Anxiety about turning up late for class or rehearsal is so basic to being a ballet pianist (for me, at least) that I almost forgot to add it to my list of topics. If you’re reading this, and you don’t know the ballet world, then you have to understand that 10 o’clock means “ready to start at 10 o’clock.” It means that you should be sitting at your piano, ready to play, because the teacher will be looking at his or her watch until the hands align on the hour, and you’ll be playing as you hear the clocks chime 10 outside.
No-one will say, “Let’s just hold on and see if he turns up.” If you’re late, the class will start without you. Then you’ll have to walk through that door, faced by a room full of people who managed to get there on time, get into their practice clothes, warm up, and be ready to start, unlike you. You were the one who had the least things to do in order to be ready, yet you’re late. You’re the odd one out anyway, because you have day-clothes on, and you’re not a dancer. But now you’re even more odd, because you’ve got to walk across the room while everyone’s doing their warm-up tendu or plié, and sit and not play at the piano, because you’ve missed the beginning of the class and your cue.
It’s horrible. You can’t apologise, because the class is in dancing mode, and talk is inappropriate – and in any case, it’s not normal for pianists to address the room collectively. The teacher is busy taking the class, so you can only mime “sorry” if she’s even looking at you as you do the walk of the shame to the piano. The only consolation is that dancers are usually so relieved to have music rather than do class in silence, that there may be an audible sigh of relief when you start. But all the same, you can’t sidle in quietly: you have to perform being late in front of a captive, attentive, grumpy audience.
Knowing that you’re going to be late for class is so ghastly, I can remember and relive the feelings of nearly every occasion it happened. Sitting on the 137 bus in a traffic jam somewhere in Battersea, making myself late for my audition class with Festival Ballet, as it was then (I have never, ever relied on a bus to take me to a class since). Trying to get from the Albert Hall to the Coliseum for class on stage with Mark Morris’s company when there was a Gay Pride March and some other huge event on the same day, which meant I had to wait half an hour for a taxi, which then got stuck in traffic, so I had to walk the last bit anyway. Going to the Barbican (also for a Mark Morris class) and being stuck on the tube at a station while they “regulate the service,” then losing my way between the station and the theatre. I now always leave 30 minutes contingency whenever I go to the Barbican, and I nearly always need it. This is why I cycle everywhere if I possibly can. I know within five minutes when I’m going to arrive, and when I need to leave. Cycling is the biggest stress-reliever in my job, and I’m not sure I’d want to do it if I couldn’t cycle any more.
Anxiety about being late is not really a negative thing, it’s the flip side of the enjoyment of the discipline of the ballet world – I’m not a masochist or obsessive, but I love its rhythm. There was an article in the Guardain recently about how the last-minute spontaneity afforded by 21st century technology means that it’s less common for people to plan and do things together at the same time any more. The power surges that were once common in the UK when half the nation went out during ad breaks in Coronation Street to put the kettle on hardly happen these days. Social media and messaging mean that people make less effort to meet up in the same place at the same time. It rings true, but ballet class is an exception. We turn up on time, and finish on time, out of respect for each other, and for the ritual. There’s no eating your breakfast at your desk, or making yet another cup of coffee at eleven o’clock, and saying “I just don’t seem to be able to get started today.” You just get in there and start when it’s time to start, and at the end of it, you’ve done something, no matter how you felt when you came in.