Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dancing on Thin Ice

In my day the Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on a spinning wheel. Last week at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, the evil Carabosse wheeled on an eight foot high cactus to ensnare the princess. It was part of choreographer Ashley Page’s ongoing quest to popularize the classics, and confuse countless little girls in the process. In the interval I heard “Mummy, what were Red Riding Hood and Snow White doing in the forest? And why was the Prince rolling around on top of that blue man?”

Poor Sleeping Beauty has been interfered with countless times since Petipa first choreographed her in 1890. I confess I’ve been a culprit too. After my first venture into ice ballet with Torvill and Dean’s Fire and Ice, ITV asked me to film Sleeping Beauty with Robin Cousins. And before you ask, no, Robin was the Prince. The Princess was an American figure skater with a weight problem. Except that I didn’t know about it until after I cast her.

Now it’s one thing for a ballet company to advertise Sleeping Beauty and wait for a few punters to show up; it’s quite another to expect nine million viewers to sit through three hours of Tchaikovsky. So I got together with one of the UK’s foremost conductors, Bramwell Tovey, who at that time was Music Director at Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet, and together we cut out the boring bits. As a result, we lost the entire first act, and started off with the best tune, which is normally in Act 2.

Bramwell and I performed this act of desecration one Saturday afternoon in my living room, with Tchaikovsky’s score spread over the carpet, a large pair of scissors, some sellotape and several bottles of red wine. We even used a few bits from Nutcracker to paper over the gaps. The result was like Sleeping Beauty on Acid, an all-action version with plenty of space for triple axles and other gymnastics. Then, armed with one of America’s top choreographers, Lar Lubovitch, we set off for Norwich to shoot it in an aircraft hangar large enough for a castle, a village, an enchanted forest – and a spinning wheel.

Now last week’s Princess Aurora (played by Japanese dancer Tomomi Sato) was so tiny, slight and young-looking, the Prince could have been arrested for child abduction. When our Princess arrived in Norwich she looked a couple of stone overweight and the costume lady threw a fit. According to her agent, our star had boyfriend problems which had led to a compulsion for Mars Bars, but we were assured she would shed the weight before filming. As the deadline loomed and the enormous set neared completion, the costume lady came to me in tears saying she was running out of elasticated fabric. Then, as if by magic, the waistline receded, to be replaced by another problem. Our star had become close with one of the skaters. He was called John Thomas, which just about says it all. Princess Aurora came onto the set so exhausted every morning that she could scarcely put her skates on.

Then the snows came. February storms engulfed Norfolk and with the temperature outside at minus six, we had a power cut and the ice melted. By the end of the shoot, Cousins and the team were skating through a swamp and the spinning wheel bobbed about like a boat. When skaters fell over, their costumes were covered in slushy mud. That’s the glamour of television for you.

So it was a delight to see the Scottish Ballet’s efforts this week. All in all, theirs was a splendid camp romp, but you’ve got to feel for any dancer trying to cope with the Theatre Royal’s tiny stage. The orchestra filled half the stalls and when the whole company came on, I’m not sure they didn’t outnumber the audience. I don’t know what the public subsidy per seat is for the Scottish Ballet. I just hope it’s Scottish taxpayers who are paying for our gratification.

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