Wednesday, 4 November 2015
Being Mary Jane - thoughts on the Sugar Plum Fairy, long-term illness and the Globalisation of the Steel Industry
So not doing Sugar Plum!
In my year at Guildhall was a soprano called Mary Jane. She was from Petts Wood. She had a blond afro. She drew tramlines right to her ears. She had a coiled, reeling gait like somebody too short playing goal defence at netball. She did a talk on Wagner and sang Brunhilde's battle cry with paper plates tied round her chest, a colander with feathers in it on her head and her snoopy umbrella wrapped in kitchen foil. She had to involve the welfare officer to finally stop the rest of us hiding miscellaneous items out of the bin in her afro, like Kerplunk played in reverse. She was asked to leave after the first year because her singing was shit.
She also spoke all the time in the way I've written above.
What Mary Jane did to most annoy, was to bring Dr Ismene Garret to me when someone had been sick down the conductor's door in the stalls during act one of Nutcracker.
I had sneaked in Mary Jane and other singers from Guildhall to a dress rehearsal of Nutcracker. It was the same production that, with some irritating additions, the Royal Ballet still dances today, thirty years on. Needing to sound like she knew, Mary Jane said what an excellent choice I'd made for a first experience of ballet.
'We'll know the music, won't we, and I've been reading up on my ETA Hoffmann sources.' She learned Russian so that she could read Anna Karenina in the vernacular. 'And Iestyn' - she was simpering - 'I fully expect you'll have been adding the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy to your ballet repertoire? And you've got these spectacular decorations to flit in and out of.'
The foyer decorations echoed a garland feature in the Nutcracker set design. Whatever fire retardant they were coated with ate away at the lining of my sinuses. I didn't flit in and out of them but, as a protest, hung on them puddle-soaked, glitter-sprayed, e-string-whiskered mouse-tampons.
And no I wasn't adding Sugar Plum to my repertoire of ballerina roles.
'It's too long, fiddly and isn't flash enough, Mary Jane.'
The only time I've ever agreed to dance Sugar Plum in performance was at a Christmas party in Camden Town Hall. Leaving aside the over-filigree choreography with its paucity of tricks, the music for the solo is so quiet that, from the stag do on a table three rows from the stage, I could hear: 'Look at that queen up there now. Not just the fucking turkey that's fat this Christmas is it? Oi, fairy princess, you know the burlesque girl we just watched? Go and get her back for us, ta!'
Tom Gravett, producer, has asked me to dance Sugar Plum for the Christmas shows at the Cafe de Paris this year. He suggested the Liberace arrangement. I've suggested the Cannibal Corpse death metal version on full volume or he deals with Equity.
Be that as it may, during the dress rehearsal for the first ever run of the Royal Ballet' Nutcracker Mary Jane led Dr Garrett to me in the foyer.
'This is the nice lady who comes to our lunchtime recitals at college Iestyn!'
'I know, Mary Jane. She thought my Handel was cloying, remember?'
'Not cloying,' Dr Garrett corrected me. 'Clotted.'
'She says that someone's been sick near her,' Mary Jane quickly put in.
Now, the Royal Opera House sand supplies were kept in a cupboard right up two floors at the back of the Grand Tier, the disinfectant and Jey Cloths in a box on the stairs through a door at the back of the stalls ladies' loo. So, it was for the sake of saving someone the unnecessary trek that I asked Dr Garrett, 'Is the sick lumpy or runny?'
'Right,' Dr Garrett shouted. 'You're getting a letter about you to the house manager.'
'Oh, tell me something i don't know,' I muttered, going through the door into the stalls to verify the consistency of the offending sick.
Dr Ismene Garrett was a more unusual Covent Garden ballet regular, along with one-handed Frank, the Queen of Darkness and the Phantom Ballerina Slobber. Dr Garrett was once arrested on her way to a performance of La Fille Mal Gardee for walking her shopping bag on wheels across the Marylebone Flyover. In the shopping bag were the bananas that she gave out to her favourite front of house staff members. If you weren't a favourite, she wrote letters of complaint about you to the house manager, in a script that curled in on itself like a puppy bedding down. She included a pencil drawing of whichever member of staff had annoyed her, and would often on the counter of the foyer bookstall, where I worked, to draw it.
'This one's given me a headache to draw now,' she announced once in the first interval of Mayerling. 'It's his hair, so close-curled. Migraine coming on. I need aspirin, please.'
I explained that I was forbidden to give out aspirins to patrons.
Taking a number of shallow breaths in to prepare she shrieked that she was choking from the disease she had caught on her recent research trip to Indonesia and must have the aspirin to thin her blood.
'My windpipe's closing up. Dying.' She sprawled over my counter, staring down through the glass top at the souvenir fridge magnets and enamel covered writing pads, powder compacts and mirrors.
'Don't anyone put their fingers in my condensation,' she warned. 'You won't want to catch what I've got. Aspirin, Aspirin...'
Wherefore art though, aspirin?
Patrons around us were telling me to give her the aspirin, what was I thinking of, she was clearly in distress?
'He knows I've had a bad time,' Dr Garrett complained to them. 'Ask him about the time when Sir Antony climb - '
I grabbed the aspirin bottle off the shelf above my change tray. Dr Garrett looked up at the sound of the child-proof top being removed, and I tipped two tablets into her pudgy little hand.
'Water, water...' She was off again.
Someone fetched a glass of water while she stood choking, wailing and hopping from foot to foot.
She took the aspirin and recovered immediately.
'Better now,' she said.
In the next interval she leant on the counter to draw the picture of me.
'Thankfully, your hair's much easier.'
What I had prevented her from telling those people agog at my book stall during Aspirin-gate was that Sir Antony Dowell, director of the Royal Ballet, had once climbed into a train carriage at Sevenoaks and ravished Dr Garrett. Sadly, the foetus hadn't taken; and Sir Antony must get a move on. Dr Garrett had been put on this earth to have his child and her body clock was ticking away and ticking away and ticking away.
Well it would be, in your late fifties.
On another outing, this time to Ivy House, the spirit of Romantic ballerina Marie Taglioni had latched onto Dr Garrett, and through her had begun to help Royal Ballet dancers with their performances. Taglioni never forgave herself for Wendy Ellis's fall, resulting in fractures to both wrists, during The Two Pigeons.
'She was beside herself in my aura, crying real ectoplasmic tears,' said Dr Garrett. 'But otherwise, the standard of the company has been lifted through my association with Madame Taglioni, you have to admit!'
The Taglioni/Garrett partnership also helped with my own fouettes.
Over thirty years performing as Madame Galina Ballet Star Galactica I've served up fouettes like chips in a greasy spoon. I've slipped off the stage at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod doing them; given a woman a burst blood vessel from cheering them in Swimbridge Village Hall; travelled doing them in Stockholm and kicked fellow variety turn Kai Achermann: a bald, half-Ghanian, half-German clown, who had just stopped pirouetting on his head and was just then imitating a can of coke being spat into the hatch of a vending machine.
Then there was the Asprey's of Bond Street Christmas Alice in Wonderland installation. Playing the Queen of Hearts I was already on notice for over-terrifying the toddlers with my shouts of 'Off with his head!' and for telling them that the Cheshire Cat - inexplicably missing from the installation - was at the vet's. Dancing the Croquet Calypso accompanied by a string quartet dressed as the Clubs court cards I yelled at them to slow down for my fouettes, you fuckers, and Mr Asprey himself asked me to leave.
Be all that as it may, when I first started to create Madame Galina in the mid-eighties, like a Strictly celebrity I had never danced before, and doubted I would ever master those fateful thirty-two fouette turns.
Bwahahahahahah...like a Strictly celebrity...never having danced before...jokes!
I was eighteen and had just started work front of house at Covent Garden when I saw my first ballet. It was Swan Lake and I was hooked. In a BBC4 programme about P.G.Wodehouse Stephen Fry said that on first reading him he felt that here was something he had once known very well but had temporarily forgotten. It was like that for me and Swan Lake. My life was swamped by a yearning to dance Odette, the Swan Queen. I learned the role from one of the house managers, ex-ballerina Stella Beddard; starting with the mimed narrative section, adding the entrance with the feather-ruffling and panic when Odette is surprised at the lakeside by the prince, finally mastering actual steps. The pirouettes came slowly, the thirty-two fouettes for the time being eluded me. Meanwhile I was asked to leave Guildhall because I was meant to be there studying classical singing, but was spending my days preening imaginary chest feathers in the library, crying lakes of tears down the Student Union windows, or practising fouettes in the German Song Laboratory.
What...I can sing, can't I? Click here and judge for yourselves...
Before I was kicked off the singing course my fouette count had reached fourteen out of thirty-two.
And then it happened.
Dr Garrett wasn't watching the performance. She was in the stalls ladies' loo washing tights. During that evening's ballet lesson with Stella I danced the White Swan Solo, Coda, Black Swan Solo and conked out after nineteen fouettes. Stella went up to her office and I had another few tries at the fouettes.
'Who will get me through these troublesome turns?' I misquoted Henry ii, falling out of fouette number twelve.
'Now then, none of that!' It was Dr Garrett, standing by the bust of Adelina Patti, wet tights balled in her right hand. 'You just do those again and keep your eyeline right here on my forehead. Madame Taglioni will get you through them.'
'I can't. My left leg's had it for the day. It's gone dead.'
She tapped her forehead. 'We'll soldier on through the pain and give them another go, shall we?'
I obeyed her; and even on a dead leg made it for the first time through thirty-two fouettes. And, touch wood, they've never deserted me since.
This weekend I went to visit Dr Garret, in the East Croydon nursing home, taking a bottle of Vermouth as she requested.
'It's not a nursing home. I have my own room, thank you.'
We've met on occasion in the intervening years. She was at the Friends of Covent Garden Twelfth Night party when I performed as Madame Galina. 'My dear, some of the establishment hated, but hated what you did!' She came to the recitals I gave at Southwark Cathedral and Lauderdale House, staying behind at Lauderdale House to congratulate me on my Handel finally beginning to flow. And at a dress rehearsal of Matz Ek's Carmen with Thomas Whitehead as Don Jose, she said that she had been shown my interview on Forces TV from when I was just back from Iraq and thought my souping-up of Giselle's variation, clearly showing off to those Royal Marine types, was deplorable - a betrayal, in fact.
I sat in the chintz covered chair in her room in East Croydon and listened as her thoughts went back to her first job.
'In a vicarage in St Albans. Cutting down trees and all sorts. They had so much funding back then, you see. I couldn't see to do that now. I'm waiting for a cataract operation. Just one of my total of fourteen illnesses. Thankfully I'm here in sheltered housing...let's call it that.'
She was so still and silent for such a long time I thought she must have fallen asleep.
'Will you sit up straight, call yourself a Prima Ballerina Assoluta?'
I sat up straight, waiting.
'We were watching Question Time together, a few of us more with it ones. The rest of them want to watch things with cakes being made. Or dust being finger-tested for in Blackpool hostels. Or those interminable murder mysteries filmed in the dark with the microphones switched off. Anyway, In Question TIme they were talking about the demise of steel. How the Chinese are responsible for the steel price going under. Where were they when everyone else was voting for globalisation, one wonders? As usual one Scottish MP seemed to be implying that the important thing about the steel industry was how tall the works were and how far away they could be seen romantically - with a capital R -glowing. I don't know. Then one clever woman on the panel, in finance, pointed out how little people seem to deplore the demise of other industries.' This was Merryn Somerset Webb, editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek. 'Quite rightly she mentioned journalism, among others. I would have stuck up for the arts, of course. The Chinese can't undercut our Shakespeare, our Shaftesbury Avenue. Surely among our most lucrative exports. They've been a godsend to me in my condition over the years, the arts. And I'm glad that in my little way, with Madame Taglioni, I've been able to help with the ballet in London. Because, with my various conditions over more years than I care to remember, be they physical or mental, there is something that I have to admit to myself, and it truly saddens me. It's that I've taken more out of this country than I've ever been able to put into it.'
It was lame, but I said yet again how grateful that she, either through imparting fear or through really having Taglioni with her, had helped me crack the trick that has been a feature of all my work onstage since.
'Oh, you were always going to do well,' she said. 'We regulars picked you out as the one, out of all of you back then training for the stage, that would go on to do things.'
'Bloody mindedness and gift of the gab. "Is the sick lumpy or runny?" indeed. To my dying day I shall never forget being asked such a question. Now, pass me the Vermouth you kindly bought me. I've got the gin. Where's my medicine pippet? Aha! Best use for one of those ever invented, adding the Vermouth to a Martini through it.'
She caught my puzzled expression.
'So as not to bruise the lovely gin, foolish child!'