Don’t You Dare Show That to Anybody!

I don’t want to give the impression that my early years in the business were all wonderful and plain-sailing. Very early, I directed a Chekhov short for a youth theatre which was entered—not my choice as I hate them—into a drama competition. The adjudicator’s comment was devastating: her positive comment was, “If you’re going to ruin something, always ruin the best.”

The trouble is, she didn’t actually say what was wrong so we couldn’t take anything away from it, couldn’t learn. One of the cast commented, “the daft **** just wants people to think she’s clever.” I think he was probably right but it did make me question my approach, which could only be a good thing, because once you stop evaluating your work honestly, you stagnate and don’t do the piece, your cast or yourself justice.

The other lesson I learned from that was that, if you’re being critical, you’d better have good reasons and make them clear. That still stuck in my mind almost exactly thirty years later when I started reviewing for what was to become the British Theatre Guide!

And now—seemingly illogical change of subject!

I don’t review ballet. I do review most shows—straight plays, obviously; comedies and farces; musicals; opera and contemporary dance—but not ballet.

There’s a good reason for that.

Let me explain.

I had never seen a ballet performance but that didn’t give me pause when Scottish Ballet came to the Empire in the seventies. I mean, how difficult could it be? There was the obvious problem of catching the “top” of the moment, the point at which the dancer is in perfect equilibrium, when, for example, a leap is at the mid-point. But sport presents the same challenge and I’d done quite a bit of sports photography (at Gateshead International Stadium for Athletics Weekly), so, again, how difficult could it be?

I got a load of great shots. There was a brilliant (even though I say so myself) one of a ballerina right at the peak of a grand jeté and the placing of the background was perfect.

Well, I thought it was brilliant and when I took the prints into the Green Room the following night, so did everyone else. Then I produced a smashing shot of the corps de ballet taken from quite a high angle which I thought looked really impressive. No response at all until it reached one girl who almost screamed, “Oh God! Tear it up! Don’t you dare show that to anyone!”

It appears one of her feet was out of alignment with everyone else’s. Not by much—less than two inches I would have said; I hadn’t even noticed it—but that was enough to spoil the moment for anyone who knows ballet.

I did as she asked, there and then. I tore it up and never printed it again.

I learned an important lesson that evening: if you’re going to photograph (or, indeed, review) an art form, you need to have a deep understanding of it. I was fine with plays, musicals and opera but I didn’t know ballet and that showed.

I still don’t know ballet. It’s not something with which I am simpatico (if that is the right word). I don’t know enough about it for my opinion to have any value—and certainly for it to have any validity.

Contemporary Dance is different. It had an immediate appeal for me, so I sought it out. I read reviews of what I had seen. I read up on it. I talked to dancers and choreographers. I’ve worked with contemporary choreographers in productions I’ve directed, so now, many years (more than forty) after first coming into contact with it, I really enjoy it, and review it. But for some reason I’ve never been able to get away with classical ballet. And that, I think, is definitely my loss.

(I’m told that the fact that I don’t like cheese is my loss too and I can see that the vast majority of people I know love it, so I’ll accept that as well.)

It’s the same with ballroom. Am I the only person in Britain who has never watched Strictly?

(Not even when South Shields lad Chris Ramsey was in it. Shame on you, Lathan!)