Another type of shoe

Somebody at the Royal Ballet loves me. How do they know I’m writing a novel about ballet? Because surely they must have had me in mind when they decided to broadcast a whole day of live rehearsals and conversations with the company backstage at the Royal Opera House.

Or else I’m just extremely lucky or (for once in my life) on trend.

Anyway it’s brilliant. There’s that saying, about there being three things so fascinating that you can watch them forever: fire burning, water running, somebody working. I feel like I’ve been watching all three here. The skill and perfectionism and determination of these people; their energy and grace.

When I was a little girl I went to the ballet matinees in Manchester: Coppelia, Giselle, La Sylphide. The audience was mostly other small girls in princess dresses, with their long-suffering mums.

I was in love with the romantic stories, the gauzy skirts. Everything was as utterly impractical as I thought fairytales were supposed to be. I hated hearing the thump of pointe shoes on the stage. It seemed entirely wrong that these floating ballerinas actually weighed something; it was like seeing the strings and pulleys behind stage scenery, or the green screen in movie special effects.

Later I decided traditional ballet was ridiculous, with its old-fashioned mime gestures and daft tights, tutus, tiaras. The strict ballet steps seemed like a strait-jacket, trammelling the natural exuberance and promise of movement. I’d given up princess dresses, and while I still adored fairytales I preferred their dark and violent side. I discovered contemporary dance and acrobatics, and probably didn’t see another classical ballet for fifteen years.

I can’t really remember why I decided to write a novel about ballet. But what fascinates me now is what I hated as a child: how it actually works. The weight of the dancers; the physical effort and skill; what can be achieved within the strict confines of classical ballet. In ballet, I now think, there can be no half-measures. The only ballet dancers really worth watching have got to be exceptional; perfect. It is that demanding an art.

I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to a couple of ex-Royal Ballet dancers, but today’s broadcast from the Royal Opera House gives such a great insight into all sides of ballet: not just the dancers but the choreographers, repetiteurs, musicians (wow! those pianists), notators (who have to understand the arcane language used to record choreography) wardrobe mistresses and all, working to pull together something as ephemeral as a dance performance.

They’re not going to change the world. You could say what they are doing isn’t important (like all art; like writing a novel), but I think most people would envy them the opportunity they have to give themselves to something so completely, heart and soul.

Oh, and the shoes. I found out that dancers get through two or more pairs of ballet shoes a day. Who makes all those shoes? Hopefully not forced labour in China.



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