rehearsing in the films – the slouchy jumpers, ridiculously long leg warmers, arm warmers, shrug cardigans – and the effortless way in which they moved while wearing them. *Sigh*

This, folks, is why I’m such a passionate pilates pupil. The weeks when we do standing-up pilates are the only times I get to feel like a dancer and wear vaguely dancer-esque clothes. (The New York City Ballet are responsible for pilates’ modern popularity.) It’s also why taking a ballet class is specifically on my 2011 Firsts list. I’ll never be a dancer, but at least now I’ll be able to swan about in pastel coloured headbands and uber-long leg warmers…

Oh, and the other Black Swan after-effect? I rode the escalators this morning with my feet in 4th position. I’m truly special I am.

So, I finally went to the ballet

Or rather, I went to see contemporary dance – strictly speaking what I saw wasn’t traditional ballet. Whatever, ballet’s one word, whereas contemporary dance is two…

When I wrote my original 2010 Firsts post, I included: ‘Watch live ballet (Matthew Bourne for preference)’. One of the comments that followed was from the lovely Jules, who is a dancer and therefore enjoys watching such things, who suggested I go with her. After 7 months, she took matters into her own hands and inside my birthday card I discovered a promise of a ticket to see Bourne’s Cinderella this Christmas.

You might be surprised that I’d managed to avoid ballet for over 29 years, given that I’m usually such a culture vulture. I’d wondered myself. True, I wasn’t shipped off to ballet lessons age 4 (the ballet teacher of classes in our church hall smoked cigars, my mother didn’t like her), but I did read ballet books voraciously – especially the Drina series by Jean Estoril. My sister somehow managed to rebel and finally got lessons aged 11, resulting in her taking both GCSE and A-level dance. [Yes, such qualifications exist and are not the dossy option they may sound. Like English you have set-texts; like Music you have to learn a whole new language of notation; and like Biology, you have to know a heck of a lot of anatomy.]

Anyway, I digress. The real reason why I never got to see ballet growing up was revealed when I was chatting to my mum en route to the theatre – apparently neither of my parents liked it, so they didn’t want to take us. Fair enough, and it may also explain why they never took us to musicals, instead finding willing friends who would.

So, Saturday was the day – exciting stuff, made all the more exciting with the frisson of danger provided by a mid-morning blizzard. Would I get to Sadler’s Wells? Would Jules? Would the cast be able to make it?  Would it snow more while we were in there? Would we get stranded in Islington? On reflection, walking to London Bridge was possibly an error, though certainly beautiful…

Reaching Islington (and with the snow no longer falling) we felt as though we were in a Richard Curtis film. One day, when I am married to a rich man and have children clad solely in Mini Boden, I will live on a street like this:

Apologies, I appear to have gone off on another tangent. Anyway, eventually we got to theatre, found our seats (and my GBF who’d taken up our spare ticket) and waited for the curtain to lift. I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t like it or that I’d be bored – but by the time the first scene was over, I’d pretty much got the hang of it.

“Got the hang of it”?? I know, it sounds odd, but really, the concept of a story told solely by dance with no speech (or singing) was really rather alien! It took a while to get used to the fact that no one was going to speak or explain what was going on. Plus, the stage was so full (at some points) of dancers doing different things that at times it was tricky to work out who you ought to be watching to make sure you followed the story.

In typical Bourne fashion, although this was Cinderella, it was Cinderella with quirks. Set during the London blitz it incorporated the bombing of Café de Paris and used the classic venue for the ball. There were no ugly step-sisters, instead there were two glamorous step-sisters and three step-brothers. The fairy godmother was a male angel and the prince was an injured RAF pilot. [In fact, there were considerable similarities with A Matter of Life and Death with dream sequences and a heavenly figure only certain people could see.]

The biggest quirk, as far as I (and GBF) were concerned was that Cinderella jumped into bed with the pilot and it was from there that she disappeared, leaving behind her sparkly shoe. To quote GBF as we left, “that Cinderella was a bit of a whore, wasn’t she?” – and I’d always thought that she was such a nice girl…

What else to say? The costumes were stunning, with gorgeous long skirts and evening dresses (though GBF felt that Cinders’ ball gown wasn’t sparkly enough) and the set design impressive and true to life. How many ballets include a large motorbike and steam train? Not to mention a scene set on an underground platform? The music was Prokoviev, which meant that it didn’t match the swing style dancing of the era, but this didn’t really matter and it all fitted. Knowing little about choreography, I probably can’t comment further on that aspect.

A Christmas trip to the ballet is traditional, but I was surprised by quite how many children were there. Bourne is known for having his risqué moments (as I mentioned, Cinders was a bit of a floozy) and there was a sex scene (discreetly done) with a prostitute as well as a weird foot fetish on the part of one of the step-brothers. But perhaps when you’re 6 and entranced by the music and sparkling lights you don’t notice such things?

One final note on Sadler’s Wells itself. It’s a thoroughly sensible theatre with plenty of toilets. This may sound like an odd quality to note, but it’s highly important. Do you know how many ladies loos a typical West End theatre has? Approximately 6. At the Savoy (home of Legally Blonde) there were 3 for the entire stalls, meaning a queue for the whole interval that wasn’t worth bothering with. At Sadler’s Wells our level had 12 very nice ones meaning you could go to the toilet and the bar during the same interval and still have time for a good chat.