Monthly Archives: December 2008

A Little Night Music

Boxing Day casting: Me, John, Hampson père, fils & mère.

Boxing Day casting: Me, John, Hampson père, fils & mère.

To the Menier Chocolate Factory for dinner & Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Chris & parents and John from Atlanta.  I can’t remember ever walking out of a theatre feeling so thrilled and moved. It was a wonderful production, brilliant cast, in a theatre intimate enough that you can hear every word, and the sound design so good, you didn’t know it was there.

I didn’t realize how many songs from this show that I knew already, but I’d never heard them in context before, and the context makes a huge difference.   Hannah Waddingham’s performance of “Send in the Clowns” was one of the most moving bits of theatre I’ve ever seen (and I’m not easily moved), but the whole cast were strong and great to watch. Needless to say, Maureen Lipman as Madame Arnfeldt was heaven.

Thanks for a wonderful evening!

Advent 25: And the last word…

Me and John O'Brien in 2016. Photo: Andrew Florides

Me and John in 2016. Photo: Andrew Florides

…goes to John O’Brien. I could never pinpoint why John’s classes, and the experience of working with him was quite so different to every other teacher.  Then one day, he happened to say in passing, ‘my attitude to class is, this thing [meaning music, dance, teaching, art & so on] is bigger than all of us.’

And there was my answer. If your philosophy is that everyone in the room, including the teacher, is involved in something greater than the individual talents, personalities,  opinions, abilities, rank, age, experience and so on, then it’s all so much easier, and liberating. 

Happy christmas.

Update, May 2019

After John’s death a few days ago, I updated the photograph on this page with one of the many  beautiful pictures of John, taken by friend and photographer Andrew Florides.  It was taken at my wedding in Mayfair Library, in 2016. 

Advent 24: Till Eulenspiegel

What's super about supermarkets?

What's super about supermarkets?

The top-prize for annoying till-routines goes jointly in my head to Boots and Smiths. Smiths at airports always seem to be running special offers, so that whatever you take to the counter, you’re advised that if you buy two you can get something else free, or that it’s cheaper to buy this and that together. And even when you’ve done as you’re told, you then get asked if you’d like some other thing they’re offering.

I once tried to buy a sandwich and a drink in Boots, when I had about 30 seconds to eat it as I ran to the next job. I put the stuff on the counter, and held the money out.
“If you buy a third item, you can get a Meal Deal.”
“No thanks, I’m in a hurry.”
“It’s up to you sir, but it actually works out cheaper to get the third item.”
Oh all right then, I think, if you insist. I rush to the back of the shop, pick something I will throw away as soon as I get outside, rush back to the counter.
“I’m afraid that item isn’t eligible for a Meal Deal’.

I go back, pick the right thing, return to the counter.
“Will that be all sir?
Yes, I say, waiting to thrust the money at her and run.
‘Have you got a Boots card?’
‘Would you like to apply for one today, sir?’
No thank you.
“I can give you a form, and you can take it away and fill it in and bring it back. Or you can apply online.
No thank you.
I finally get to the stage where she will take my money.
‘Here’s your receipt and your change, and this a voucher for No 7 skincare products. It’s valid until the 10th.’
I take the unnecessarily long and verbose receipt, the voucher, and my change, which is awkard to put away when you’re trying to hold your lunch (including a bar of something you didn’t want) with the other hand.

It’s not just Boots. M&S now give you the warning about the price of their bags. Sainsburys force you to go back and get two of things because there’s two for the price of one. And ask you how you are today, and if you have a Nectar card when all you want is to pay and go. Same thing at Tesco with their clubcards.

And quite literally every time I suffer this tedious routine (which is every time I go to a supermarket)  I smile as I hear Gillian Lynne’s voice from a conversation about the same subject:  ‘…and it all takes so long.’ she said.

There’s a wonderful irony about an octogenarian finding that the young aren’t moving fast enough. She’s also the most gracious and positive person I know, and this is almost the only time I’ve ever heard her say anything remotely resembling a gripe. It amused me that it was about something so mundane.  Nonetheless,  I’ve never been able to pinpoint why I found it so funny and memorable. Once I’d written the story down, the penny suddenly dropped . What’s wrong with all this checkout palaver is that it’s bad choreography, badly performed. And it’s not so much the content of the remark as who said it. When you are famous for choreographing  some of the biggest hit musicals in the world, saying that a routine  ‘all takes so long‘ is no longer just  a passing gripe, it’s a crushing, expert aesthetic judgement by someone who is supremely qualified to judge.  I love it.

Advent 23: Brought to book

A Nutcracker-themed teashop in Tokyo. Don't ask me why.

A Nutcracker-themed teashop in Tokyo. Don't ask me why.

When Ivan Nagy took over ENB after Peter Schaufuss went to Berlin, we had another year of Peter’s Nutcracker to contend with until Ben Stevenson’s came in the following year. It was an eccentric production, with interruptions to the score in the first Act where Drosselmeyer suddenly mimes two interpolated piano solos (the real pianist was in the wings), and music for some kind of funeral march of mice on a battlefield. There was all kinds of psychological drama written into the libretto, and loads of names to contend with.

At the beginning of that season, we had a lot of new foreign artists who didn’t speak much English. Given the complexities of the plot, this led to some memorable confusion, such as the time the ballet mistress had to explain ‘this person is your first cousin, but turns out to be someone else in Act II, and that’s Tchaikovsky’s nephew, but he reappears again in a dream sequence as someone else, and that’s Bob, and that’s Aunt Olga who represents Death’  (I’m making this up, because I can’t remember a single aspect of the story, except that it was that complex).

The target of this explanation was three places removed – in other words, she explained this to a Cuban who translated it into Spanish, to a Russian-speaking Pole who spoke enough Spanish to translate it onward into Russian to the visiting artist. Or it might have been the other way around. I don’t think anyone understood their bit of the plot,  and no-one was in a position to know who  had understood what. If you were in the audience and didn’t know what was going on,  you might be relieved to know that half the cast didn’t either.

Ivan sat patiently by watching all this going on, and I think that he probably wished the production would just go away. In another  rehearsal, there was a huge argument about whether the King Rat should do something on the right leg or the left (or something like that).  Not knowing the show, Ivan was powerless in every respect – powerless to offer any expert advice, and powerless to do a different show, and powerless to change the choreography because – unfortunately, you might say – the entire ballet had been meticulously notated in Benesh, and Mark Kay, resident notator, sat in the corner of every rehearsal with his black ringbinder of notation like a traffic warden with a rule book. Being powerless to act, Ivan also remained largely taciturn.

When the King Rat incident had escalated to the point where it had to be resolved before a fight ensued, Ivan turned wearily to the notator for clarification. In an exotic mixture of broad Hungarian accent and comic you-rang-my-lord? intonation, he asked

‘Peter Schaufuss’ secretary?’

Advent 22: How to lead someone off stage

A plastic display-salad in Tokyo. It's the nearest thing to a snack I had in my photo album.

A plastic display-salad in Tokyo. It's the nearest thing to a snack I had in my photo album.

Another gem from Mark Morris.  It was in a rehearsal for Drink to me only with thine eyes and there was this bit where a guy had to lead a girl off stage, downstage right. The correction went something like this:

“Look, you offer your hand, she takes it, you walk off. Natural. Why do you  look like you’re offering her a snack?”

I paralyse myself with self-doubt and moral qualms every time I write one of these blog entries, because  there’s something sacrosanct about the dance studio and the work that goes on in them. People who work in them deserve to be allowed to work privately without constant scrutiny, recording or analysis, because to do creative and expressive work, you need a safe and respectful, confidential environment. The last thing you want is someone in the corner making mental notes of what you say to publish on a blog later.

But damn it, that’s one of the funniest insights I’ve ever witnessed into why ballet looks so arch sometimes, and the funniest use of the already-funny word ‘snack’ and I’ve been dying to share it ever since.

Advent 21: I got rhythm, I got matches…

Kevin Richmond in Prague, summer 2008

Kevin Richmond in Prague, summer 2008

Around the same time as the Gary Harris/Indian River Music story, Kevin Richmond was playing Scrooge in Christopher Hampson’s Christmas Carol. So there we all were, in the National Youth Theatre studios up Holloway Road, doing class (it might even have been the same class).

Scrooge was a speaking part, most suitable for Kev, who had trained as an actor. I think he must have decided to train his voice that day, for instead of doing the allegro, he was sitting out front, warming up for his speaking bit later. Stage Management had brought in an amp and a handheld mike and set it up ready for rehearsals after class.

Typical of Kev, really, to play with anything in sight that could be played with, which in this case was a mic, and amp, and  – what the hell – a box of matches.  So when it came to the medium allegro/batterie enchaînement, I was suddenly aware that it was all a lot easier than usual – for there, in the background, was a sexy, maraca/shaker percussion part providing a whole rhythm section to the rhumba-ish thing I was playing for the exercise. When I looked over, Kev was sitting at the stage manager’s desk, holding a box of matches in front of the handheld mic and shaking it gently in time to the music, providing a lovely amped South American vibe to the piano music.

It’s nice to be able to say about someone that they exemplify a single thing, especially when that thing is rhythm. Kev is famous for his role in Christopher Bruce’s Swansong, in which rhythm plays such a huge part. I also remember Kev going into the pit on tour with ENB and grabbing the cymbals in the percussion section to add extra oomph to the grand allegro bit of class. And my favourite joke is one of Kev’s which depends on rhythm for its effect (though it’s almost impossible to retell on paper) – it goes something like this, but you have to tell it deadpan like Kev does:

“What’s the secret of good comedy?”

“I don’t know, I suppose it depends what you…”


The more I write these blogs this year, and the more I consider jokes like that one, the more I conclude that great comedy and great art balance on the same knife edge.  That’s the serious bit (or the comic bit). On a pragmatic level, I wish more people would put rhythmic stuff into class like Kev does – it’s so much more fun and effective.

Advent 20: What a difference a D makes

The end of the 1st air de ballet from Le Prophète

The end of the 1st air de ballet from Le Prophète

Today’s golden moment also concerns Mark Morris and Les Patineurs, it so happens. I was playing the waltz from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète (better known as the  pas de trois from Les Patineurs) for another Mark Morris class, and around bar six he says to the dancers over the music in an anticipatory way ‘This is the best bit!’. I looked to see what was about to happen in the exercise, but I’d misunderstood – he meant the ‘best bit of the music’, which was clear when he sang along with the last two bars (shown left).

To have those two bars as one of your favourite bits, you have to have an enjoyment of music unencumbered by pretension, a response to what music does rather than what it means.  It takes an almost pathologic enjoyment of music to feel two bars of a Meyerbeer waltz coming up, and want to tell a company of dancers that it’s about to happen and not to miss it, when you could have so many other things on your mind.

What more often happens is that even if they get beyond the business of ‘ballet teaching’ (all those muscles, all that Pilates & health & safety and reflexive practice and somatics and nutrition and angles, heights and uniform and steps) to the music, some teachers then have a pathological suspicion and worry about music – maybe it’s not ‘classical’ enough, perhaps it’s too ‘jazzy’, or doesn’t ‘send the right message’ or ‘sound like ballet’, or maybe it’s just not cool.  With so much image at stake, they never get down to the simple bit where you just like music for what it does, to the bit where you can like Meyerbeer because he goes ‘yum ta-tum ta-tum ta-TUM!’ at the end. It’s always fascinated me that Balanchine, the archetypal modernist who championed a work like Agon, could equally enjoy Minkus, Gershwin or Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it doesn’t surprise me. If you like music, you like music, not what it can do for your image (unless you’re 12, of course).

If you wonder what motivates me to write all this stuff, it’s partly because I often sit behind the piano in classes gagging to tell stories like this, like some lonely old lady at a bus stop wanting to tell you their life story.  If I can get it off my chest, there’s less risk that I’ll start interrupting your ballet class with my anecdotes and opinions. The point of this particular story today is that after the exercise, Mark said ‘where is that music from?’, and so I told him, adding that Le Prophète was the first opera to include roller skating. A few moments later I thought ‘Oh my God, I’ve just interuppted a Mark Morris class with anecdotes about roller skating in ballet – what was I thinking of?!’

But of course, it was all right, because he interrupts his own class with asides about all kinds of things, too (for a longer description, see my 2005 posting). There’s dialogue. There’s education, erudition, humour and playfulness. It’s like Socratic questioning with music and dance. It’s all the things you might have hoped to get from a dance education, but if you’re lucky, you might just get it if you join a company.

Advent 19: Trills and spills


A bit of L'Étoile du Nord used in Les Patineurs

In a class for Mark Morris’s company  a couple of years ago, I was playing the waltz from l’Étoile du Nord (that has to be someone’s nickname, surely?) better known as the opening number of Les Patineurs. During the exercise, I suddenly heard Mark’s voice booming at me over the top of the piano saying ‘HELLO??!’. Bemused, I carried on, looking somewhat nervously at him out of the corner of my eye since he was hovering near the piano still. A couple of seconds later, there it was again ‘HELLO??’ only this time I noticed he was doing that ‘I’ll call you’ sign with his hand, talking into an imaginary phone.

For another split second, I was even more bemused, and then I burst out laughing when I  realised he was ‘answering’ the trill in the particular section of the  music I was playing as if it were a phone ring (see above). Someone once said of Paul Merton that his off-the-wall sense of humour was so immediate and bizarre, it was almost like an illness, a pathological tendency to interpret something in the most unlikely but funniest way possible. There’s something of that about Mark Morris and music, which is why playing for him is such fun, and why I love his work.

Advent 18: Say it with cut Flowers

Erina Takahashi backstage at the Coliseum after her Sugar Plum on opening night.

Erina Takahashi backstage at the Coliseum after her Sugar Plum on opening night.

Actions speak louder than words, and this post is about an ‘action’ rather than a one-liner.  It’s topical, since I happened to be swanning around at the opening night of Christopher Hampson’s Nutcracker at the Coliseum last night (thank you to Erina Takahashi for letting me snap her after the show for the blog picture).

After the last suds of G major settled after the pas de deux, I felt the familiar nausea at the thought of the impending ghastly tarantella. Everything about it is horrid, starting with the ugly timbre of the chords on bassoon and cor anglais sounding like ducks in fog,  and the bass pedal (there are only two notes in the bass all the way through – B for about 20 seconds, D for another 20 seconds, and then B again until the end).  It’s usually played too slow, the shifting of the beat onto the anacrusis is clever but pointless, and the inner voices add nothing except rhythmic waffle and harmonic annoyance. It’s the same feeling as I get when I get stuck behind someone trying to turn right at traffic lights.

And then, oh bliss, it never happened, because  as I remembered the minute the orchestra struck up B major instead of minor, Chris had taken the brave decision long ago to ditch it in favour of the male solo from the interpolated Swan Lake pas de deux (aka ‘Tchaikovsky pas de deux’). His reasoning was that if you played the tarantella so that it sounds like a tarantella, it’s too fast for a male virtuoso solo. If you play it at a speed at which you can do steps to it, it’s no longer a tarantella.  I can’t think why more people haven’t done it, it’s crying out to be removed.

At the time, I remember a few critics being sniffy about it, and I overheard someone talk very disapprovingly about the fact that he’d had it transposed into B major.  It’s an odd viewpoint, considering that the tarantella itself was never written as a male solo – it was a national dance ditched from Act I and interpolated into the pas de deux, and – get this – transposed into B minor on Tchaikovsky’s instructions for exactly the same reasons as Chris transposed the other one.  To try and play the ‘authenticity’ card with a ballet, even one by Tchaikovsky, is an odd game indeed in the 21st century.

It’s a small thing which shouldn’t have caused anyone to raise an eyebrow, but this is the ballet world and its prize poodle, the Nutcracker, so it took courage and artistic conviction to do it. Maybe the dance critics should award a prize for Best Cut in an Overworked Classic.

Advent 17: Going up…

Daria Klimentová and Yat Sen Chang

Daria Klimentová and Yat Sen Chang

This is one of my favourite tales of ballet misunderstandings, but the context takes so long to describe that it’s almost untellable verbally.

Let’s start with the main characters – Glen Tetley, one of the most gentle, quiet, and modest people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. When he worked with us in Berlin setting Voluntaries, we were silent with awe and respect. Then my friend Harald Krytinar, one of the most respectful, courteous and modest dancers I know. Helpful to a fault, he’d not only open a door for you, he’d sandpaper the edges with his teeth to make it close properly if necessary.

Next you need to understand the location. In the building of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, there are two lifts, one large one near the stage, a kind of goods lift. Then there’s the passenger lift further up the corridor that was used more frequently by the dancers.

Now the situation. There’s a full call of Voluntaries on stage at the Deutsche Oper, which finishes around lunch time. All’s gone fairly well, and so everyone’s piling off the stage and heading for the lifts. As there are a lot of pressages in Voluntaries, one couple are practising the pressage in the corridor, next to the goods lift.

Glen Tetley presses the button for the goods lift, and, while he’s waiting, casts an eye over the pressage that’s happening next to him. Harald, who happens to be passing, says to Glen, ‘That lift doesn’t work’. For the first time in all the time I’ve worked with Glen, I see the faintest glimmer of affront. He looks at Harald shocked.

Realising how catastrophically he’d been misunderstood, Harald – now a deeper shade of purple – rushed to repair the situation. Pointing at the grey doors of the goods lift he stuttered  “I mean the lift…this lift..the elevator…doesn’t work, you need to use the other one down there…”

The relief on both their faces was a picture I’ve never forgotten.